How chequered table cloths made their way to Italian restaurant tables

It's the cliché image of a stereotypical Italian restaurant: rustic wooden tables covered with chequered tablecloths, preferrably red. Although many people associate these red chequered tablecloths with tourist-style Italian diners, they are actually not an uncommon feature in Italy itself. In fact, chequered tablecloths have a much longer history than you might think.

Christmas table with gingham table cloth and decorations

The type of chequered fabric we now all instantly recognise is called gingham. Gingham has for decades enjoyed lots of popularity across Italy and indeed the rest of Europe. Several nations claim it as theirs. Italians like to think that the fabric originates from northern Italy, Germans say it was invented in Bavaria and the French argue it was first produced in the city of Vichy (which is why gingham is also called vichy in French).

In reality, the history of gingham is as chequered as the fabric itself. Gingham is said to have originated in South East Asia, which has a long history of colouring textiles with rich natural dyes. From there, Dutch colonisers introduced it to Europe in the early 17th century. In fact, the term gingham is said to derive from the Malaysian word genggang, which means ‘striped’.

 

Originally, the fabric had regular bright coloured stripes, but gradually it also started to be made with check or plaid patterns. Rather than printing the colour on the fabric, gingham is made by weaving coloured fibres together. The result is a durable, versatile product.

Because of its qualities and spurred by the Industrial Revolution, gingham soon became a popular fabric across Europe, including Italy. It was being used for clothing, handkerchiefs and indeed household items such as tablecloths. As a product that was now not only durable but also fashionable, gingham table cloths became a go-to item for many restaurants. 

Fast-forward to the 21st century and gingham continues to be as versatile and popular as ever. Whilst it may be associated with touristy Italian restaurants by some, in reality it's a fabric that's - perhaps surpisingly - a quintessential part of Italian (and European) design history.