An antimacassar is a piece of fabric which is draped over the head or arms of a sofa or chair, and in some cases both head and arms will be covered with an antimacassar. Antimacassars are designed to protect upholstery, preventing it from becoming soiled, and they are typically washable. Many pieces of upholstered furniture designed for sitting come with matching antimacassars, and it is also possible to make one's own, if desired. Many people associate the antimacassar specifically with the Victorian era, when they are included in the often cluttered and fussy interior designs of homes.
The origin of the word “antimacassar” is rather fascinating. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word comes from “Macassar,” a brand of hair oil which was extremely popular during the Victorian era. The fad for oiled hair had devastating effects on furniture, just as Brylcream did in the 20th century, because people would lean back and stain the upholstery with their oiled hair. To prevent this, many households started draping furniture backs with small cloths which could act as a barrier between greasy hair and upholstery, and these cloths came to be known as antimacassars.
There are a number of modern uses for the antimacassar. For example, many train companies and airlines use disposable antimacassars on their seating to reduce the risk of the spread of lice and to extend the life of their upholstery. Antimacassars can also protect furniture in the home from dirty fingers and hair, and some people even make their antimacassars multifunctional, using arm antimacassars to hold things like remotes for the television.
All sorts of materials can be used to make an antimacassar. The classic Victorian antimacassar was made like a doily, from heavily knotted lace, but they can also be made from silk, cotton, linen, and a variety of synthetic fibers. If washability is a concern, they are usually sturdy so that they can endure years of hard use. Facilities like hospitals and clinics may use disposable antimacassars made from paper or cheap fabrics to protect their patients, just as transit companies do.
When a piece of furniture comes with an antimacassar, the fabric used is often the same as the furniture upholstery, so that that the antimacassar blends in. It is also perfectly acceptable to use other materials to create a contrasting design or a specific look and feel, ranging from Victorian-style lace to raw silk in a color which complements the furniture upholstery.