How to Choose Antique Table Linens

Our clients have a special affinity for antique and vintage fine table linens. It’s exciting to see that over the last few years, many of the clients buying those antique or vintage table linens are young brides who use antique table cloths for their wedding celebrations, and have a “list” of more formal table cloths and napkins they want to add to their own entertaining collection. One of the questions I most often get asked by them is How to Choose Antique Table Linens.



How to Choose Antique Table Linens


A beautifully set table really dresses up your dinner party, luncheon, or any other occasion, doesn’t it? If you have read me for a while, then you know that for me, the table setting comes first, then I decide what to make for the meal!


Choosing antique {or luxury quality new table linens for that matter!} is easy.  Below are my best tips choosing antique table linens for your home – whether you are looking for tablecloths, runners and/or placemats.


The beauty of using antique or vintage linens is that you can mix and match.  If you don’t have enough matching napkins for a large soiree, no worries! It perfectly fine, and way more fun, actually, to use several different designs on your table.


Madeira Embroidered Linens

How to Choose Antique Table Linens

Here’s how to choose perfect table linens for your own home, or to gift to someone you love.

What should I look for in an antique table linens?

The quality of table linens is a combination of the materials, how they are made, workmanship and the design.  Fine linens are most often made from linen or cotton {at times a combination of both!} because they are durable, absorbent, and soft. Even though you do have to iron them, nothing beats their luxurious feel and appearance.

As with everything else, I always recommend you buy the best you can afford for your more elegant table linens. Hand embroidery, finest quality materials, expert construction, these are the things that make a difference in table linens of high quality.  In linens, it’s truly true that a thing of quality & beauty gives joy forever!


Madeira Embroidered Linens


What’s the difference between linen and cotton and which should I choose?

Both linen and cotton are natural fibers.  Both are absorbent, durable, and become softer with use.

LINEN comes from the flax plant, which grows in cooler temperatures of western & northern Europe. Linen feels lighter and crisper, it’s highly absorbent and mostly lint-free. Irish and Belgian linen is considered the finest linen in the world.

COTTON comes from the cotton plant, which grows in warm, humid climates all over the world. Cotton feels heavier, more substantial, and it does shrink more than linen. Egyptian cotton is highly prized because the humid weather and rich soil around the Nile delta produce especially delicate and long fibers, which in turn makes for luxury quality cotton fabric.


Collecting Antique and Vintage Madeira Linens


What size tablecloth do I need?

Although this is a personal preference, almost all tablecloths should hang down 10″ all around so that they hang correctly and beautifully on your table. For almost all settings, tablecloths should hang down 10″ to 12″  all around the table, a casually set table may just have a drop of 8″.  {Some occasions call for drama, in which case a longer drop all the way to the floor is beyond beautiful.}

These are not hard and fast rules….I’ve used a small tablecloth without the “regular” 8″ drop on a table because it was an antique and I loved it. I’ve used antique quilts that puddled on the floor at the corners because I loved them. I’ve said this before, we’re not bound by the same rules our moms and grandmothers were! Yay! These are guidelines, but if you love the way your table looks and it doesn’t follow the guidelines…just do it!


Set an Easter Table Filled with Blooms


How can I figure out the size of tablecloth I need?

Measure the length and width of your table and add 2x the desired drop to each dimension. For example, if your table measures 84″ long x 48″ wide and you would like a 10″ drop on each side, add 20″ {2 x 10″} to each dimension:

84″ + 10″ + 10″ = 104″ long
48″ + 10″ + 10″ = 72″ wide

For a round table, measure the diameter of your table and add 2 x the desired drop.

Following the example above, a 48″ round table would require 68″ a round tablecloth.

48″ + 10″ + 10″.


How to Choose Antique Table Linens


What shape tablecloth do I need?

Again, in using antique cloths on tables, I don’t really follow a hard and fast rule. If I love how it looks, I go with it. But here are the standard recommendations:

ROUND TABLE: A circular or square tablecloth.

SQUARE or RECTANGULAR TABLE: A square or rectangular tablecloth. A runner looks great on a long rectangular tablecloth, either alone or over a cloth.

OVAL TABLES: Sometimes you will be lucky and find an antique tablecloth in the right oval shape. Otherwise, a rectangular tablecloth is perfect.


antique table linens


What style  table linens should I buy?

This is a completely personal preference. Most of the really luxurious, elegant antique table linens were made in white or very muted colors, they were meant to be the backdrop of all your glittering porcelain and silver pieces. Honestly, my number one answer to this question is to BUY WHAT YOU LOVE!  If you love a set of antique placemats that cost heaven and earth, but each time you use them you feel like a Queen, this is a totally worthwhile purchase. Worth much more than if you buy two table cloths that aren’t spectacular and don’t capture your heart. Over your lifetime of loving the linens you bought, it’s actually a very worthwhile and cost effective purchase!

I suggest you begin your linen collection with at least one tablecloth, a set of beautiful place mats and napkins, and build up from there! It’s never too early to install an appreciation for beautiful heirloom linens in your family’s next generation. Start a collection now if you have young children, by the time they get married, you can gift them some spectacular pieces that they have a heart connection too. They may even set their bridal table with one!


Antique French lace monogram napkin


How do I care for my table linens?

You can wash your linen and cotton linens at home. Use cool water and regular detergent, not detergent with a bleaching agent. For truly exceptional antique tablecloths with embroidery work etc. I recommend you find a dry cleaner who specializes in cleaning antique tablecloths.


Antique table linens are an investment, but they are meant to be enjoyed and used. You will use them more if you love love love them!  Cherish your heirloom linens for their storied imperfections. Embrace their history.



While I choose linens for our FrenchGardenHouse shop that are in very good condition for their age, once you have them at your house? Your little person might drop a big spoon of cranberry sauce on it one holiday dinner. So clean this the best you can, then realize that from now on, every time you use this cloth you will remember him/her at this age with joy in your heart!



We currently have a lovely collection of truly magnificent linens in our online shop.  The finest pieces, with exceptional embroidery and hand work.








Shop for the best in French Antiques, furniture with the patina of age, vintage accessories to delight you and your family & friends, and French Country utilitarian pieces. Treasures that make your home fresh, beautiful, inspirational and above all uniquely yours. Visit our shop

5 thoughts on “How to Choose Antique Table Linens”

  1. Theresa Keller

    Hi Lidy
    I have a question, would a tea topper be similar to a bridge or luncheon table cloth? I have several of these that were my Mother’s, they are linen and fit over a square table with matching napkins.
    Thank you for the lovely informative post.
    Theresa Keller

  2. Denise Carlson

    I love all linens!!! Recently I was at a Estate Sale and purchased a set of 4 taupe colored clothes,they are tatted around the edges, just beautiful. They measure around 11×18,small by standards? The women at the Sale thought they were for the arms of furniture. I plan to use them for placemats or to anchor a grouping on a table. They are also embellished on the field, so stunning! Just love them, I have a very large collection of old linens might be a sickness -hee hee. Thanks for such a lovely post always enjoy your expert information on all things beautiful for your home.

  3. Theresa,

    Originally bridge cloths were made of a mostly wool fabric, to have a smooth but thick surface on a small square table used to play bridge. You can still buy these cloths made to order in England, for instance. But here in the states any small tablecloth could be used for a bridge cloth.

    A tea topper is also a small cloth of similar size, meant to be layered over another, more simple, table cloth. The luncheon cloths are generally a bit larger than either of these two. How fortunate you are to have inherited some from your mother!

  4. Gloria P

    Well I don’t have to tell you I love Linen napkins and table cloth. Antique and new. I have lost count how many I have found on your web site. By far yours are the best. I have checked other sites and they can not compare to the quality of FrenchGardenHouse.

  5. You are so sweet to say that! I love linens so much too, which is why I try my best to find antique pieces that still have a lot of laughter around the table in them for a few generations!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top