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Merry Vintage Linens

The 1930s marked the advent of a delightfully unassuming holiday tradition. The phrase "deck the halls" (and all the grandeur it implies) was reinterpreted, and suddenly lively poinsettias, vivid swirls of ribbon, and stylized pine boughs appeared on modest household goods such as tablecloths, aprons, napkins, handkerchiefs, and cafe curtains. 

The pieces were affordable, widely available, and, unlike the fine linens of earlier generations, required little care. When silk-screen printing was introduced -- the new technology was faster and less costly than weaving patterns into fabric -- it enabled small textile mills in New England, the South, and California to produce these vibrant designs. 

The patterns were relatively resistant to fading and bleeding; since the items were typically made from cotton, linen, or rayon, they could be laundered again and again. Practical and whimsical, they remained popular well into the 1960s. 

Of course, the fact that these linens were so well loved presents a challenge to a collector who insists on pristine condition. Many vintage pieces are stained, torn, or faded. But for anyone who is captivated by gaily dancing snowflakes or splendid Christmas trees, even washed-out designs are compelling. 

Select a bold example, and hang it as wall art. Cut around stains on an old tablecloth, and use what's left to sew an apron. Make holiday cushions from colorful handkerchiefs, or lay a pretty linen dish towel over an end table. Printed linens have a tremendous vitality and diversity. Some are sophisticated, with modern graphics by renowned designers, such as Tammis Keefe; others are unabashedly nostalgic, with a cartoonlike, folksy style. 

Search flea markets and tag sales: For as little as $2 for a handkerchief, or between about $10 and $75 for a tablecloth, you can find real treasures. But the best discovery may still await you in a great-aunt's bottom drawer or in your mother's holiday box.

A Sampling of Patterns
The design and fabric of a tablecloth hint at its age and quality. As a rule, understated prints on linen were limited editions by fashionable designers. Most tablecloths, however, were mass-produced cotton. Classic examples, printed in two or three colors, depict holly, ribbon, poinsettias, or candles. 

Harder to find are cloths in pastel tones or pieces from the early thirties displaying winter vignettes or holiday phrases like "Merry Christmas." These cloths were often embellished with metallic-gold paint, which faded to gray with washing. Fabric stores sold these prints by the bolt: Yardage with borders along two sides could be cut to any length desired; gridded patterns simplified the cutting of matching napkins.

Bright Colors
Handkerchiefs often went unused in their day and can now often be found in good condition. These cushions (image referenced) were styled from handkerchiefs sewn on contrasting backgrounds. The wall-mounted 1950s tablecloth was printed with starry snowflakes and banners reading "Merry Christmas" in fanciful lettering. 

A rare example because it was discovered in near-perfect condition, this metallic-gold striped cloth features '50s-era cartoons. Linen dish towels and cloths range from subtle to bold in design.

Cheerful Styles
Festive prints are always in fashion. Donning an apron made from a damaged tablecloth is a merry way to mark the season (below left). Soiled or ripped cloths are widely available at flea markets and tag sales but are often passed over by collectors. 

Six hostesses, each wearing a homemade apron, wait for the party to begin.