Much fine Victorian table linen has survived in excellent condition and is now popular with collectors as a graceful adornment for the modern home.
Many Victorian ladies treasured their best table linen, and the finest pieces were used only occasionally and were passed on as minor heirlooms. A vast quantity of table linen has therefore survived, to offer today's collector a variety of appealing and perfectly
Real linen is woven from flax, and the cloth varies from coarse 'huckaback' to very fine 'lawn'. Even in Victorian times the material was expensive because the manufacturing processes were slow and labour intensive, but its durable qualities made it very desirable.
Cotton was no substitute for pure linen, even though, by the end of the 19th century, cotton tablecloths were widely used. Linen was far superior when starched, it creased less than cotton and provided a resilient glossy surface.
A VALUABLE FABRIC
The high price linen commanded at the time is reflected in the way that old tablecloths were cut up
to be used again as smaller tray or lunch cloths. Even old finger napkins were not wasted; they were cut down, fringed with lace and
embroidered with drawn thread work and cutwork to make doilies for placing under pie dishes or
on cake stands.
Hand embroidered linen had become something of specialist profession by the end of the 19th
century. The machine age had arrived, bringing with it the techniques to produce finely
embroidered linen. However, hand embroidery was still practised by middle-class women a' a leisure activity.
In 1848 the sewing machine was patented in Britain which took much of the tedium out
of making hems or adding lace edging. Indeed, many of the tablecloths that appear to be hand-embroidered were, in fact, assembled from machine-made, ready-to-sew kits. These kits
were widely available from drapers' shops. Transfer-printed linen - where a pattern was
pre-marked on the cloth - was also commercially produced, and many embroidery designs were given in women's magazines.
One of the most common types of linen
embroidery is whitework. This is white stitch-work on white fabric - usually satin stitch embroidered over outline stitching, or padding, for a raised effect. Many Victorian women, however, preferred more eye-catching designs in coloured silks. Drawn
thread work where selected threads are pulled out of the fabric and the remaining threads worked into a pattern - resulted in impressive embroidered bed covers and fine tablecloths.
The linen press held the vast quantities of table linen used in a Victorian household. The recommended number
of cloths was four each for breakfast, dinner and the servants.
Table linen has been one of the rapid growth areas of the antiques trade and specialist dealers appear at almost every market and fair.
Much of what can be found on offer is in surprisingly good condition, but you will pay a premium for these pieces. However, it may be worth considering linen that is in less than perfect
condition if you are looking for a bargain. Unwashed cloths that are slightly stained may be
worth buying and cleaning up. But it is not worth buying a cloth with a major tear
or hole in the base fabric - even if it is otherwise in very good condition - as restoration can turn out to be difficult or, if you use a professional restorer, extremely expensive.
CARING FOR LINEN
Slight yellowing of old linen is quite common, but professional restorers do not recommend the use
of strong chemicals, such as bleach based products, to whiten the material. Better to wash
the cloth gently by hand, if you have to, using a mild soap or detergent. Cloths with local, but severe, stains should be priced quite low, as it is likely that someone has attempted to remove the stain in order to bring a higher price.
Mildew and iron mould can sometimes be removed with proprietary cleaners, but great car is needed.
If you intend to use a linen tablecloth, take care to
wash out any food or wine stains immediately and to repair any pulled or snagged
thread work promptly. Avoid heavy starch on pieces that are to be folded and stored for long periods as the creases will become very pronounced and ridge-like when the cloth is opened out later. You could store old linen in the same way as many museums by rolling the unstarched cloth around a cardboard cylinder and protecting it with acid-free paper. Cloths for regular use, though, can be starched with old-fashioned laundry or
hot water starch. Cloths with embroidered detail should be pressed on the back so that the works stands out well from the base material.
Of all the decorative embroidery, perhaps the most impressive is the drawn
thread work, as displayed on the rectangular table mat below. The Victorians were also particularly
attracted to any embroidery that used coloured threads.
Elizabeth Kurella is author of
The Complete Guide to Vintage Textiles.