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Special Exhibition The Delights of Dining – Historical Linen Damasks 25 April – 7 November 2021

Patterned table linen has adorned festive dining tables ever since the Late Middle Ages. These pure white tablecloths, napkins and hand towels are patterned with discreet, but artfully drawn pictorial compositions and coats of arms. Used in conjunction with fine silverware, linen damasks served as a status symbol in both princely and bourgeois households. The textiles that have survived are valuable testimony to historical dining culture. Press Release  | Close up

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From linen to damask

Linen is extracted from the stalks of the flax plant. Its fibres are processed in several stages to produce fine threads. These are woven into damasks on a drawloom. The pattern in the all-white fabric arises solely out of the change from warp- to weft-faced areas of the same weave and is especially visible in raking light. │ Flax bundles in different processing stages

Places of manufacture

Almost all linen damasks of the sixteenth and seventeenth century were made in the Spanish Netherlands or the United Provinces and from there exported all over Europe. The early centres of linen weaving were the Flemish cities of Mechelen and Kortrijk. Haarlem also stood out as a major centre of production in the seventeenth century. │ Napkin with a hunt scene against the background of a pomegranate pattern, Spanish Netherlands, Kortrijk (?), 1520–1530, linen damask, inv. no. 4572

Pictures with borders

Tablecloths, napkins and hand towels were woven in lengths with a regular pattern repeat. They were much larger than today’s table linen and had a rectangular picture field in the middle. The borders contained matching or related motifs. │ Napkin with ships, United Provinces, 1640–1650, linen damask, inv. no. 3193

As you like it

The picture fields feature an abundance of different images: historical events and people, scenes from the Bible or ancient mythology, motifs from everyday life, and flowers. The patterns could even be personalized for a particular client through the insertion of a family coat of arms. │ Napkin showing the joy of winter sports, United Provinces, 1662, linen damask, inv. no. 3846

Dining culture

The participants in a festive banquet saw the images woven into the tablecloth spread out before them. A napkin with the same motifs was provided for them to wipe their hands. The only cutlery commonly used in seventeenth-century Europe north of the Alps was a knife.│ Detail of the painting «Bankett der St.-Georg-Schützengilde» by Frans Hals, 1616. Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum, inv. no. os I-109. Photo: Frans Hals Museum (Margareta Svensson)