Damask Patterning 1840 to 1990

By Fran White, January 1998

For the images of linen damask please click here. 


Why is it that at the tail end of the 20th Century there are only what appears to be a very limited range of  white linen damask tablecloth patterns available for purchasing over the counter?  Do economic, social, cultural and technological restrictions limit and define the choice of Damask Designs?  Damask has always been recognised as a luxurious commodity, one would expect it to be a consumer led market, in fact was it ever or did the manufacturers always control the production?  Maybe all today’s customer wants are these classical patterns as they hold assumptions of tradition and perceived values.  This discussion aims to investigate the role of this particular textile art pursuing it’s context in the field of consumerism.
An initial problem is the need to define the word damask.  For the purposes of this debate there is a requirement to investigate a certain amount of historical and technical knowledge in order to grasp the importance of the techniques involved in the production of this figured woven fabric.  

A damask design manifests itself on the cloth in the form of figuring or patterning.  We need to establish if there is a difference in perception between a damask design and a damask pattern.  Is there an historical development in the patterning?  If so, does it follow that damask can be dated by patterning, or is this made difficult  considering the diverse centres of production based in many different countries and developing during different eras? 

Who created the designs that were used and is there a significance to those that were chosen?  One can ask the question how far was designing gendered and is it still?  What was the status of the designer?  Did Designer anonymity exist or can designs be assigned a definite provenance, if so is this significant?  If damasks and their designs are attributed to named artists is  this due to a genuine interest in charting the development of this historic fabric, or is it more likely that in the 20th century a collectors viewpoint and a greed for higher prices in auction houses overrule?  Did certain designs hold more importance?  Can a chronology of designs be established?

Did the historical context and fashion of the particular era dictate the designs employed?  Did a hierarchy of traditional and modern exist in each period?

How does Damask relate to the structure of society?  Can we compare damask with social status and hierarchies?  What was the effect on the status of the Weaver, Designer, Manufacturer, Merchant, Entrepreneur and end user? 

Where are the contemporary centres of production?  Can we use comparisons of  these to answer some of the above questions?  What distinguishes one centre from another?  Do they share the same methods of production?  How far do weave structures differ?

Is it not curious that a seemingly outmoded commodity has survived into the late 20th Century.  What is the way forward -  will its production continue in the 21st Century? Will there still be a role for Linen Damask Tablecloths?  Why hasn’t cotton or rayon completely replaced the more traditional fibre?  In a social context is there still the expertise, skill and patience required to care for these historic fabrics?  Laundering easy care materials is a prerequisite of todays lifestyle -  space, for storing them, is at a premium - trousseaus and Linen cupboard inventories are considered out of date. 

Is there still a place for damask in this post modern era?  Eclecticism, pluralism, parody and pastiche now rule the day.  Issues such as Art and Design, gender, race, class and minority groups are questioned.  In this context damask would have been considered a high and noble Art.  Once we have deconstructed the myths that  existed about the hierarchies of different types of Art where does this leave damask? Is it surviving on past significance?  The word Damask was synonymous with luxury.  Is this still the case today?  Do we need linen to cover our tables?  For that matter in these environmentally charged times is this bleached whiteness acceptable?  We no longer dine in poorly lit rooms where the brilliant white cloth would have enhanced the dim candlelight.  Do we eat at tables anymore, or are most mealtimes consumed sitting in front of the television, standing in the kitchen or on the move in the car?  Does damask answer the requirements of political correctness and green issues?  Can this historic fabric construction be carried forward into the 21st Century?  Damask on the Moon?        

Chapter One

Many peoples immediate response to Damask appears to be based on traditional values and assumptions.  They either recall family gatherings, ceremonial occasions or trips to smart Hotels serving memorable meals.
It seems to be accepted unquestioningly, in fact taken for granted.  Only if presented with an opportunity to actually study this ‘peculiar stuff’/ figured table covering carefully does it  become clear that it’s not such a simple material after all, on the contrary it is highly original, ingenious and complex. 

Definitions of damask construction  produce specialist terminology understandable only by those with a knowledge of weave structures and looms,  “a figured fabric made with one warp and one weft in which, generally, warp satin and weft sateen weaves interchange.  Twill or other binding weaves may sometimes be introduced”1. “A self-patterned weave with one warp and one weft in which the pattern is formed by a contrast of binding systems.  In its classic form it is reversible, and the contrast is produced by the use of the warp and weft faces of the same weave, usually satin.”2  A true satin weave requires at least 5 shafts - 5 end satin - which produces single damask and when 8 shafts are used - 8 end satin - this is known as double damask.  “Double damask requires a closer sett and uses more picks per inch than single damask, and makes a much more substantial fabric.”3  Fergusons, in Northern Ireland, are the only remaining manufacturers of double damask in the world. 

For many people the reaction to this form of damask is:-  “I’ll have two dozen double damask dinner napkins please”. This phrase was part of a  comedy sketch immortalised by the BBC Sound Archives.  The skit, first broadcast in the 1930’s, took place in a haberdashers shop where a ‘posh lady’, shop assistant and manager all became completely tongue tied trying to repeat the words.

The technique of the satin weave structure combined with the patterning abilities of either the draw-loom or jacquard loom produce this figured cloth.  Neither definition refers to the fact that the warp and weft were often the same fibre.  Luther Hooper points out that “if the weaving be arranged in such a manner as to bring both warp satin and weft satin, as the two surfaces may be called, together, side by side, in certain shapes, on the front of the material, the design so worked out will be quite distinct.  This will be so, even if the warp and weft are of precisely the same size, colour and material.”4 

 Originally this fabric was constructed from silk.  Geiger explains the situation that brought about the rise of the  production of the white figurated linen damask table linen:-

    The establishment of this distinctive production was due in the first place to two quite separate phenomena: Flemish linen thread and the Italian technique of silk damask.  The high quality of the linen thread was the achievement of a centuries-old, well-organized linen industry comprising everything from the cultivation and preparation of flax to the spinning and weaving of the finest linen tabby or ‘batiste’ and subsequent bleaching process.  Damask,densely woven to bring out the two contrasting surface effects, had been evolved experimentally by the Italian silk weavers.  The two phenomena were brought together because Flanders included the powerful port of Bruges, the most important trading centre in northern Europe, where large quantities of Italian silks were always on sale or being exported. Linen damask was brought to perfection by means of technical and artistic inventions by the local craftsmen.5    

It can be recognised that we have approached some of the historical and technical definitions of Damask. There is also a need to research the origin of the name itself.  Geijer believes that:-  “The name derives from the Syrian capital Damascus, an important centre of the silk trade and silk production”.6   She also makes reference to the fact that:-  “From the Middle Ages onwards many textile designations were derived  from the names of manufacturing places or trade centres: for example.....damask from Damascus and muslin from Mosul.”7   It is necessary to remind ourselves that this fact is contradicted by Broudy who states that damask weaving is a “general term with over seventy-five technical definitions, named for Damascus, where some believe it originated.  That claim, however, cannot be substantiated because of a lack of consensus both on a precise definition of damask and on the variety of fabrics woven in this ancient city.”8

Wherever damask originated - China, Egypt or the Middle East - what is clear is that there were several separate factors which were involved in the establishment of the Industry that we are researching - that of the White Figurated Linen Damask Tablecloth!
We need to understand the significance of the quest for white, rather than unbleached, material.  Baines suggests that the Ecclesiastical use of white linen cloths could be traced to Egypt where linen was associated with the Goddess Isis, whom the Egyptians believed was responsible for creating flax9 .  The priests who served her wore nothing but clean white linen as a symbol of purity.  This religious significance continued into the Christian world where altars were draped with fine white linen, this was also used for Church garments.  As Paludan expresses:- “the tradition with a white flax cloth in connection with the daily laying of the table, which gradually spread within all strata of society and beyond the limits of Christianity, must therefore be seen as an expression of this symbolic purity and not solely as an argument for cleanliness”. 10

Now we can add symbolic purity and cleanliness to the long list of  associations implied by the word damask - in this context we are referring exclusively to white damask tablecloths.  These could also includes family, clans, class, nostalgia, predictability, status quo, authority, niche, inflexibility, timelessness, restraint,  richness, smartness, subtlety, status implications and plain old-fashioned.  Can we recognise an obsession with ritual, an acceptance of continuing the role of luxury and elitism? 

It is precisely for the associations listed above that Carolyn Dunn used the name Damask for her shop which opened in 1987.  She also believed that this gave connotations of high quality.  At first her stock did include table linen, but now, due to supply and demand she concentrates only on bed-linen, cushions, curtains and night dresses.  She referred to her bedspreads as being jacquard woven cotton, selecting designs from a  timeless ‘classic country look’. 

Could it be because of these same assumptions that damask tablecloths are so popular in advertising photography.  More often than not when ready-made meals, celebratory cakes, teatime treats packages, biscuit tins, etc. need a covering illustration the product will be displayed on a white, or sometimes coloured, damask tablecloth or damask material, whose design is definitely more traditional than present day.  Could this practise be mimicking the Dutch Still life painters who often depicted their subjects on a damask cloth which, of course, was decorated with the designs particular to
their era? 

Strangely enough hasn’t this come full circle as it has been suggested that the early damask designers often copied the painters of the day.  In fact one could actually liken a damask cloth to an engraving as the design appears to be in relief.  De Bonneville suggests that the damask weaving technique produced actual monochrome paintings on tablecloths and napkins.11   In her glossary she repeats this:-  “the real originality of what is known as figured or “storied” damask lay in the fact that it reproduced a painting or contained a complete narrative tale.”12   

Due to the nature of the weave structure of a white damask tablecloth, whose pattern is perceived by the reflection off varying amounts of warp and weft yarn on the same surface which are lying at right angles to each, it follows that a delicate technique is required to actually photograph them.  It can be recognised that as much ability is needed for this task as in the actual construction of the material!

Dr. G.T. Ysselsteyn13   expressed the view that:       

        The word ‘Damask’ as such does not belong to the weaver’s terminology.  The first people to use the word must have been the customers of the armourers of the middle east, who adorned cuirasses and swords bymaking grooves after pattern in the metal, which they filled with metal of a contrasting colour. The most expensive filling was gold.  Then they polished  the surface and the result was a fine and indestructible adornment, the damasses  of the Middle Ages.  This armour had a lustrous and dull appearance, which is exactly how the pattern  on damask is perceived visually.  Simply by using the word ‘must’ in this quote begs the authenticity of her theory, however, it is a useful way of perceiving the subtle patterning. 

Could this inherent subtleness coupled with an association of luxuriousness be the magic of damask?  There is another weave structure - damask diaper - which was a precursor to damask proper, and is a term used to denote a small all over pattern  - Burnham describes it thus:- “a simple form of damask with rectilinear pattern”14, its French translation is damasse.

Television and film companies also require damask for use in their period productions.  Like the backgrounds used for advertising photography these are hired from specialised props companies.  Curiously here the demand is for a certain size and absolutely not for pristine bleached whiteness.  This is due to technical reasons, if the cloth is tea-dyed, which would make it off-white or cream, there is less of a glare and this is more relevant to them than the actual design.  
In Post modern terms when anything could be a tablecloth, be it a car tyre or grass matting,  we still return to a loved and well-worn damask cloth.  Perhaps the significance when used isn’t  so much in the damask as in the fact of covering and or protecting the table ready to receive food or offering.     

Chapter Two

“Linen damask with specially designed patterns, large tablecloths complete with oblong napkins, were a refined artistic product that came into fashion at the princely courts of the sixteenth century and were a luxury article that remained an expensive status symbol of the upper reaches of society during the seventeenth century.”15   Without doubt this explains a class-specific material which leads us neatly from damask and its associations to the question of  pattern and design.

Prior to the invention of the jacquard loom at the beginning of the 19th century, damask was woven on the draw-loom.  This required a weaver and a draw-boy to raise and lower the numerous threads.  A damask cloth is woven with a  basic ground weave and at the same time the pattern of the design is constructed using the same warp which is threaded through  two sets of heddles.  For further explanation of this complex system refer to Pattern and Loom by John Becker.16 

Reference must be made here to the importance of the draw-loom with which the weaver had the ability to produce patterning with “rounded lines and much detail,” in effect these were ‘’drawn’’.17  There exists a certain amount of debate about where the draw-loom originated and when it first appeared in Europe.  Broudy refers to this and suggests where to trace the various theories.18  It is probably sufficient to comprehend that as he says:- “The drawloom was the answer to the weaver’s search for a means of weaving complex patterns that exceeded the capabilities of multiple harnesses.”19   He takes us further with the explanation of the compound-harness loom, or shaft drawloom:-  “Some claim that this is the perfect form of pattern weaving because the design is part of the very texture of the fabric and cannot be separated from it - as it could be brocade, for example.  The technique is known as damask weaving”.20   

We can use this point to clarify damask designs and damask patterns.  Initially the designer would paint an illustration of his design on paper.  This would then need to be transferred to squared or point paper.  This information, or pattern, would be employed to instruct the weaver when setting up the loom.  Once woven the design would show as a pattern on the cloth.  It has been suggested that a damask designer would require a knowledge of how the material is actually woven.  When Adolph Cavallo is discussing Joseph Neil Paton in the context of being a designer of damask he suggests that “he had to be intimately acquainted with the operation of a damask loom in order to design for it”.21  What is necessary is whoever transfers the design on to point paper needs a specialist knowledge and understanding of the principles involved in the actual interlacing of the warp and weft so the material, once woven, will be stable.  This person could recognise from the initial design if this will, or will not , happen. 

The jacquard mechanism - “the device that formed the basis for all industrial figured weaving today”22   - enabled previously laborious and time consuming design changes to be completed within the space of an hour. The textile designer was liberated and “The nineteenth-century market was flooded with all kinds of designs.  Some textile historians believe that the mechanised drawloom was responsible for the continual quest for novelty, the constant competition for the public’s attention that still plagues us today.”’23

Perhaps this attitude would explain the reference made to the difference between handwoven damask linens produced prior to those on power loom.  When writing about William Coulson’s Damask Linen Manufactory (established in Lisburne in 1764) Brenda Collins stresses the point that:-  “Power loom damask could not match the detailed designs possible with hand woven cloth which continued to be made for royalty and foreign heads of state”24.  Patricia Baines reminds us that:-  “Jacquard weaving by hand continued side by side with power loom weaving, since the fabric produced by the former was considered to be better in stability, texture and strength”.25

Experts are able to differentiate between cloth woven on either the draw-loom or jacquard mechanism.  This information, coupled with an analysis of cloth construction, can be applied when identification and dating of  damask tablecloths is required.  To quote Baines’ damask definition “Although damask patterns are reversible, the right side is where the weft is predominant (i.e. sateen figure areas) since the close-packed warp in the ground gives a finer lustre and shows up the figures better.  Patterns woven on Jacquard looms have cleaner, clearer curves and lines at the edges to make natural flowing figures, while those woven on a draw-loom are more stylised owing to the stepped-like edges.”26

The historical development of patterning has been well documented by authorities such as Becker, Prinet and Van Ysselsteyn.  Becker suggests that:-

    It is possible to study the development of patterning from the first imitations of silk patterns.  Later the motifs seem to be derived from wood-cuts: figural scenes depicting mythological or Biblical themes. Often descriptive texts were woven in as part of the pattern.  In the large width of tablecloths the motifs were executed in point repeat, i.e. the pattern units were repeated in reverse several times across the width.  Vertically there could be a succession of scenes giving a pattern repeat of several metres.27

Van Ysselstyn’s method traces patterning through the following sub-headings:-  Armorial; Plus Oultre - which was the motto of the Holy Roman Emperor28 ; Bible representations; classical stories; the joys of life which includes hunting, fishing, angling, skating and eating huge dinners; flowers and checks; historical subjects and representations of important cities e.g. London, Venice and Amsterdam.  Commemorative damasks would include important dates whether of historic battles, weddings, or even the year the cloth was woven in.  Sometimes the name of the weaver and/or manufacturer was included in the selvedge or along the border.29 

As we can see (plate no 1) this method was used by Thomas Buckenham, a hand weaving damask production based at North Lopham in Norfolk.  This firm was one of “15 linen-manufacturers listed at the two Lophams in 1845  by White’s Directory of Norfolk .”  They “concentrated on producing very good quality household and table linen, including damasks, for a high-class clientele, amongst whom were the royal family and the Travellers’ Club.”30 This company closed down in 1925 as after the last member of the family died no one wanted to take on the business.

This Trade marking  method was used in the damask production at Vadstena, a Swedish Mill that was manufacturing between 1753-1843. As Topelius points out  ‘Through this signature the mill’s production can be guaranteed in a way that is unusual in textile art.’31

One can recognise the fact that Damask Designing during our period 1860-1990,  was, and perhaps still is, gendered.  Pattern designs have been attributed to Walter Crane (1845-1915) - this illustration shows a highly ornamental design “with an allegory of the 5 senses in the centre, the border with satyrs, deer, boar and other birds and animals, entwined with oak leaves and acorns, the corners with scallops flanked by dolphins”32  (plate 2),  Lewis F. Day, and Christopher Dresser during the Arts and Crafts movement in England; Chris Lebeau who covered the Art Nouveau - Art Deco period in Holland; Joseph Neil Paton during the 19th Century In Scotland; Edwin Morrow who was practising in Ireland late 19th early 20th centuries.  There is one Linen Damask design attributed to Escher - sea-horses and fish.  A serviette with this pattern is in the collection of the Stedelijke (Town) Museum in Courtrai.  Their catalogue Damask 2 illustrates this33  and several by Chris Lebeau (born Amsterdam 1878, died Dachau 1945) 34. The Bauhaus trained architect Peter Behrens also designed damask, a curious fact considering that the Bauhaus School weaving department consisted solely of women.  Was there a reason for this male domination of design when, in the case of table linen, the end user is more often than not female?  One wonders if women aren’t better suited to designing damasks because of their inherent appreciation of textiles, and the historical fact that in the Middle Ages they were solely in charge of the linen in large households, the rest of the household control and duties was male dominated. 

This initial research has uncovered one female designer, Kitty van der Mijll Dekker.  She too trained at the Bauhaus, she worked between the years 1938-1966 and designed for Queen Beatrice in Holland.  Unlike her fellow countryman Chris Lebeau, she had no trouble with the idea of designing  for commemorative patterns.  One of her designs depicts the Boer Trek in South Africa. 

In industry present day designers, whether male or female, on the whole remain anonymous.  Naturally this isn’t the case of damask practitioners in the Craft and Art world.  Those from this decade include Alison Morton, who weaves tablecloths, table mats and hand towels with linen yarn purchased from Ireland.  “These unpretentious household textiles are in chequered damask weaves, reversed twills and huckaback (for hand towels) which are both classical and hard-wearing.”35 Alan Foulds constructs damask wall hangings in several colours using a drawloom.  Using the damask principle of block weaves with different faces or bindings alongside each other, in this case linen and twill diaper,  Kazuyo Nomura creates unusual material (plate 3)36 .  This a culmination on her part of skilled craftsmanship in the weaving, knowledge of her yarn and an investigative technical approach where she uses an ondule reed to manipulate her warp.

The issue of named designers is discussed further in Chapter Three.

Chapter Three

Not only were there important technological advances in the production of White Figurated Linen Damask tablecloths with regard to the development of looms used, there were also social, cultural and economic issues involved,    such as the centres of production of flax growing, processing and weaving.    By the 16th century the flax cultivation and preparation in Flanders was highly developed.  As has already been seen this, coupled with the export of Italian silk damasks through the important trading port of Bruges, were the two factors which contributed to the establishment of the weaving of fine linen damask tablecloths. 

In Flanders the main centre of production was based around Courtrai.  This was the birthplace of Pasquir Lamertijn (1563-1621).  He was one of the artisans and master weavers who are known from this time.  Due to religious persecution he, with other skilled weavers , moved to Haarlem and Alkmaar which became the principal centres of damask weaving in Holland.  Another well known weaver is Quirin Janz Damask   (who died about 162037 ) was also from Haarlem.  Here we have two names famous in the early production of white linen damask tablecloths.  It hasn’t been conclusively established if they were solely weavers, designers, merchants or a combination of all of these.  We will leave this debate for others to decide.

The demand for fine table linen increased during the 17th,18th, and 19th  centuries with important centres in Silesia and Saxony; Sweden, manufactured by Flor, Vadstena and Stenberg; ‘Kjong’s Manufacture’ which was founded in 1781 in Denmark; East Anglia in England and Dunfermline in Scotland.  The Linen industry in Northern Ireland owes its success to a French Hugenout, Louis Crommelin, who emigrated to the Low Countries to avoid persecution, became a master weaver and was invited to Ireland by William III.  In fact Ireland is still renowned for flax spinning.  It has a history of importing rather than growing the fibre.  

We should mention here that “Through most of its history damask was the exclusive province of professional specialists.”38 Therefore it is surprising that from the beginning of the 19th century in the South of Sweden and Norway “it was also produced as a domestic craft.”39 This still exists today.

The contemporary centres of production include France, Italy, Holland, Denmark and Northern Ireland.  We will compare information gathered from Fergusons and Ulster Weavers in Northern Ireland with that supplied by Georg Jensen in Denmark.

Fergusons Irish Linen Company have been weaving in Banbridge, N. Ireland, since 1854.  Jill Stevenson, B.A. (Hons.) joined the Company as a designer 18 months ago.  Up until then they had no in house designers but chose patterns from the company archives which cover the last 100 years.  Jill was trained at the University of Ulster - previously known as the Belfast School of Art,  the place where, from the end of last century,  many damask designers were trained.  The company manufacturers white linen damask tablecloths using 5 end and 8 end - the latter is known as double damask -  satin binding.  In their catalogue they explain that they “are the only manufacturers of Double Damask in the world.  It is an exclusive and unequalled fabric made by master weavers using skills developed over many generations.”40  This is for both the ground and pattern weaves. All their looms are power driven jacquard.  Although Ireland is renowned for spinning flax Fergusons use imported yarn.  They produce traditional patterns for tableware as it sells well.  At present Jill is employed in designing modern patterns, in white and coloured cotton linen and cotton (plate 4), which are shown at Trade Fairs.  

Fergusons catalogues were designed by their marketing manager.  This shows linen and cotton damask as well as white and coloured plain table linen, bed linen, guest towels, Linen Damask Luxury Bathrobes, easy care poly cotton damask table linen and natural undyed linen damask. They offer fabric by the metre, company cresting and embroidery and laundry care instructions.  They don’t use trademarks.  This Company cresting is carrying on the tradition of the commissioning of Coats of arms by previous private users.  During the past 100 years Hotels, Railway companies, Ocean Liners and other industries adopted this in the form of Logos and Cresting.  The fact that Fergusons markets the ideas of corporate gifts of damask suggests that they are hoping to reinvent Linen Cupboard Inventories to replace those of former wealthy households.  

Their catalogues, which are sub-divided into The Company, The Gift Collection, Hospitality Linen, etc., are supported by several literary references to fine linen and damask, which includes one by Emily Post:-  “The dignity of dinner demands a linen tablecloth, and, if meticulous, its demand is not for lace encrusted with needlework but for damask without embellishment other than its quality.  No other table covering, no matter how fine or elaborate, satisfies our inherent sense of faultless suitability.”  Emily Post (1873-1960) wrote Etiquette which was published in America in 1922.

Their main clients are domestic and Royalty is included amongst their private customers.  Two seasons ago they did a collection of tableware for Calvin Klein which was sold in USA.  Mikel Rosen, fashion designer, used their Linen Etamin (a cheaper damask) for his S.S. 1998 collection.
Georg Jensen Damask is based in Kolding.  It has an interesting trading history which can be traced back to the 14th century when the company was
made up of local weavers.  In the 1870’s power driven machinery was introduced. The men who worked these machines were also salesmen, they travelled about the country with their cloths and showed them directly to their customers.  This type of ‘bartering’ system continues to the present day.  Their marketing coordinator Gitte Jaeger called it ‘to barter’.  This suggests a system of swapping, in fact they hold what would be considered rather up-market ‘Tupperware’ type parties/gatherings in peoples homes.

This company makes an interesting comparison with Fergusons as they use freelance designers who are credited in their catalogue alongside their creations.   They continually update their choice of designs, the designers  are involved in all parts of the process including choosing colours.  The shortest period a design is used is 3-4 year.  Jensens aim to launch products that match the present trends without being too fashionable.  Their oldest design Sct. Knuds Eagles dates from 1928 (plate 5).  They have just relaunched 3 from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s in different colours. 

Their products include bed and table linen, tea towels, terry towels and rugs.  They also employ the satin binding and power driven jacquards.  Significantly their products are made from cotton as they feel linen  is unsuitable for todays washing process.  The cotton is first woven and then sent elsewhere to be mercerised which gives the smooth and shiny surface.  Their catalogue is also produced in house.  Unlike Fergusons they  trademark their goods (plate 6).  They can provide cresting but it is seldom used.  Their main clients are private, amongst these are the Danish Royal Family for whom they designed a Royal Silver Wedding cloth in 1992 and one for the Princes’ wedding in 1996, these were both white.  Their marketing coordinator Gitte Jaeger  feels that currently the time is right for table linen in Denmark, the fashion for table and place mats has past.  Undoubtedly the table cloth is used for special occasions,  she made reference to the importance placed on family gatherings in Denmark.

Fergusons catalogue (plate 7) offers traditional white damask cloths along the lines of satin band, ivy leaf and chrysanthemum, simple realistic figurative designs, in comparison to Georg Jensen whose designs are much more abstract and geometrical and , more often than not, coloured.  Can we can deduce from this that the formers repertoire is rather limited and stuck in tradition or do the Danish and English consumers expect a totally different end product to adorn their tables with.  Can we agree that despite cultural differences and preferences the customers in both countries seek the same traditional values that are represented by damask, i.e. familiarity, comfort and safety.  One gets the impression that in Denmark tablecloths are purchased to be used rather than hidden away.  Jensens also change their patterns constantly.  Perhaps tablecloths are used more in Denmark than England, maybe they use commercial laundries more to overcome the difficulties of time and labour involved in caring for table linen.

Having contacted Fergusons and Ulster Weavers it is clear that the designers, now often women, are still incognito.  Whereas in Denmark Georg Jensen’s actual catalogue lists the designers name and title of the pattern.  Is this because in the formers case the designers are ‘in-house’ and Jensens uses free-lance designers?  It is worth mentioning that damask designing was only one of Walter Crane’s activities.  He also taught and wrote books on designing, as did Lewis Day.  They both designed for other textiles.  Day helped judge the designs submitted at The Belfast School of Art.  Chris Lebeau, whose career crosses the end of the last and the beginning of this century, was also multi-disciplinary in his talents.  His skills included batik, silver and furniture.  He is well known for his anarchic beliefs and the fact that he deplored commemorative designs. 

There is a damask weaving workshop still operating at Tilbourg in Holland.  They make up commemorative designs for the Dutch Royal Family and will also work on other private commissions.  We can ask ourselves if the Dutch end user of this historic fabric perceives the same symbolic associations of establishment, family, clans, richness, etc.  as those of the English purchaser.    

As we have noticed Denmark damask production is totally cotton.  The company recognises the difficulty of laundering linen.  Although the latter is more environmentally friendly in the production process the end user, whether domestic or industrial, often finds linen more tiresome and expensive to launder.  Miss Clem, the Head Housekeeper at The Berkeley Hotel (part of the Savoy chain which includes Claridges, The Connaught and The Savoy) admits that whereas previously their clientele associated linen with luxury, now their guests actually complain about the roughness of the Linen sheets and do not appreciate the depth of lustre and shine a well-laundered linen table cloth gives.  She also admitted that the wear and tear on Hotel linen is enormous and requires regular replacement.  She referred to the smoothness of 100% Egyptian cotton!  

Paul Lamour at Ulster Weavers whose damask repertoire is the same as Fergusons admitted that the damask market is a ‘very conservative area’ where tradition and high quality help sell what is essentially ‘hell to launder’.  They are usually chosen as gifts and  probably remain nicely wrapped in the box in which they were purchased (plate 8).  This tradition of boxing table linen wasn’t exclusively for fine linen.  We can see (plate 9) it was also used to package rayon table linen and in this case the gift, if indeed it was a gift, remained in its container since its purchase in the 1940s.  It is tempting to assume this marketing was applied to help sell a different class of cloth
hoping to refer back to those unwritten assumptions that applied to the higher class item.  Their customers are targeted in Airport and Linen Shops, in addition to corporate and industrial purchasers.

We can see that during the history of White Figurated Linen Damask Tablecloths the end user has changed considerably.  Using the exhibition catalogues drawn up by the Swedish expert Elisabeth Thorman Topelius says:- “By examining the table-linen which carries particulars of the client and his social identity it could be established that in the 19th century the damask table-linen acquired a broader use among new customer groups.”41   Bodil Wieth-Knudsen from The National Museum, Brede, Denmark made the point that whereas previously damask had been purchased solely by nobles, in the 19th century the end user changed to include the common or ‘better off’ peasants and in this century became readily available to most people, i.e. office girls would save up their pay packets to make weekly payments for a dozen damask napkins. 

Chapter Four

There is a need to define traditional and /or classical patterns and compare them with more modern designs.  As we have seen in the previous chapter Fergusons catalogue appears to offer only the former, that is if one considers satin band, chrysanthemum, Celtic and oak leaf traditional.  Philip Ollerenshaw purports the theory that towards the end of the 19th century Ireland had no novelty in their damask designs.42 There was a lack of management education,43  lethargy and complacency44  coupled with  a failure to publicise their products45 which put them behind other centres of production.  This is rather contradicted by the information about The Belfast School of Art in Paul Larmour’s the Arts & Crafts Movement in Ireland.  This was an important centre which “always had a strong leaning toward design  and the decorative arts, right through the nineteenth century, reflecting the special needs of the city as the great - indeed the only - manufacturing centre in Ireland.”46    Does this mean this industry overlooked the  stylistic development of Art Nouveau and Deco? 

By comparing the selection of damask table linen patterns manufactured in Northern Ireland with the designs on cloths on sale in antique shops, auction houses and those held in private collections it would appear that the consumer has a rather restricted range to chose from.  The following are a small selection of the enticing descriptions they could be used to define the patterning available on the latter; acanthus:“arabesque” -  to describe stylised interlaced foliage patterns (see plate 10):  bead and spindle: cornucopia (horn of plenty) -  a goat’s horn overflowing with wheat and fruit:  festoon - loops of fruit and flowers bound together with ribbons and leaves: fleurons: fret: frieze: guilloche - which describes a repeating ornament of interlacing curved bands - sometimes roaming circles - that are enriched with rosettes or other flower forms; and palmette - this last being a motif based loosely on a formalised palm.

The highly patterned Egyptian cloth (plates 11, 12 & 13), circa 1860 was identified by matching it with the serviette from the Victoria & Albert Museum,  London, illustrated by Prinet.47  Prior to this identification an association with Tutankhamun’s Tomb, which was opened in 1922, was assumed.  Prinet describes the patterning thus “the central form of acanthus leaves,  32 radiating lily flowers: the sheaves of corn entwined with vine leaves and branches equally fill up the spaces between the central motif and the rectangle: in the longitudinal borders resting lions replace the sphinx.....ibis. Between the exterior longitudinal borders the hieroglyphs are replaced with stylised lotus.  In the corners, under the pyramids there is a winged solar eclipse with a star in a crescent...................  Lord Huntingfield gave this serviette to the museum in 1939.  He thought that it was made in Dunfermline by the House of Matthewson who had samples of this model.”48

One wonders whatever happened  to halt the manufacturing of the much more ornamental and decorative damasks such as the one described above?  Was this the exclusive domain of the 19th century designs.  Undoubtedly Art Nouveau (plate 14) and Art Deco (plate 15) were represented.  One wonders if there was a place for the fuss and bother of tablecloths in Modernism.  Is this perhaps where the use of table and place mats, which could be considered a much more simple approach, arose.  Modernist design would have been similar to the block patterning associated with damask diaper, perhaps this explains the reintroduction of this simpler patterning (plate 16).  

As has already been mentioned in these Post Modern times just about anything can be used to cover a table.  Of course we must refer to the existence of paper towels, handkerchiefs, napkins and tablecloths.  Just about any design or style is reproduced on paper table linen, be it William Morris, Art Nouveau or Wallace and Gromit.  It is curious to recognise that the damask block patterning referred to above is used in white or colour to cover tables for entertaining, whether for corporate or private occasions.  One is bound to question if this is ecologically sound.  Maybe further investigation would show the paper used is recycled.


In this initial research we need to conjecture how we can cross the divide between the incredible high art of the early centuries of  White Figurated Damask Table Linen and that of the present, which by comparison does appear less refined.  Was the 17th century the high point of this art? When tracing the patterns used in the Vadstena Mill Topelius recognised that there is an apparent imbalance in the amount of research that has been “directed to the large-patterned figurative damask of the 16th and 17th centuries” in comparison to amount of study directed to “The history of German damask-weaving art in the 18th century” which  “is poorly dealt with in international literature”.49  So much information has already been compiled from research into previous centuries one could ask is there an apparent reluctance to study the 20th Century?

This is not the place for a detailed description for methods of identifying or attributing designers names, pattern titles, centres of production.  It can be recognised that many disciplines would be needed, those of Art Historian, cloth analyser and would require extensive study.   

As can be seen we have applied answers to many of the questions set in the introduction.  We can recognise that to investigate the patterning employed on White Figurated Linen Damask, in the short period chosen, requires further investigation.  Does this explain the problem of a lack of existing literature which covers Damask in the 20th Century?

This fact is highlighted in comparing the following quotes.  It is tempting to believe that  “The people who remember and can tell their stories are still with us.”50   This could be the case however - in some ways one is not surprised to read Frances Fyfield’s view that:-  ‘Writing about a time so recent must be difficult, because while the details of that decade may feel entirely fresh - revived as they are selectively, in fashion and music - living memory plays as false as any other kind, and requires as much research as anything from three centuries ago.’51  

Perhaps this ‘living memory’ and the knowledge of skills, is, rather surprisingly, kept alive by The Heritage Industry.  A visit to The Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum gives the visitor an opportunity to follow The Irish Linen Industry from the 17th Century to the present day.  One is invited to learn via the hands on approach, with opportunities to spin and scutch, chat to the hand loom weavers and see the high-tech industry of today in action.   Is this the only way to keep History in the minds eye and explain to the public the significance of the past?  In the information about this centre there is no reference made to designing and patterning.  We have yet to deal with the historical development in patterning  and if there was a chronology of designs.  

This initial research has highlighted the fact that  there are many experts in this particular field, however, most of them have chosen to research only up until the 19th century.  One could question this apparent preoccupation with early damask design and history.  We can see there has been a huge amount of research since 1904 when Rev. C.H. White wrote:-  “As there is absolutely no ‘literature’ connected with the subject, and as this is, I believe, the first time that damask linen embellished with designs of a pictorial character has been systematically considered, I have brought together particulars of such examples as I have been able to discover of this interesting form of textile fabric, supplemented by a catalogue of the several examples at South Kensington.”52

Can we ask ourselves if his timely article paved the way for the literature that has appeared since then?  One now feels that  the way is open for more recent research.  A pulling together of the present attitudes and assumptions more along the lines of those covered in the recently published The Warp of Ulster’s Past - Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Irish Linen Industry.  The
title highlights the Post Modern approach required in the present day where research comes from the sociological, economical and anthropological angle,  where minority groups are noticed and cultural differences are considered. 

In a similar vein in her English summary Prinet suggests that 

    From the point at which our study ends, [i.e. 19th century] important research can be carried out in philological fields based on comparisons between technical terms used in one country and those in another or in one century and another.  Thus our understanding of the different types of textiles, of which we have gained some inkling, might become more precise.53

Could this be considered as an invitation?  Much of the present damask research is published in German, Dutch, Scandinavian and French. David Mitchell and Adolph S. Cavallo have covered early British and Scottish taste and trade.  Is this the time for an English scholarly publication which addresses the title coined by Linda Ballard of The Ulster Folk & Transport Museum “THE GREAT DAMASK QUESTION”?.


1. Textile Terms & Definitions.  The Textile Institute. Fifth edition.  August 1963. p 47.

2. A Textile Terminology. Dorothy K. Burnham.  London. 1981.  P. 32.

3. Linda Heinrich.  THE MAGIC OF LINEN Flax seed to Woven Cloth.  Canada 1992. p 90.

4. L. Hooper.  HAND-LOOM WEAVING PLAIN & ORNAMENTAL.  London, 1949.  p 210.

5. A. Geijer. A History of Textile Art.  Stockholm 1982. p 171

6. A. Geijer.  A HISTORY OF TEXTILE ART.  London 1982.  P  57

7. A. Geijer.  A HISTORY OF TEXTILE ART. London 1982.   p. 213

8. E. Broudy.  THE BOOK OF LOOMS.  New England, U.S.A. 1979.  p124

9. P. Baines.  FLAX AND LINEN.  Dyfed.  1985.  p 18.

10. DAMASK OG  DREJL.  GYLLING 1989.  The Table-cloth. p 273.

11. F. de Bonneville.  THE BOOK OF FINE LINEN,  Paris 1994. p 157

12. ibid. p 203

13. Dr. G.T. Ysselsteyn.  WHITE FIGURATED LINEN DAMASK from the 15th to the beginning of the 19th century.  Den Haag.  1962.  P.8

14. D.K. Burnham.  A TEXTILE TERMINOLOGY.  London. 1981.  p 32

15.A. Geijer. A Textile Art. Stockholm 1982.  p. 171

16. J. Becker.  PATTERN AND LOOM.  Copenhagen.  1987.  p 208

17. ibid p 161

18. E. Broudy.  THE BOOK OF LOOMS, New England, U.S.A. 1979 p 124

19. ibid p 124

20. ibid. p 126

21.  A. Cavallo.  JOSEPH NEIL PATON: DESIGNER OF DAMASKS.  The Connoisseur. May 1963 p 61.

22. E. Broudy.  THE BOOK OF LOOMS. New England, U.S.A.   p 134

23. Ibid p 136

24. Flax  to Fabric The story of Irish Linen Brenda Collins. p 29

25. P. Baines.  FLAX AND LINEN.   Dyfed.  1985.  p 27.

26. P. Baines.  LINEN  Hand spinning & Weaving.  London 1989.  p 138.

27. J. Becker. PATTERN AND LOOM.  Copenhagen 1987.  p219

28. F. de Bonneville THE BOOK OF FINE LINEN. Paris 1994. p 203

29.  Dr. G.T. van Ysselsteyn.  WHITE FIGURATED LINEN DAMASK from the 15th to the beginning of the 19th century. Den Haag. 1962. p 33-57.

30. N, Evans.  THE EAST ANGLIAN LINEN INDUSTRY Rural Industry & Local Economy 1500 - 1850.  Aldershot 1985.

31. Ann-Sofi Topelius. DAMASK DUKTYG; och verksamhetan vid Vadstena. Stockholm 1985. P.214.


33. A.G. Pauwels and I. Bauwens-de Jaegere.  DAMAST 2.  Courtrai 1996. p 117.

34.  Ibid p 107 - 115

35.  Late  Quartet, Margot Coates. CRAFTS MAGAZINE.  No. 144 January/February 1997.  p 38

36. Hemslojden 1995/2 p 20

37. Dr. G.T. van Ysselsteyn.  WHITE FIGURATED LINEN DAMASK from the 15th to the beginning of the 19th century.  Den Haag 1962.  p 23

38. J. Becker. ibid. p 220

39. ibid p 220

40. Fergusons Irish Linen Catalogue 1996/7.  HOSPITALITY LINEN. p 2

41. A.-S. Topelius. DAMASK DUKTYG och verksamhetan vid Vadstena. Stockholm 1985. p 215

42. THE WARP OF ULSTERS PAST.  Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Irish Linen Industry 1700-1920. Ed. Marilyn Cohen. London 1997. p202

43. Ibid p 205

44.  Ibid p 204

45. Ibid p 203

46. P. Lamour.  THE ARTS & CRAFTS MOVEMENT in Ireland.  Belfast. 1992.  p 97.

47. M. Prinet.  LE DAMAS DE LIN HISTOIRE du XVI au XIX siecle.  Fribourg, 1982. p 210-211

48. ibid. p 211

49. A.S. Topelius. DAMASK DUKTYG och verksamhetan vid Vadstena. Stockholm 1985 p 216

50. L. Johansson.  DAMASK AND OPPHAMTA WITH WEAVING SWORD OR DRAWLOOM.  Stockholm 1984. p 87.

51. Frances Fyfield reviewing the book ‘A Little White Death” by John Lawton which is set in England in 1963.  ISM - The Independent Saturday Magazine, 24/01/98

52. Rev. C.H. White, ‘INTRODUCTION OF DAMASK INTO ENGLAND’.  Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, vol. XX, 1904.  P. 134.

53. M. Prinet.  LE DAMAS DE LIN HISTORIE DU 16e au 19e siecle. Fribourg.  1982.  p 275

For the images of linen damask please click here.