For centuries, when one was in the market for a fine tablecloth, the material that immediately came to mind was linen. Woven from the flax plant, linen dates to ancient Egypt—mummies were wrapped in the stuff, while the living wore linen clothing. Today, linen is used to describe a specific type of fabric as well as a generic term referring to everything from sheets and pillowcases to napkins and tablecloths.

Damasks, which can be made from linen, silk, wool, or even cotton, represent the height of formal tablecloth art. Originating in Damascus, Syria, damasks utilize special weaving techniques to produce patterns that appear to shimmer above their background cloth, even if patterns and their background are the same color (eg: white on white). Irish linens, including damask tablecloths, have been an important part of Ireland’s economy since the 17th and 18th centuries.

Just as venerable as damask linen is lace, be it of the needlepoint or bobbin varieties. Sometimes a piece of lace would be inserted into a linen tablecloth. In other cases, cutwork and drawnwork would be employed to create voids that produced lace-like patterns—the edges of the voids would often be sewn with buttonhole stitches to keep the background fabric from unraveling and to define the voids.

During the Victorian Era, embroidered tablecloths, sometimes fringed, grew in popularity. Embroidery is most frequently seen in decorative florals used as accents in the corners or center of a tablecloth, or along the borders. Geometric patterns were also embraced, but so were tapestry-like tablecloths with intricate borders. Woven on jacquard looms like damasks, these multi-colored coverings were often made of silk and wool.

By the end of the 19th century, crochet techniques arrived in the United States with the waves of immigrants from Europe. One type of crochet, the filet, imposed the handwork of crochet on an underlying, manufactured grid. Simultaneously, applique tablecloths with floral motifs that took their inspiration from Art Nouveau were becoming fashionable.

Woven, lace, and crocheted tablecloths continued to be produced and used throughout the 20th century, but by the 1930s, inexpensive printed cotton tablecloths, often featuring cheerful or even amusing patterns and designs, seemed a tonic to the austerity of the Depression. Art Deco pastel patterns went nicely with dinnerware such as Fiesta, while cotton feedsacks with existing designs and imagery were recycled into tablecloths.

One of the most popular types of printed cotton tablecloths from the middle of the 20th century were those bearing cartoony renditions of U.S. states. These souvenir tablecloths ...

During World War II, patriotic tablecloths promoting everything from victory gardens to reverence for the Statue of Liberty found their way into many kitchens and dining rooms. And before and after the war, decorative Wilendur tablecloths brightened rooms with their Pennsylvania Dutch or Mexico motifs, as well as blocks and arrays of flowers or fruit.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

LACMA Luxury Textiles

LACMA Luxury Textiles

Textile collectors shouldn't miss this microsite from the LA County Museum of Art, a great reference on European an… [read review or visit site]

Feeding America

Feeding America

This archive of 76 influential American cookbooks from the late 1700s to early 1900s, assembled by the Michigan St… [read review or visit site]

Tupper Diva

Tupper Diva

Kristian McManus’ fresh, airtight collection of Tupperware catalogs and related ephemera from the 1950s and 6… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Stunning Vintage Hand Embroidery Cutwork Needlelace Linen Tablecloth 12 NapkinsVintage Luther Travis Noel Christmas Tablecloth Modernist Candy Cane SnowflakeVintage Christmas Tablecloth, Presents, Tree, Santa Etc.Vintage Irish Linen Tablecloth With Hand Embroidery - Fields Of DaisiesVintage Wilendur Lobster Tablecloth 52x66 Cotton Wonderful Graphics Oyster ClamVtg Retro Christmas Tablecloth Shiny Brite Ornaments Atomic Starburst 50 X 62 VgLarge Antique / Vintage Cream Tasseled Lace Tablecloth / Bed Spread.Vintage Christmas Tablecloth Reindeer Santa Balloon Star Postcard Bell Noel Elaborate Antique Hand Crafted White Linen & Fine Lace Square Tablecloth, SignedVintage Christmas Stockings Shiny Brite Ornaments Red Ribbons Holly TableclothVintage Christmas Tree Reindeer Sleigh Tablecloth Shiny Brite Mid CenturyHandmade Italian Hand Knotted Figural Filet Lace Cutwork Embroidery TableclothVintage Irish Linen Double Damask Tablecloth 108" W Tags Monogram "skb"Vintage Cotton Xmas Tablecloth Retro Santa Balloon Sleigh 53 X 62Antqvtgchic Irish Heavy Hand Raised Crochet Lace/ Linen Tablecloth Latte Rose50"Scarf Wrap Shawl Stole Piano Throw Tablecloth Taj Mahal Silk Silky Long Tassels 1950s Vintage Startex Cowboy Western Theme Tablecloth 50x50 No Holes Dyed As IsVtgchic Hand Embroidered Silk Piano Shawl Decor Tablecloth Red Roses 50" Sq Vintage Figural Bobbin Lace Tablecloth With CherubsVtg Hand Made Finished Felt & Sequins Wise Men Three Kings Tree Skirt TableclothVtgchic Hand Embroidery Cross Stitch Linen Crochet Lace Tablecloth Rose112"x-lg Crate & Barrel Marimekko Mustikkamaa Red 60" X 60" Holiday Tablecloth NwtMatouk 70" Savannah Gardens Butter Diamond Pique Round TableclothVintage Christmas Tablecloth Round W/fringeCute Vintage Round Xmas Tablecloth Trees Shiny Brites Pinecones & So Much More!Stunning Vintage Large Cream Linen Fancy Drawn Thread Lace Panel TableclothOrigami Owl TableclothSuperb Vintage~damask Linen Tablecloth~christmas~banquets~large Size 95"x 61.5"Vtg Christmas Tablecloth Santa Reindeer Shiny Bright Bulbs Poinsettias 51.5"x48"Chic Vtg Hand Heavy Crochet Net Lace Ruffled Tablecloth Sunflower 72" Round 26vintage Tablecloth Dresser Scarf Towels Mixed Linen Cotton Lot Estate BuyVintage Christmas Tablecloth Santa Snowman Reindeer Bells PineconesVintage Mid-century Christmas Tree Christmas TableclothVintage Cotton Tablecloth Christmas Holly, Poinsettias & Bells 60"x76" Antique Signed India Kashmir Wool Handmade Wool Paisley Tablecloth EmbroideryVtg 60s Harwood Steiger Tablecloth Cactus Roadrunner Southwest Mid Century Exquisite Antique Point De Venise Hand Embroidery Cutwork 128" Linen TableclothGorgeous Antique Vtg Taj Mahal Piano Scarf~shawl~tablecloth~golden YellowMadeira Linen & Organdy Applique Hand Embroidery Poinsetta's Oval TableclothVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth- Charming Crinoline LadiesVintage Christmas Tablecloth Runner Linen Santa Claus Reindeer Vivid Colors Vintage Round Fringe Christmas Tablecloth 58” Trees Candy Cane Ornament PineconeVtg Cotton Christmas Tablecloth-striped Candy Canes & Green Holly With Red BowsExquisite Vintage Pink Taj Mahal Silk Brocade 40s Piano Scarf Shawl TableclothTaj Mahal Silk Brocade 40s Piano Scarf Shawl Tablecloth Vintage Wwii EraStunning 4 Crinoline Ladies Vintage Linen Tablecloth ~ Beautiful Hand EmbroideryVintage Tablecloth Napkin Table Set Crochet & Embroidered Doily InsertVtg Austria Black Paisley Scarf Piano Tablecloth Shawl 46" All Wool By BelvedereVintage 1950's Christmas Shiny Bright TableclothPretty Vintage Xmas Tablecloth Garlands Of Bells & HollyAuthentic Origami Owl Aqua TableclothMid Century Modern Alternate Christmas Colors! Vintage Tablecloth Mcm LeavesVintage Beige Damask Tablecloth W/12 Napkins "unused" Made In IrelandVintage Semco Tablecloth To Be Embroidered Design 953 36 " Square Lenox Laurel Leaf Tablecloth 70x122 With 12 Matching NapkinsVintage 50's/60's*round 60" Christmas Tablecloth With Fringe*no Label*cottonVintage Irish Linen Embroidered Tablecloth - PansiesVintage Hand Crocheted White Tablecloth / Bedspread Swirl Pinwheel 72" X 72"Vintage Cotton Tablecloth 50s Tropical Island California Handprint 48x52" ChpVintage Christmas Tablecloth Ornaments And Bells With Holly 58 X 52 Shabby