Norman Rockwell, Freedom From Want, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, 1943.
We would like to wish our American readers a happy and healthy Thanksgiving Day and a joyous start to the holiday season. Textiles are special part of many celebrations and if you are gathering with family and friends for a meal today, around a table loaded with Thanksgiving food, you may well have placed a special tablecloth or runner underneath.
We looked at the long evolution of the tablecloth in Dining Out, Selvedge Issue 48 Etiquette. Although tablecloths and napkins were occasionally used at banquets in ancient times, it was only when people began regularly eating at a table that they systematically covered it with a cloth and, later, started to routinely use napkins. Throughout antiquity, meals were eaten while stretched out on couches or beds, and it was not until the Middle Ages that the sitting position was adopted in the West. Today, the position is even more vertical as humanity, ever pressed for time, eats standing up, indeed while walking, at any time of day.
Saint Hugh in the Refectory, Francis co Zurburan, 1598-1664.
The ritual of covering the table with a white cloth perhaps evolved from the sacred meal only, then to any monastic repast, and later to secular use. Whatever the case, the practice became more widespread during the late Middle Ages, and by the 12th century it was practically universal in Italy and France. Perhaps that was because simple plank-and-trestle tables needed to be hidden from sight, unlike ancient tables of fine, richly worked wood. From that point onward, tablecloths began to assume social and aesthetic importance.
Gervex at the Aux Ambassadeurs, painter unknown, c. 1900.
The quality of material and decoration is known through surviving inventories from the Middle Ages in Italy and France. Tablecloths were described as being fringed at both ends, and enriched by multicolored embroidery with silk thread. They might also have two woven red or black stripes, running from one selvedge to another, a detail still found on tablecloths made in the French Béarn region and the Basque country.
Extracted from Selvedge Issue 48 and The Book of Fine Linen, Francoise De Bonneville, Flammarion books, £35, ISBN-10: 2080135570. As a gift, you can read the full article for free. Enjoy the holidays.