Tablecloths and cloth napkins used to be a crucial ingredient in fine dining, whether at home or at a nice restaurant. But today, formal linen cloths are a holidays-only frill in most households, and it’s often an heirloom or vintage cloth handed down in the family.
George Matouk is chief executive of Matouk, a luxury home linens company in Fall River, Mass., that was founded by his grandfather in 1929. His business pivoted from mostly table linens to mostly bed and bath linens in the 1990s as a more casual lifestyle of eat-in kitchens made regular formal meals a thing of the past. “Many families live with one nice tablecloth now that they use only for holidays, for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover or Easter,” he says.
Matouk and his wife, Mindy, creative director at the company, know a lot about table linens and how to care for them.
Q: How long should the drop be for the edges of a tablecloth around a table?
A: (George Matouk) It should be at least 12 inches and no more than 15. If it’s more than 15 inches, it will drape into your lap while you are sitting at your table. If it’s less than 12 inches and you look at the table from a distance, it will look a little skimpy.
Q: How should you clean fine tablecloths and napkins?
A: (G.M.) Gentle cycle with some spot cleaner for stains is fine for the washer. Remove table linens from the dryer while still slightly damp, gently fold them and put them in the refrigerator overnight. They will very easily press perfectly when you take them out. We don’t recommend dry cleaning linen tablecloths, as the chemicals used can actually set stains or damage the fabric.
Q: How should you store your fine linens?
A: (G.M.) The ultimate storage method is rolled around a cardboard core tube, then stored standing up. Some older homes even have narrow closets designed for this exact purpose. It’s also fine to store them folded lightly and stacked in a dry linen closet.
Q: If you are serving hot foods, do you need a pad between your table and the tablecloth so you won’t harm the finish of the wood?
A: (G.M.) Some people don’t have table pads. Your best bet is to use what we call a “silencer” pad. It’s a heat- and water-resistant cotton felt pad that is easy to store and much more affordable than the traditional thick pad. The silencer will treat your guests to a more pleasant experience, as dishes and glassware will sit comfortably on the soft surface. You can entertain without worrying about a spilled water glass or a hot casserole damaging your table.
Q: Should napkins match the tablecloth, or can they be a different color?
A: (Mindy Matouk) It can be lovely to mix pattern, color, texture and monograms on the table. Hosts should set tables that reflect the holiday, the meal and, ultimately, their own personal style.
Q: What about stains on table linens after a dinner party — red wine, gravy or grease?
A: (M.M.) Soaking stained table linens in powdered dishwashing detergent prior to laundering works very well to help loosen and remove stains. I just throw about a quarter-cup of detergent in a stainless mixing bowl with hot water and let the napkins soak for a bit, then use a soft toothbrush on the stain before laundering. If it’s a stained tablecloth, mix a little dishwashing detergent with water and put it directly on the stain first, then launder.