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    

Lovely Vintage Ecru Linen Hand Embroidery Tablecloth & 12 NapkinsItalian H. Embroidery Point De Venise Lace & Burato Linen 130" Tablecloth & NapsVintage Cotton Christmas Tablecloth 52x64 Trees Stars Home Snow +++Lot Vintage Christmas Tablecloth 1950's FourLarge Retro//vintage Crochet Tablecloth / Bed Cover Good Conditon Tablecloth Antique Vintage Italian Burato Lace Hand Embroidery Linen TableclothChicvtgitaly Embroidery Cross Stitch Linen Open Cutwork Lace Tablecloth Rose66" Antqvtgchic Hand Heavy Crochet Filet Lace Topper Tablecloth Caramel Rose50"roundAntique Kasmir Wool Paisley & Brocade Patchwork Tablecloth W Gold Buillon TrimStunning Vintage Antique Style Handmade Needle Lace Round Tablecloth & NapkinsChicantqvtg Hand Crochet Lace Popular Design Beige Tablecloth Rose66"roundAmerican Girl Samantha Victorian Lemonade Set / Tablecloth / Party Treats+extrasVintage Cotton Christmas Tablecloth 58x84 Candles Ribbons Stars Poinsettias +++Vtg Christmas Tablecloth - Santa & Reindeer, Carolers, Horse & SleighVintage Cotton Christmas Tablecloth 56x80 Bells Holly Home Candy Canes +++Vtgchic Embroidered Linen Battenburg Lace Inlet Tablecloth Beige Garden 84"oval Amazing Vintage White Crochet Lace Coverlet Bedspread Tablecloth 223cm X 216cmGorgeous Vintage Quaker Lace White Tablecloth 106 InchesVtgchic Cut Work Lace & Embroidered Appliqued Linen Tablecloth Flower Garden 84"Large Vintage Handmade Crocheted Coverlet Bedspread Tablecloth 102" X 102" VgcEva Rosenstand Tablecloth 12-1187 Clara Waever Cross Stitch Poppy Flower HugeThirty-one TableclothPottery Barn Caroline Paisley Tablecloth - Dark Red Background - 70" X 108"Vintage Cowboy 53x70 Western Tablecloth Linen Cotton RanchVintage Christmas Tablecloth Shiny Brite Ornaments Holly Cornacopia Ribbon PineGorgeous Tablecloth By Simply Shabby Chic,round,pink Roses/beige,brown Accent13 Pcs Vintage Linen Natural Brown Cutwork Tablecloth 69x103 Set 12 NapkinsVintage White Circular Linen Tablecloth - Hand Embroider Madeira 69" D GremioVintage Amish Tablecloth NipChicvtg Embroidered Linen Lace Insert Decor Tablecloth Profile Figure 50" RoundVintage French Chic Linen Cotton Tablecloth Orange & Green StripedLarge Vintage Scottish Lace Ctn Tablecloth Superb 72"x92" Dead Stock SoiledVtg Genuine Wilendure Wilendur Tablecloth W Bouquets Of Red Roses & Rosebuds TagVintage Xmas Tablecloth 45" X 53"Antique / Vintage Large Tablecloth 7'3" X 5'10" Excellent Condition (3)Antique Italian Filet Lace Point De Venise Figural Tablecloth Round 66" Early Norfolk & Western Railroad Dining Car TableclothWilliam Sonoma 'twas The Night Collection Tablecloth -nwt Lg Vintage California Handprints Tablecloth Indent Ornaments Retro Gold GlitterVintage Wilendur Lily Of The Valley Green Tablecloth 52.5"x64" 6 Napkins Euc Small Lace Edged Hand Embroidered Linen Tablecloth"top Hat Snowmen" By Debbie Mumm@ Tree Skirt/tablecloth - 56" Diameter 1940's Unusual Blue Birds Theme Vintage Tablecloth 46 X 46Charming Vintage Quaker Cotton Floral Lace Oval Tablecloth RosesVintage Hand Crocheted Off White Tablecloth Large 52" X 78" Nice!Vintage Oval Red Ribbon Christmas Tablecloth 62 X 84Vintage "estate" 90 X 60" Off White Large Lace Tablecloth Vintage Cotton/linen Christmas Tablecloth 56x100 Poinsettias All Over!Round Vintage Bhs White And Blue Cotton Floral Pattern Tablecloth ~ 68" Antique / Vintage Large Tablecloth 6' X 5'10" Excellent Condition (2)Vintage Tablecloth - Blue And Purple Flowers - Nice!Vintage Screen Printed Tablecloth Red And Yellow Floral 1940-50sAntique / Vintage Cream Hand Embroidered Square Tablecloth 4'2" X 4'2" (6)Exquisite Vintage Peach Taj Mahal Silk Brocade 40s Piano Scarf Shawl TableclothVintage White Linen Damask 104" Tablecloth W Cabbage Roses & Scroll DesignLovely Vintage Circular Embroidered Tablecloth Lace InsertsMid Century Danish Modern Teba Toba Op Art 100% Linen Tablecloth 60" X 68"Vintage Retro Mid Century Floral Fabric Or Tablecloth 44" X 105"Antique Creamy White Hand Embroidered Tablecloth~lace~flowers~scrolly TrousseauScentsy Consultant Large Purple Tablecloth About 69" X 69"