Marghab: Making Tables More Gorgeous than Ever

March 02, 2019

Marghab’s astounding “Deer” pattern. ~Photo by L.M. Smith.

Marghab still impresses, 40 years after the last linens were embroidered

The company may have shut its doors, but Marghab linens haven’t lost their edge. Decades have passed since the last of Marghab’s iconic patterns were hand embroidered in Madeira, but the linens that remain are as amazing as ever.

If you’re fortunate enough to sit at a table laid with Marghab linens, you’ll know exactly why. Embellished napkins of the finest Irish linen feel cool and silky in your hands. The detailed gracefulness of a placemat lays before you like a work of art—a deer looking up at the moon, or a hydrangea flower sculpted onto organdy (Marghab offered over 300 different patterns). Studied up close, perhaps traced with a finger, the almost impossible exactness of the handwork is a marvel of human skill. Marghab is a rare experience of beauty that you can both see and touch.

Placemat and napkin from Marghab’s “Hydrangea” pattern, also known as “Hortensia”. A placemat in this pattern is in the Met’s collection, donated by Vera and Emile Marghab in 1942. ~Photo by L.M. Smith.

On their own merits, Marghab linens are extraordinary, guided famously and relentlessly by the pursuit of perfection. Compare them to anything made today, and your appreciation will soar. The quality of Marghab linens is practically impossible to duplicate any longer.

That combination of skillful hand embroidery on superior fabrics, marked by attention to detail, right down to exquisitely finished hems, is very rare—and incredibly expensive. These days you’ll more often encounter hurriedly hand embroidered pieces on mid-quality fabrics, offered in all seriousness as “fine linen”.

If you love genuinely fine linens, Marghab is still worth pursuing.

Guest towel in the “Fleur de Lys Grande” pattern. ~Photo by L.M. Smith.

 The exclusive world of Marghab

Younger people may not be familiar with the Marghab name. The glory days of fine linen are definitely removed from the world we live in now, and the company itself closed in 1980. But there was a time you didn’t have to introduce Marghab, or explain how magnificent their linens were—the whole world knew it.

 In the mid twentieth century, the Marghab name was synonymous with luxury and style. Marghab linens were available only at exclusive stores like George Jensen, Neiman-Marcus, Bullock’s Willshire, and the like, where each housed a special Marghab boutique to showcase the brand.

Marketed as superior in every way, Marghab linens more than lived up to the hype. Tablecloths, placemat sets, handkerchiefs, cocktail napkins and more—each piece of Marghab was a finely crafted luxury, acquired by the rich and famous, and anyone of better means and taste.

A Marghab promotional tag atop a placemat in the “Wheat” pattern. ~Photo by L.M. Smith

A little history

Succeeding in this luxury linen market was a huge accomplishment for a firm out of Madeira, that small Portuguese island in the far off waters of the Atlantic. Today of course, Madeira embroidery is famous for a quality that rightly sets it apart from the rest. But it wasn’t always that way. When Emile and Vera Marghab started their company in 1932, the market for fine linens was dominated by French and Italian companies. While Madeira had an established hand embroidery industry since about 1850, its exports were directed to more everyday linens—handkerchiefs, small napkins, pillowcases, etc.

But Marghab, along with a few other companies in Madeira, decided that with some fresh approaches, Madeira had potential as serious competition in that luxury market. Using the talented cottage industry as a foundation, Marghab developed original designs that incorporated different European techniques, using only the best linen from Ireland, specially developed cotton organdy from Switzerland, and demanding the most exacting handwork from its local needlewomen.

Driven by standards of uncompromising perfection, Marghab turned their ambitious venture into an exciting creative success. In the process, Marghab gave fine Madeira embroidery an international spotlight that has never dimmed. And for almost 50 years, Marghab produced some of the most beautiful linens in the world.

Placemats from the “Scroll Fish” pattern. ~Photo by L.M. Smith.

It was a remarkable run, but over time, rising production costs and changing tastes eroded the company’s financial viability. By the early 1980’s, Marghab had closed down. An era was over.

The story isn’t finished

But that’s not really the end of the Marghab story. The company may have closed its doors, but the linens themselves live on. There are superb Marghab pieces out there—tablecloths, placemats, napkins and the most fabulous cocktail napkins imaginable. Marghab linens were made very fine and lovely, but also expressly made to last. Add to this an original costliness which ensured gentle treatment and tender care over the years, and it’s great news for lovers of fine linen: most vintage Marghab comes to us in marvelous condition, and as entrancing as ever.

Cocktail napkins in the lively and beautiful “Varishka” pattern. ~Photo by L.M. Smith.

The Marghab adventure continues

Because of that enduring quality and beauty, people still prize fine Marghab linens. Dedicated collectors are always on the hunt, looking to complete a set, or seeking out coveted patterns. Not to worry, Marghab is still to be had. From long ago wedding presents, trousseau collections, or table sets acquired by the wealthy for their elaborate dinner parties, Marghab linens continue to emerge from darkened cupboards into the light. You can find Marghab at auctions, vintage textile sites, antique fairs and estate sales. An unexpected glimpse of Marghab in a cache of old linens can make eyes widen, and hearts flutter. 

Discovering a few special pieces is always a delight. But because time often scatters sets of Marghab, finding a complete set is uncommon and exciting, especially larger sets for eight or twelve. Most thrilling of all are large, complete sets in the rarest Marghab patterns, like “Deer” or “Pine Cone”. For the true collector, such exceptional finds can be almost palpitation-inducing.

“Pine Cone” placemat and napkin - breathtaking handwork, practically sculpted onto the fabric. ~Photo by L.M. Smith.

How do you know it’s Marghab?

Admittedly, identifying Marghab can be a challenge. Marghab linens certainly don’t have tags attached in the modern way, with information on maker, fabric content, country of origin, washing instructions, etc. In some fortunate cases, the Marghab name was embroidered directly onto the linen, though this is a rare find. Generally, Marghab had simple paper labels that were pinned or loosely basted to the linen, to be removed and discarded before use. So if the label is gone and there’s no tag, how do you know if it's really Marghab? 

“Grape and Leaf” cocktail napkins. ~Photo by L.M. Smith.

There are two important ways to know. First is by pattern: Marghab produced over three hundred distinct patterns, most of which are instantly recognizable to the seasoned collector. Those just starting out can familiarize themselves with Marghab patterns through books and online resources. Some of the most famous and sought-after are “Deer”, “Delphinium”, and “Hydrangea”. The veggie bouquet of "Carrots and Peas" is a perennial favorite. And it doesn't get fresher or more pretty than “Sweet Pea”. These are just a few examples. There are many more exquisite patterns to discover!

“Sweat Pea” guest towels. ~Photo by L.M.Smith.

The second way to recognize Marghab is through quality—exceptionally graceful designs, superior fabrics, and the finest embroidery imaginable. This is best accomplished by studying Marghab linens in person: paying close attention to the details of design, noting hem treatments, observing the workmanship up close, touching the fabrics, even becoming familiar with how the linens wash and iron.

After gaining experience with the quality inherent in Marghab linens, you may be able to identify a piece of Marghab even before you know which pattern it is!

Placemat and napkin in the “Fleur de Lys Petite” pattern. ~Photo by L.M. Smith.

Classic pieces, timeless artistry.

If you love a gorgeous table graced with extraordinary linens, Marghab offers remarkable quality, imaginative and beautiful designs, and a timelessness that transcends contemporary trends. Marghab will set your table apart.

 But it goes beyond this. Marghab’s uncompromising standards and relentless pursuit of perfection resulted in more then just “fine linens”—Marghab created true works of textile art.

Get to know Marghab better, and you’ll see for yourself.

[Shop our current Marghab collection].

Placemat set in the “Old Ships” pattern, complete with sea monsters. ~Photo by L.M. Smith

- Lisa Madeline Smith, CEO, Things Most Delightful. Many thanks to Robin Linn Reynoir and her wonderful eBook, "Collecting Marghab Linen". Visit Robin's blog, all about vintage linens.