Is the obrus/tablecloth doomed?

January 27, 2018 | Traditions

Last year John Lewis declared that the tablecloth is on its “dying out” list. In store, many are permanently on offer. Clearly there are fewer families eating meals together at a table and those that do, no longer want them. It seems TV dinners have won the day. But not in my house!

We always have a tablecloth and ever since I saw my Ciocia’s (Aunt’s) impressive stack of bed and table linen, perfectly ironed and folded in her kredens in Warsaw many many moons ago, I have aspired to have my own stack of tablecloths.

Why aren’t they popular anymore?

Historically tablecloths served as a protector for tables made of expensive varnished wood, such mahogany in wealthier households. Medieval tablecloths were decorated with colorful motifs and borders, but not in the countryside, where a  table or bench was covered with an embroidered towel only for special occasions. According to Piotr Bikont, a Polish journalist, white tablecloths and napkins came into existence at the end of the 18th century. Tablecloths for rich families were made of linen whilst in poorer houses, of hemp fabrics. A beautifully and richly set table was one of the symbols of high social status and wealth. Table linen, often amounting to hundreds of pieces, was stored in „komody” (dressers), which in more affluent houses were in a separate room, adjacent to the dining room, called a „kredens” now known as a sideboard.

Before the mass production of table cloths took place, at feasts, the farther away from the top table you were sitting, the worse tablecloths were laid  The end of the table (or both ends) were sometimes covered only with a gray canvas, and hence the saying „znaleźć się na szarym końcu” (find yourself on the grey end).

Obrus or serweta?

Is there a difference? I’m not sure I ever really clocked it, but an obrus is a tablecloth laid out for a full meal. Serweta meanwhile refers to a decorative covering for the table in between meals or at most to eat coffee and cake and can often be a crocheted design.

This division of labour between the two was, at least at the beginning of the 20th century obligatory. And of course for us Poles the obrus becomes a holy object at Christmas signifying the  innocence of Baby Jesus  laid on top of  hay, symbolising his manger.

To krochmalić (starch) or not?

Whilst I have many memories of the krochmal being made (potato starch mixed into boiling water), I have to admit I don’t do it, and I suspect many Poles also do not bother, or at best buy a bottle of it. Without starch though, obrusy just don’t lie on the table in the same way, but like many praco-chłonne (time absorbing) tasks of the past, they have disappeared in our frantic world.  It was important for the obrus to be starched and ironed to show no signs of folding. Only in restaurants were the folds kept, to indicate it has been freshly laid. In today’s world, apart from perhaps Sunday lunches, Christmas and Easter are the extra special occasions worthy of a bit of starching to make the tablecloth look perfect.

My linen collection

My collection even includes a matching tablecloth owned by said Ciocia, so when I visited her last year and saw it on the table, I felt like I was absolutely in my own home. Many of the designs of such tablecloths hark back to the 70s when my Babcia would visit Poland and come back weighed down by all manner of linens, down pillows and duvets. Then there are the crotched doylies for adorning a table or sideboard. I have several that another Ciocia made herself and if you think they are old fashioned, just check into a bar or restaurant in Kazimierz next time you’re in Kraków and you’ll see plenty.

Families that do eat together do use table mats and table runners to protect surfaces from hot dishes while leaving the rest of the wood visible. In Poland bieźniki (table runners) are becoming popular, but are often laid over a tablecloth. Many of the UK’s top restaurants are also abandoning what customers have come to regards as “stuffy” tablecloths in favour of “fuss-free” bare tables. Yet on a visit to Lithuania, I bought a beautiful linen tablecloth with a blue flowers design in a shop  devoted to modern linen, run by a young designer. At this point I have t0 say that Lithuanian and Polish linen, particularly bed linen, is a subject for another post. How I adore good linen.

I am glad of my addiction to tablecloths. They link me to my past, the time when there was no question of not having  one. I do think a home just doesn’t look homely without one. I suspect many a Pole feels exactly the same. And yes, I did buy another tablecloth in the sale.

Beautiful tablecloths encourage family meals together to be something special. In my home all electronic equipment is also absolutely banned at mealtimes – no excuses – so that mealtimes are an occasion for the family to talk. Not just on a Sunday, but every day.

If you liked this post you might also like:

Fall in love with Polish cookery with “Wild Honey and Rye”

Kraków streets to beat the stress

With thanks to Piotr Bikont’s post in (2008) and Sylwia Tulik’s post on her blog:

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