Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Creating Textiles: Makers, Methods, Markets. Proceedings of the Sixth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Inc. New York, NY, September 23–26, 1998 (Earleville, MD: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1999).


Copyright © 1998 by the author(s)


Damask linen manufacture has a long and varied history. Appearing in Europe around the fifth century, damask linens quickly became desired by those possessing great wealth. Figured damask linen was especially prized and was often the only type of table cover to be used by royalty. Heraldic crests, hunting scenes, historical events, and other symbols or occasions of cultural importance were memorialized in figured damask linen. By the end of the nineteenth century, the use of figured damask linens was a symbol of royalty, luxury, and beauty.

These attributes figured prominently in the appointment of George Washington Vanderbilt's home, Biltmore, at the tum of the century. A grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, George Vanderbilt purchased 125,000 acres in western North Carolina on which to construct his 250-room home. Architect Richard Morris Hunt drew inspiration for Biltmore's design from three French chateaux. While similar in extravagance to the Vanderbilt mansions built in Newport, Rhode Island, Biltmore represented a significant departure from the social mainstream. A luxurious but quiet retreat, Biltmore offered a venue in which Vanderbilt could study and enjoy the fruits of one of his greatest passions: travel.

It was through his travels that George Vanderbilt managed to amass an impressive collection of damask table linens. Containing over 1300 napkins and tablecloths, the table linen collection at Biltmore House provides an excellent example of late nineteenth century damask. While cataloging this collection over the course of a year and a half, however, it became clear that many questions concerning the origin, design, and interpretation of this collection were unanswered. While attempting to describe and categorize the damask designs, it became obvious that the few published sources mainly contain illustrations of pre-nineteenth century damask designs, or of design styles not present in our collection. Digging deeper, we wondered if we could discover where these linens were manufactured and then somehow classify the designs through that avenue. No marks were found on any linens, however, and receipts in the Biltmore House archives were not helpful in determining origin. It became increasingly clear that further research on damask linen manufacture and marketing would be beneficial for cataloging and interpreting this collection.