Irish Linen damask is usually white and it would have been almost impossible to inspect the design sufficiently closely if the sample had been woven in just one colour. The proof cloth would be woven in 2 contrasting colours, and it could then be viewed and inspected more easily.
On a recent visit to the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum near Belfast I was shown a number of proof cloths in their collection. Although I knew about them, I had never seen one first hand before. The plain part of the design was in an unbleached natural colour and the design was woven in a brick red colour, providing a great contrast. Although not the finished article, they were really quite impressive in their own right!
Above is an example of a napkin proof cloth, which recently formed part of an inspiring project undertaken by the BBC's Radio 4 and the British Museum. In 2010, with the collaboration of schools, museums and individual listeners, a list of 100 objects was collated and resulted in 100 15 minute programmes entitled "The History of the World in 100 Objects". A detailed account can be found on the BBC's website.
I think it just wonderful that a piece of Irish Linen Damask should have been deemed important enough to have been submitted for consideration to this project.
To each of the 4 corners of the napkin you can just make out a tiny shamrock shape. This is known as a Mill Mark. John Shaw Brown was one of the first weaving mills to include this subtle branding on their linens, and it was usually applied only to their finest quality damasks.
Each mill would have its own distinct emblem, a Fleur de Lys or a Lion Rampant for example. Sadly there was no central record kept of which mark related to which mill and only a few are known about and recognised today.
I am fortunate enough to have come across a wonderful monogrammed set of napkins recently which carry the distinctive shamrock mill mark of John Shaw Brown's factory. Snowy white with an intricate design of irises and passionflowers, they are fine examples of the most lovely Irish Linen Damask. They have been skilfully monogrammed in red and white stitching.
They date from the 1920s I believe and are just beautiful. I would love it if they could tell us some of the dinner party conversations they have overheard through the years!