In the late 19th century the legendary French food writer Brillat-Savarin said: “You are what you eat.” I say, “You are what you eat on.”
Think about it. A length of colorful oil-cloth is just the ticket for a picnic or barbecue. A fancy afternoon tea party calls for lace. Colorful whimsical tablecloths are a bright eye-opener at breakfast. But when a fine dining occasion calls for a formal presentation, nothing sets the stage so well as a table graced with elegant linen. For nearly three centuries, the finest linen to be had in the world has come from Ireland.
Not that the Irish invented linen. Back in the days of pre-history, cave-dwelling fashionistas made do with clothing crafted from animal hides. Once our nomadic hunter-gatherer forebears settled down and invented agriculture, however, one of the first cash crops was flax, the linen mother-plant, which can be beaten into long fibers and woven into cloth.
And what a cloth it was! Exceedingly softer than tanned leather and nearly as durable to boot. Doubters need only reflect that when the tomb of Rameses II (the pharaoh whose faux family member Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt) was opened more than 3,000 years after his death, the linen mummy wrappings were intact. So too were the funeral curtains of Tutankamen, though all the other fabric in the tomb had long since crumbled to dust.
Tales of linen are woven through the Bible. In the Old Testament, we are told that not only were the Ark of the Covenant drapings made from linen, but so were the garments and headgear of the high priest. In the New Testament, it is recorded that Christ’s body was wrapped in linen when he was taken down from the cross.
Flax is a very adaptable plant, and able to flourish in climates that would not support its more delicate close cousin cotton. Average soil is the perfect growing medium, since soil that is either too rich or too poor will produce poor quality fibers. As its botanical name Linum usitatissimum (translation: extremely useful woody plant) indicates, uses for flax fiber run the gamut from fabric fit for a king, to coarse twine and rope, paper, and even money.
Like the Peruvian potato, linen, while synonymous with Ireland, is not native to the island, but was brought as a trade item by the widely seafaring Phoenician traders long before the birth of Christ. By the Middle Ages, almost every farm grew flax plants, the fibers of which were woven into fabric on the family loom to make clothing and bed coverings. Linen sheets, which today carry high price tags, were found in even the humblest households, as the fabric held up extremely well to frequent laundering, growing softer and more luxurious with every washing. In addition, flax fibers offer the added benefit of wicking away moisture to keep one cooler in summer and warmer in winter. For this reason, linen will always feel cool to the touch, whereas cotton and hemp will feel warm. Linen was at one time so ubiquitous a cloth that today all fabrics for the home are simply called table or bed linens.
In 1695, when the Huguenots fled religious persecution on the continent, many found refuge in Ireland. Among them was a man named Louis Crommelin who had been raised and trained in the linen trade in Cambrai, France, famous for its “cambric” fabric. As there was already a flourishing linen industry in Ulster, Crommelin settled in Lisburn, close to Belfast. The improvements on weaving techniques that the Huguenot refugee introduced earned him a government appointment to further develop Ireland’s linen trade. In 1711, Commelin’s work led to the establishment of the Board of Trustees of the Linen Manufacturers of Ireland who fostered and controlled the Irish Linen Industry until 1823, earning the worldwide respect that Irish Linen still holds today.
Treasured by all who own them, linen tablecloths and napkins are so durable that they stand a good chance to become family heirlooms passed down from generation to generation. Among the most precious — and stunning — are the double damask examples.
Damask is a weaving style that uses fibers woven in contrasting directions to create patterns that are visible when viewed at certain angles, with shifting light sources continually revealing new patterns in a hide-and-seek manner. The process was invented in China, and refined by weavers in Persia, India, Syria, and the Byzantine Empire, but the designs created in 12(th)-century Damascus were so extraordinary that ever since the method has been called “damask.”
Double damask uses finer, higher quality fiber, has a higher weight per area, and has more weft (horiz) threads than warp (vert). It is the most expensive weaving process because it takes longer to produce as the looms must be run slowly to avoid damaging the yarn in the process. The intricate weaving allows double damask to have the most intricate designs; it also generally lasts longer as the extra fibers permit more launderings.
As linen has long complemented elegant dining settings throughout the year, the most commonly found motifs correspond to the seasons, such as tulips (spring), roses (summer), chrysanthemums (fall), and ivy (winter). Particularly Irish motifs include shamrocks, designs from the Book of Kells, and in rare instances castles or hunting scenes. Due to its shifting pattern capability, designs woven into colored linen show as light and dark pastels. Rarer examples actually employ two different colors of thread; in these cases, the satiny patterns are reversed and matte on the fabric’s underside.
Serious Irish linen collectors search for examples from the past. Overall condition, complexity of design, and age determine the value. Look for stain-free examples, without worn spots. An original paper label is a plus; an original box is even better. The oldest tablecloths often have a seam down the center, as looms then were not wide enough to make a whole cloth at one time. In the 19(th) and early 20(th) centuries table linens were often embellished with drawn-threadwork, handmade lace, and elaborately embroidered monograms. Excessive decoration became unfashionable during the Deco period, and designs became more stylized, often accented with banded borders and polka dots.
Caring for pure Irish linen isn’t as difficult as might be imagined. That doyenne of elegant dining, Martha Stewart, advises: “Ideally, get to a spill as soon as it happens, and soak it with ice-cold water. If wine is spilled during a meal, your best bet is to quickly slide a small towel beneath the spill, dab the spot with a cold, wet cloth, and then sprinkle table salt over the stain. Rub it in gently with your fingers, then cover the spot with another napkin and go on with your meal.” Martha also recommends never using colored candles, because hot, colored wax drippings will most likely create indelible stains.
Above all, remember that pure Irish linen — like good Irish whiskey — mellows with age, growing more supple and luxurious as the years go by. So, when it’s time to set an elegant table during the holidays, indulge in the best. Bring out the crystal, china, silver, and fine Irish linen that will shimmer and glow in the flicker of candlelight. And greet the New Year knowing that while we can “eat” on anything, we “dine” on linen. Sláinte! ♦