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    

Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen 40.5" X 40.5" Deep Garden Flowers Tablecloth Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen 41" X 42.5" Jacobean Floral Design Tablecloth Vintage 46" X 44" Hand Embroidered Roses & Sweet Peas Linen Crochet Tablecloth Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen 40" X 40" Rose & Primrose TableclothVintage Hand Embroidered Linen 46" X 46" Bird Of Paradise Crochet TableclothVintage Hand Embroidered 49" X 48" Floral Primrose Posies Linen TableclothVintage Hand Embroidered 52" X 51" Floral Baskets Linen Tablecloth100 Linen Tablecloth White Polyester Folding Chair Covers~ Wedding~Vintage Fairystych 34" X 33" Hand Embroidered Spring Flora Linen TableclothVintage Hand Embroidered 32" X 32" Entwined Roses & White Daisies TableclothVintage Hand Embroidered 45" X 49" Miniature Floral Borders Linen TableclothVintage Hand Embroidered Linen 48" X 48" Large Deep Daisy Circle Tablecloth Vintage Hand Embroidered 49" X 48" Gladioli Floral Design Linen TableclothVintage Hand Embroidered Linen 33" X 33" Daisy Trellis Tablecloth Vintage Linen Hand Emb Tablecloth Budgerigars & Blossom.Vintage 32" X 32" Hand Embroidered Art Deco Pink Roses Linen TableclothVintage 34" X 34" Hand Embroidered Xmas Birds & Holly Leaves Linen TableclothVintage White Cotton Bedspread / Tablecloth Whitework Embroidery & Crochet LaceVintage Hand Embroidered 42" X 42" Magnolia & Daisy Chains Linen TableclothAntique Cream Silk Maltese Lace Panel - Tablecloth Or ShawlVintage Round 22" Including Fringe Matyo Hand Embroidered Cotton Tablecloth Antique Italian Hand Needle Point De Venise Taupe Lace 16x42 Runner CenterpieceVintage Hand Embroidered White Linen Tablecloth Colourful FlowersBeautiful Vintage Red And Floral TableclothVintage 36" X 36" Hand Embroidered Crinoline Lady Linen TableclothVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth=floral Raised EmbroideryFabulous Vintage 50's Cotton Print Tablecloth - Unused With Original LabelVintage Hand Embroidered Linen 50" X 50" Pansy & Sweet Pea TableclothVintage Wilendure Tablecloth W/ 6 Matching Napkins-purple GrapesVintage Tablecloth Fruit Motif Early Dye Red Yellow Green PinkLarge Vintage Cream Cotton Lace Tablecloth Vintage Elaborate Embroidery Richelieu Cutwork Linen 108 " Tablecloth 12 NapkinsVintage Tablecloth Lot Of 7 Florals, Startex, Cutters, CraftsBeautiful Large Square Vintage Hand Embroidered White Irish Linen Tablecloth VgcVintage Wilendur Tablecloth W/ Ducks & Geese Unused Mint W/ Tag 54" X 54" - Nr Vintage 110" X 55" Embroidered Pink Flamingo Cotton Tablecloth & 12 NapkinsBeautiful Large Square Vintage Hand Embroidered Cream Irish Linen Tablecloth VgcLovely Vintage Rose TableclothVintage Creamy French Alencon Lace Tablecloth Baskets Of Roses Swags Bows 68x62"Vintage Marghab Water Leaf Madeira Linen Hand Embroidery Tablecloth 6 NapkinsVibrant Vtg Christmas Print Tablecloth ~ Bells, Trees, Merry Christmas~ornamentsVintage De Antonio Christmas Tablecloth With Red,green & Pink Ornaments- 61x82 Vintage Tablecloth Leaf Flower In Green & Red Large Tablecloth Embroidered With Flowers - 64" X 96"Small Square Vintage Cross Stitch Hand Embroidered Cream Irish Linen TableclothVintage French Breton Linen Embroidered Tablecloth + 12 Napkins Christmas DinnerVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth=beautiful Circle Of FlowersAntique Tablecloth-pina Cloth Hand Embroidered Dragon-beautiful-unusedPottery Barn Kids Thanksgiving Turkey Tablecloth NipVintage Tablecloth Thomaston Pedigree Red & Yellow FloralVintage Print Tablecloth - Green/blue/redBeautiful Vintage Fine White Hand Worked Deep Rose Lace Edge TableclothVintage Stamped Christmas Theme Card Tablecloth/64 X 50" RectangleLarge Crewel Work Tablecloth VintageMarghab Trailing Vine Linen & Organdy Soft Taupe Tablecloth Napkins MadeiraVintage Wilendure Tablecloth W/20 Matching Napkins-red/pink Tea Roses-brightFabulous Vintage Irish Linen Double Damask Tablecloth & 12 Napkins - UnusedVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth= Large Size Super Raised Embroidery4 Vintage Wilendur Meadowbloom Cotton Placemats Match TableclothVintage Unused Hand Embroidered Irish Linen Tablecloth - Roses & Daisies