Set an impressive table for a special meal or holiday with the full menu of table linens in colors to complement the meal and the decor. From tablecloths, to table runners, napkins and place mats, you have an endless variety of combinations and options. Don't forget the stealth addition to the table -- a silence cloth -- the unseen padded table protector that muffles clanking silverware as it lurks under the very visible tablecloth.
A tablecloth can set the tone for an event, just by its length and fabric. For a formal meal, a smooth damask cloth with a bit of shine complements the silver, crystal and bone china. Casual meals with hand-thrown pottery dishes or any informal dinnerware pair with rough-weave fabric, colorful cotton, stripes or floral patterns, and any hue, from pastel to tropical. The more traditional the event, the longer the cloth, as a rule. A half-drop covers the table and falls about midway to the floor. A full-drop is a floor-length cloth; always use this kind of cloth for a buffet table. A puddle-drop falls to the floor and "puddles" like very formal drapes, and is an ornate table treatment. Layer a half-drop over a full-drop for extra decor impact, or to save time when you are hosting both a brunch or luncheon, and a dinner -- just whisk away the top cloth, and the table is ready to set for the second meal.
Use Your Napkin
Napkins can match the tablecloth, contrast with it, mirror holiday colors, or go wild and add jolts of eye-popping color to the table. Stick to fancier fabrics when your tablecloth is elegant damask or Irish linen. Mixed pastel napkins in candy colors are pretty on a silver-gray tablecloth, but hibiscus-pink, lime and tangerine cotton napkins maintain the heat on a tablecloth printed with jungle vegetation. Fold napkins in elaborate origami shapes, and corral them with decorative napkin rings. Use extra napkins to line a breadbasket or wrap a wine bottle. Turn a square napkin at each place-setting so a point hangs down over the side of the table and two points line up with the table edge before placing a dinner plate or charger on each napkin. The result is a decorative table with napkins acting as place mats. For obvious reasons, all napkin fabric should be absorbent.
The Real Deal
Place mats define individual settings and, when a tablecloth isn't used, protect the surface of the table. They are quick table decor, easier to set out than dressing the table with a full cloth, and simple to wipe down and reuse, or toss in the wash. Place mats may be trimmed into interesting shapes -- not just ovals or rectangles -- but scalloped, hexagonal, ruffled, lace-edged and woven with ribbons. Cork and bamboo are informal and natural place mats for regular daily use. Quilting adds interest to mats of Provencal cloth or striped ticking. Sheer, stiff organdy mats in silver or gold strike an opulent note on an ornate holiday or anniversary table. Brightly patterned oilcoth mats are ideal for younger diners who create a lot of mess with their meals.
A table runner transforms a plain cloth into a themed setting. A narrow band of elves and candy canes -- about 14 to 18 inches wide -- marching down the center of the holiday table turns that green tablecloth into the spirit of Christmas. A runner of autumn leaf shapes in fall or of tulips and daffodils in spring evokes the season. Re-purpose a length of ethnic weaving as a runner against an intensely colored tablecloth or a polished bare wood table. Stitch together wide red, white and blue ribbons, appliqued with shiny fabric stars, for the Fourth of July picnic table. Make a clever ruler runner from a plain canvas dropcloth, cut 15 inches wide, and measured and marked inch-by-inch with permanent black laundry marker. "Draw" the inch numbers with stencils and fabric paint. Lay the ruler on the kitchen table with alphabet place mats for after-school snacks.
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .