To judge from the number of fine table linens offered at thrift shops and yard sales, using them may be a dying art.
But like many good things in life, their use is due for a revival. Old linens are treasures: firm, close-woven, and pure. Handling them gives you a sense of the energy and strength of the women who wove them and “soured” them with buttermilk to make them purely white.
Old-time tablecloths, often called “board cloths,” were made from holland, huckaback, osnaburg, or lockram—all comparatively coarse materials—or of fine damask, some trimmed with lace.
Here are some tips to keep your table linens at their best:
- Linens needn’t be washed and ironed immediately after use. Do wash and dry them, but to preserve the fiber and color, put them away until you plan to use them again.
- Whenever possible, store linen articles without folding. Linen tablecloths store best rolled.
- When you wash linen, avoid using any whitening detergents or bleach. This will change the subtle natural white linen damask.
- Be very careful if you use professional launders and check that they will not use whiteners; there is nothing worse for natural fiber.
- Never tumble-dry linen as this can over-dry the fibres and makes ironing more difficult. Linen naturally dries quickly. Just spin and line dry.
- Iron linen when damp. There’s usually no need to use starch except perhaps for the finest linens, for linen has built-in crispness. If the linen has already dried out before ironing, use a water spray to re-dampen it. A good steam iron will work best on linen.
- Iron first on the underside of the tablecloth to eliminate creases, then on the right side to enhance the fabric’s natural sheen.
- Or, follow the advice of one veteran table-linen lover: Secure a long, wooden dowel to the basement ceiling and drape freshly ironed tablecloths over it; cover these with plastic bags, and when you need one, simply take it down and spread it out on the table.
- Before built-in closets, our foremothers kept linens in capacious chests, tucked in with sprigs of lavender.
How see how to fold your napkins for the holidays or any special dinner.