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    

Vtg "california Hand Prints" Tablecloth Fish -crab- Shrimp -lobstster - 54"x61"Vintage Wilendur Printed Cotton Tablecloth.. Geraniums.....with TagVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth=exquisite Raised Embroidery Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth- Beautiful Ladies Dancing- Gorgeous**Vintage Wilendur Floral Poppies Tablecloth, Rare And Stunning, EucVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth=exquisite Embroidery-cross StitchVintage Tablecloth-hand Embroidered-crinoline LadiesVintage Tablecloth 50s Print Simtex 52x52 Unused W/paper Tag Atomic Mod Vtns Vtg Madeira Wh Linen & Organdy Embroidery Applique Tablecloth 12 Napkins NosDelightful Vintage H.embroidered Linen Tablecloth ~budgerigars & Cherry BlossomRare Ritva Puotila Dansk 'finnish Accent' Linen Tablecloth / Jhq / QuistgaardVtgchic Hand Crochet Lace Pineapple Decor Tablecloth Peacock Tail 60" Round Antique Unused Ivory White Cotton Lace Bedspread Or Tablecloth. 78" By 82"Vintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth= Lovely Raised Embroidery Art NouveauVintage Linen Tablecloth Sweet Spring Violets 48x51Vintage Exquisite Linen Tablecloth 68x100 Italy 12 Napkins 20x20 Cut Work Emb+++Vintage Wilendur Tablecloth Rare Design Red Bell Flowers Campanula?Vintage Large Hand Embroidered Irish Linen Tablecloth - English Garden FlowersVintage Tablecloth Red Rosebuds Roses Floral Print 57" X 70" Cutter CottonVintage Tablecloth Lot Of 2 Floral Pink Yellow Blue-cutters?Vintage Hand Embroidery Linen 106" Tablecloth 12 NapkinsVintage Fab White Linen Net Lace Tablecloth 72x96 12 Napkins Cut Work EmbVintage Tablecloth-hand Embroidered- Pansies & CarnationsVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth- Lovely Raised EmbroideryVintage Tablecloth Crinoline Lady Hand Embroidered Floral Linen HollyhocksVtg Heavy Cotton Print Tablecloth Fall Autumn Leaves Acorns 51" Square Cutter ?Vintage Large Aqua Floral 50's Tablecloth Spring Flowers Easter Tulips BeautifulVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth-lovely Raised EmbroideryVtgchichand Embroidered Cross Stitch Linen Crochet Lace Tablecloth Rose 68"roundVintage Tablecloth Pink Roses And Floral Print Cottage 51" X 68" CottonAntqvtg Italy Hand Needle Bobbin Lace Linen Decor Tablecloth Rose Latte 66"roundAntique Tablecloth - Hand Drawn Thread Work - LinenLarge Vintage Tablecloth Pansy Borders Hand Embroidered Linen Raised StunningVintage Wilendur Cottage Floral Tablecloth Bright Spring Flowers W/ Blue LabelVintage Cotton Tablecloth Cherries Birds Leaves In Water Color Style Red YellowVtg. Hall China Jewel Tea Autumn Leaf Tablecloth Startex Starmont Label Vintage Tablecloth Crinoline Lady Hand Embroidered Linen Garden HollyhocksLarge Unused Vintage Scottish Cotton Lace Tablecloth - Celtic Knots & ThistlesVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth~ So Pretty ~hollyhocks, Forget-me-notsVtgchic Hand Crochet Lace Embroidered Linen Tablecloth Silverine Roses 70" RoundGorgeous Hand Emb Irish Linen Tablecloth Peonies Gc.Vintage Genuine Wilendur Dogwood Blossoms Tablecloth In Kelly Green Vintage White Cotton Print Tablecloth With People Riding Their Bikes.Vtg. Wht. Floral 60" Round Madeira Linen Hand Made Embroidery Tablecloth/napkinsVintage Wilendur Large Cottage Phlox Tablecloth Red Pink Floral Spring FlowersPine Cones Vintage Tablecloth Long 68" X 52" Large Spring Purple Colorful Bold Vintage Strawberries Berry Print Tablecloth Flowers FloralPretty Vintage Hand Emb Linen Tablecloth Crinoline Lady. Vintage Tablecloth Table Centre Tatted LaceSpectacular Antique Irish Linen Large Tablecloth~elaborate Drawn Thread WorkAntique Piano Shawl Tablecloth Cream Embroidered Variegated Fringe RectangularVintage Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth=exquisite Raised Embroidery Vtgchic Hand Needle Raised Embroidery Cut Work Lace Linen Tablecloth Le Rose 84"Vtg Embroidered Easter Bunny, Chick & Tulip Cotton Tablecloth 116" X 64" -nrLovely Vintage Spring Summer Fall Leaves Tablecloth Cotton Print 1960s LeafPretty Embroidered Madeira Irish Linen Tablecloth Gc.Vintage Tablecloth Floral Sprays Hand Embroidered Linen Raised Circle EmbroideryVintage Tablecloth Cotton Muslin Apples Pears Grapes Cherries FruitTablecloth Vintage - 49" X 51" Pride Of Flander Linen White Turquoise FloralsVintage White And Cream California Hand Printed Tablecloth With Pines Design.