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Antique linens make unique hostess gifts this holiday season

A selection of antique linens.
A selection of antique linens.
Sarah Towey Rainey

It's that time of year again, when the event calendar is full and eager party-goers try several times a season to think of something thoughtful to bring to a gracious host or hostess. The bottle of wine has been done to death, but the answer awaits you. Antique linens are chic and stylish, come in an array of sizes and shapes and can be presented in innumerable clever ways.

To be "antique," a textile is generally required to be over fifty to one-hundred years old years old. The item should be desired and collected due to its rarity, condition or use; linens fill the bill perfectly. "Vintage" refers to those items made more recently than antiques but which are still collectible and which are no longer in production, pre-antiques, if you will.

Terrific items to locate locally include damask diner napkins (preferably in sets), linen cocktail napkins (also in sets but mixed groups can be darling if the items are of similar type and size), linen or cotton handkerchiefs (with or without lace or decoration), embroidered linen pillowcases, damask or linen table cloths or crocheted antimicassars. Also plentiful are table runners, guest towels (if you can find your hosts' monogram it's your lucky day!) and various doilies and tea towels. These items might be of linen, cotton or cotton-linen blends.

When you locate a piece you love, don't be dismayed if it shows some small brown spotting: there's no harm in antiques being less than perfect, they're over a hundred years old, after all. If you absolutely must use detergent to clean a piece, try one of the powders made for baby clothes and use it at one quarter strength - or less. And don't soak! Gently wash, rinse and hang to dry - not in direct sunlight. Iron, using a pressing cloth and appreciate any signs of age.

If you've found linens you love but you'd like a way to present it other than in the same old gift bag, the options are endless. Buy bottles of cocktail olives, onions and bitters, tie a "bow" around each with a guest towel for use at the bar; drop the newest best-seller into an antique pillowslip and cinch with satin cord for a gift to be remembered. A handkerchief with lace edging looks fabulous framed against a dark background and if all else fails, no one will ever complain if you arrive with that bottle of wine - wrapped in a nineteenth century table runner.