Kitchen Linens from The 16th to The 19th Centuries

By the 16th Century, most grand country houses in Britain were fully stocked with cleaning cloths, drying cloths and towels for the kitchen and cooks, as well as polishing cloths for butlers and chamber pot cloths for chambermaids. From old probate inventories and mercers’ stock books, domestic historians have been able to gauge the rise of the middle classes and aspiring landowners by judging the quality and quantity of household linens, tablecloths, napkins and cloths.

In the 16th and 17th Centuries many country households made their own household linens from flax and hemp. The flax plant would be hand harvested to ensure the stalks were cut as long as possible. The fibres would then be loosened and removed from the stalk, crushed, separated, combed and spun into yarns and woven.

The Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685, which meant that Huguenots Calvinist Protestants who had been previously afforded rights in Catholic France, were now persecuted. They brought their weaving and embroidery talents with them to Britain, in particular Spitalfields, where they settled and established successful and profitable silk and linen ateliers.

Louis Crommelin, a native of Picardy and refugee Huguenot, settled in Belfast in 1697, where he set up a cloth weaving and bleaching business. By the Victorian era the majority of the world’s linen was manufactured in Belfast, which was nicknamed “Linenopolis”.

Categories of household linen

Household linens were divided into categories for the table, pantry, housemaids, kitchen and stables. No cleaning fluids existed, and as a result the texture, weight and coarseness of each cloth were important in the task it had to fulfil. The type of cloth each servant was given also denoted their status and hierarchy in the household. A waist-tied apron indicated higher status than a full-bibbed pinafore and not having to wear an apron at all indicated the servant was of higher standing and did not have to do menial chores.

The best tablecloths were made of damask {patterned silk} for the family and guests, followed by diaper {cotton} for the senior servants and lastly huckaback {coarse linen} for the lower servants.

Housemaids were given dusters of soft linen or blue cotton check and scouring flannels of strong close-weaved cloth. Footmen would be supplied with pantry knife cloths of strong linen, plate basket cloths of huckaback, glass cloths of thin linen and aprons of calico {unbleached and unprocessed cotton}.


Great houses, such as Manors and Halls, would have complex inventories of household linens, managed by a team of launderess servants. It was important for all linens to be identifiable, and so they would be embroidered with the initials of the master or mistress or even the room to which the cloth belonged. In the 16th Century seals and stamps were used to differentiate different linens in grand houses, and coats of arms, crowns, heraldic symbols and names were hand stitched by professional embroiderers or nuns. Fine house linens formed part of the wedding trousseau of upper class ladies: the first initial was first embroidered at coming-of-age, and the initial of the husband and his surname added at marriage, the ensemble forming a pyramid monogram symbolising the union.

The strict definition of a monogram is when two or more letters are combined so that one letter forms part of the other and the overall design cannot be separated. A cipher is the placement of two or more letters overlapping or not, with each part distinct.

Nuns were the repositories of knowledge regarding the technical execution of needlework, but after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, between 1536 and 1541, British nuns fled abroad and the daughters of the aristocracy who had learned embroidery in the convents then continued the craft at home.

By the end of the 16th Century the rise of a new middle class of affluent merchants and craftsmen led to a growth in the art of monogramming. Children were taught this skill and cross-stitch embroidered samplers are the best surviving record of the details of hand embroidery design of the era.

Sometimes the surname initial was added if linens were sent out to a communal laundry, along with the family coat of arms or coronet emblem. Where hygiene was important, such as cloths that covered meat, fish, milk or cooked produce, the distinct fibre of the cloth would distinguish its special purpose.

Once a year all the linens would be counted and checked against the inventory, to ensure none had been stolen or mislaid. Items would be folded so that the family monogram was on the top left hand corner, so it could be identified more easily if guests came to stay.

Tablecloths were ironed in a grid so that the footmen could lay the cloth precisely on the table, with discreet embroidered markers under the seams showing which end should be laid on which side of the table. Folding was an important part of the process and hierarchy: each maid would correct the handiwork of the maid below her in the household ranks.


Table linens were stored in cupboards near the butler’s pantry. By the mid-19th Century linen rooms had been built with tables, shelves and presses. Drawers would be lined with brown paper to prevent dust, damp and mildew.

Washing days

The great households of the 17th Century would organise a “Great Wash” once every four months, and in later centuries this activity took place six times a year. By the mid-19th Century kitchen linens would be washed once a week.

Hannah Glasse, author of several books on household management and cookery, wrote in 1760 that exceptions would be made for slop bucket cloths which were washed more frequently.  The wealthier the family the less frequently they were able to wash cloths because they had so many in their linen cupboards, whereas poorer families were obliged to wash every week.

Monday was usually the designated washing and mending day.

Four basic methods of washing

Through most of the 17th Century pounding linen was the most common way of washing, using a stone or wooden beetle on a wooden bench. By the 18th Century steeping was more prevalent and linens would be steeped in either stale urine or a vegetable based lye, or a mixture of the two in water. Urine was collected in tubs and lye was made by steeping wood ash in water to extract alkaline potassium salts.

Linens washed in lye or urine had to be rinsed thoroughly because the smell was overpowering.  Herbal infusions were made to counteract this, which might have included lavender, marjoram, rosemary, mint, hyssop, lemon balm, bay and angelica.

By 1815 washing soda {sodium carbonate} was available for steeping and laundry maids were able to wash household linens more quickly by soaking them overnight.

The third type of washing was by soap, and this was normally made in the kitchen by boiling lye with mutton fat, bacon grease, pig fat or suet. This soap coagulated into a jelly and was then rolled into a ball which was rubbed onto linens stretched out in wooden washing trays or tubs.

Mutton fat was often required to make candles as well as soap and was not a meat eaten freely, so faced with the opportunity to make candles {the only source of light} or soap, the balance was nearly always in favour of light.

In addition, soap was very expensive to make and highly taxed, so it did not become widely available until the 19th Century when bars were sold by the yard. Soap bars were cut into tablets and trimmings dissolved in water.

The last washing technique was boiling, which became most prevalent towards the end of the 19th Century when the first chemical soap powders became commercially available.

Sometimes all four of the above methods would be used – linens would be rubbed with a little soap, steeped with lye, batted in a stream and finally boiled in hot water over a fire.

Laundry maids had to sort piles of washing to differentiate between those that required longer soaking and washing and finer dining room linens that required less effort.

Linens were rinsed in hot and cold water and wrung by hand individually.

Stain removal

Stains were first treated with warm water, because soap was thought to fix the stain onto the cloth. Salt, lemon juice, powdered chalk, buttermilk, washing soda and sunshine were the most common stain removers before the use of bleach became popular in the 18th Century.

Blueing and bleaching

The blueing and bleaching of linens were considered status symbols in the 17th and 18th Centuries and obtaining pure whiteness was the preoccupation of estate housekeepers up and down the land. This could only be attained through two methods. The first was through indigo, obtained from the plant Indigoera Tinctoria. This custom was later replaced with the use of a silicate named “Ultramarine”, or “Paris Blue”, which was placed in a flannel bag and squeezed into water. More parsimonious laundry maids used the blue paper in which sugar was sold, and soaked it overnight in water to leave a blue dye.

The most traditional method of bleaching laundry was to lay it on tall grass in full glare of the sun. This allowed air to circulate and smells from the lye to evaporate. The grass acted as an oxidising agent during photosynthesis. Frost would accelerate the bleaching process and so linens were often left out overnight.

By the 19th Century achieving total whiteness became an obsession and chloride of lime, sodium hypochlorite and potash were used in hanging bags dipped in the wash. Whey and buttermilk were sometimes used in the final wash for extra bluish whiteness.

In the 19th Century chloride of lime was added to boiling water to make a laundry bleach as well as borax.

Contract laundering

Throughout the medieval period right up until the eighteenth century, many grand houses used the services of contracted laundry women to wash all the household linens. Increasing amounts of linens and higher hygiene expectations meant that wet laundries were built in towns, and they took in linens in bulk, heaped in wicker baskets that were sent from London. This trend increased with the development of the railway network.

Freelance cottage washerwomen might employ one or two women to help. Although steam powered laundries were built in England in 1825, many households still preferred to use self- employed washerwomen, owing to fear of theft in large scale enterprises and also the spread of diseases, if one family’s laundry was mixed with that of many others. Scarlet fever could be spread by infected linens, and it was only the invention of carbolic soap and disinfectants that halted its spread in contract laundries.

Labour saving-devices made household servants luxuries. Changes in country house life at the end of the 19th Century, death duties, less formality and higher income tax meant that many grand houses were forced to constrain their labour force and make use of commercial laundries.

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