When weaving table linens for the holiday season and beyond, oftentimes linens and cottons are the first choice, but there was a time when the must-have fiber for these items was asbestos.
Asbestos is a natural occurring mineral that grow in thin, fibrous crystals. This means that unlike other minerals, asbestos can be spun and woven into a fine cloth.
It all started in ancient Greece and later Rome, when napkins and other household items were woven from the mineral. Greeks were enamored with the substance, and appreciated how easy these cloths were to clean: simply throw them in the fire and food residue burns away while the cloth is not only unharmed, it often came out of the fire whiter than before it was originally soiled. In fact, its ability to withstand flames is how it got its name: the word asbestos comes from the Greek word for "unquenchable" or "inextinguishable."
Woven asbestos table toppings didn't stop with the ancient Romans. According to legend, the Emperor had a tablecloth woven from asbestos that he would use to convince others that he had magical powers. He would dramatically throw it into fire after a dinner and then remove the unharmed cloth, shocking onlookers who weren’t in on the secret.
While it might be easy to clean, we now know that long-term exposure to asbestos can cause respiratory problems and even cancer. So we can be thankful for for our washing machines and glad that asbestos table cloths and napkins are no more.