Author: Cecilia Gunzburger
September is New York Textile Month! In celebration, members of the Textile Society of America will author Object of the Day for the month. A non-profit professional organization of scholars, educators, and artists in the field of textiles, TSA provides an international forum for the exchange and dissemination of information about textiles worldwide.

This fabulous lace tablecloth was used to cover a dressing table while a woman got ready for her day. In the early modern period, wealthy people were beginning to take more interest in personal cleanliness as a sign of civility and high class. The main ways that people showed their cleanliness was through wearing clean, white linen undergarments and using clean, white linen handkerchiefs, towels, and dressing tablecloths to wash their bodies.

While washing and dressing, people laid linen tablecloths over the colorful wool or silk tablecloths that stayed on their tables all the time. The linen cloth protected the decorative cloth underneath from the water, soap, and cosmetics used while getting dressed. The linen cloth was taken up and washed after use. In French, this linen cloth was called a toilette, or “small cloth.” We still say toilette for the process of washing and dressing.

Linen dressing tablecloths were often decorated with embroidery and lace. The richer you were, the more elaborate the lace you could afford on your dressing tablecloth. Sumptuous needle lace dressing tablecloths like this one were made in northern Italy by professional lacemakers in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. They were eagerly acquired by wealthy consumers all over Europe. This style of dressing tablecloth, with a checkerboard grid of linen cloth and needle lace, seems to have been especially popular in northern Europe, since several portraits of women at their dressing tables in England and the Netherlands depict similar tablecloths.

This particular dressing tablecloth is especially fine and expensive. None of the large needle lace squares is quite the same, depicting 35 different designs. The small needle lace squares repeat only a few times, representing almost 50 individual motifs. It also has a very deep border of needle lace, also made of many unique variations of its motif. This virtuoso display of needle lace designs made this dressing tablecloth very expensive and showy.

Needle lace first developed in Italy in the 1500s, where the finest needle lace continued to be produced until the turn of the eighteenth century. Needle lace is made with a needle and thread, like embroidery. The lacemaker lays out a web of supporting threads, and then makes thousands of tiny loops of thread with her needle to build up the decorative openwork fabric. Needle lace can be worked within holes cut from a background cloth, such as the rectangles joining the checkerboard squares in this tablecloth, or can be built up on a scrap background cloth and cut away from the supporting cloth when finished to produce a free-standing lace fabric. This is how the squares and the border in this tablecloth were made. Most dressing tablecloths in this style were made by sewing small squares of linen cloth, often with needle lace-filled cutouts, to squares of separately-made needle lace motifs in a checkerboard pattern.

Cecilia Gunzburger teaches textile history at the Smithsonian/George Washington University M.A. program in Decorative Arts and Design History.

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