inen had many uses in the early modern period: bedding; clothing, including undergarments; and the dressing of the table. Made from flax, which was cultivated all over Europe from the Middle Ages onward, its processing was labor intensive, from plant to fiber to yarn to finished textile. Fine linens were generally woven with either a small geometric repeated pattern or figurative patterns known as damasks, with larger repeats that often told stories or featured naturalistic motifs.
Perhaps inspired by damask-patterned silks, which originated in Asia and were named after inlaid metalwork from Damascus, white linen table damasks were first produced by weavers in the Southern Netherlands. Many skilled artisans left Flanders in 1585 with the fall of Antwerp and moved to Holland, where the linen trade flourished. The linen that Mattia Giegher, Georg Philipp Harsdörffer, and their readers desired for their tables would likely have been imported, woven, and bleached in present-day Belgium or the Netherlands. Some of the folded napkins may even have been created using white linen damasks such as those on view here. As inventories from the period document, affluent families may have owned hundreds of pieces of fine linen, some with family crests or other personal markers, commissioned to commemorate marriages or other alliances.
Above: Joan Sallas, “Funff Berge” (Five Mountains), after Georg Philipp Harsdörffer, Vollständig vermerhtes Trincir-Buch (Nuremberg, 1652), 2010. Saxon starched linen. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.