Turkey red damask has the rare quality of appearing both homey and exotic at the same time. The deep color and elaborately woven designs that made this fabric a fashionable decorative element in Victorian parlors and dining rooms have lost none of their appeal.
Although Turkey red damask is easy to recognize, it can be hard to define. Textile dealers and museum curators explain that part of the confusion is caused by technical terms routinely changing through the years. It is generally agreed, however, that damask is a fabric woven on Jacquard looms to create a pattern expressed through the contrast of two colors or two textures.
Damask is very durable and sheds dirt quite readily. It is somewhat similar to brocade, but the weave is flatter and the designs are reversible. Damask was originally woven from silk and imported to Europe from Asia by way of Damascus, from which it takes its name. Marco Polo mentions the fabric in his Travels.
Turkey red, a colorfast dye, also has a long history. Initially it was made from a substance extracted from the roots of the madder plant (Rubia tinctorum) through an intricate, jealously guarded process. Turkey red dye was developed in India and introduced to Asia Minor during the 10th century. Europeans first encountered it in Turkey, during the 13th century; it is sometimes referred to as rouge d'Andrinople, after an ancient Turkish city.
Westerners welcomed this dye as a major discovery, because it was one of the few bright reds they knew that did not fade significantly from washing or from exposure to light. In fact, Turkey red was so esteemed that before European dyers mastered the process in the 19th century, cotton yarn was sent to Asia Minor to be impregnated with the color.
In 1868, two German chemists were the first to reproduce the color synthetically, with a chemical compound called alizarin. Unlike the color obtained with natural Turkey red -- which depended on many variables, including the soil and climate in which the madder was grown -- the color produced from alizarin was reliably consistent.
Claudia Glassman, a textile dealer in Massachusetts, says the color is typical of the "late-Victorian palette,which was characterized by slightly exotic, intense natural colors and muted jewel tones." Barbara Wright, also a New England textile dealer, points to the eclectic range of damask patterns that were woven in Turkey red as another reason for the popularity of the fabric during the 19th century. "Travelers then brought back fabrics from all over the world, and they were open to global influences, just as people are now," she says.
The vogue for Far Eastern design created widespread demand for Turkey red damask in chinoiserie and japonaiserie patterns; many of these depicted natural themes, such as botanical subjects, a Victorian passion.
Examples of Turkey red damask -- primarily tablecloths and napkins from the 19th and early 20th centuries -- can still be found in a broad range of ruddy hues and a variety of pleasing designs, from simple to complex. Prices range from roughly 50 dollars for a tablecloth in fair condition to more than 200 dollars for a vividly colored example in an intricate pattern. Pieces in pristine condition are rare, however.
"The very nature of a textile is that it starts to decay from the moment it’s made," Wright says. When buying old damask, it is important to remember that the firmer the texture of the fabric, the better the quality; and the smaller the design, the stronger the weave. When the damask needs cleaning, Wright advises hand washing with a mild laundry detergent. Other than that, she recommends leaving the fabric alone. "Antique textiles tend to have stains and holes, but fixing them takes away from the character of the piece," she says.
Tablecloths often bear scars from tipped candles and dripped wax, or will have white rings left by the bases of oil lamps. Some fabrics will be faded in places due to prolonged exposure to sunlight.
Don't disregard a piece of Turkey red damask if it appears too damaged to be used for its original purpose. With a little ingenuity, scissors, and needle and thread, you may be able to transform it into pillow shams, Christmas stockings, tea cozies, or even picture frames. After all, a fabric that has been so well loved for so long deserves to continue its colorful life.
Because tablecloths and napkins are laundered frequently, they require colorfast dyes.Only after the Turkey-red-dye industry expanded during the Victorian era did red table linens become widely available.
The fragility of all antique textiles makes them an unwise choice for everyday use, but if you treat them gently, there is no reason they cannot be enjoyed on special occasions. This tablecloth's holly-bough motif is particularly appropriate for a holiday meal.To create wrapping paper like the sort on these small boxes, place damask on a color copier.