Dining Etiquette Series – The Tablecloth



A good upbringing means not that you won’t spill sauce on the tablecloth,
 but that you won’t notice it when someone else does.
~ Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860–1904), Russian author, playwright

Yes, there’s even etiquette and protocol with regard to the tablecloth! According to Suzanne von Drachenfels in her book, The Art of the Table, “the tablecloth was the first decorative accessory known to the table…”

Whether dining out, as a guest in someone’s home or when selecting a tablecloth for use in your own home, it’s helpful to know some tips about tablecloths. 

Sizing Up Your Tablecloth

The rule of thumb in selecting the correct size of your tablecloth is the length of the overhang. I like an overhang of 6-10 inches to allow for an attractive drape that does not cover your guests’ laps; however, Emily Post’s new etiquette book advises a 12-18-inch overhang. Before purchasing your tablecloth, try out one or two old tablecloths or sheets on your table and determine what you want the length of the overhang to be; then measure it and take the measurements to the store with you. There are four shapes with which to consider when selecting the correct size tablecloth: oblong, square, oval and round. Also factor in the table pad (link to photo of table pad) because it’s prudent to place one underneath your tablecloth to protect your table. You might find this handy sizing guide helpful.

Colors and Fabrics

A white or ivory linen or damask cloth, with either matching or coordinating napkins, traditionally has been used to compliment the fine china, crystal and flatware of a formal dinner. My preference is a linen/cotton blend for easier care for entertaining at home; however, there are many attractive and well-priced synthetics if you are on a budget. Heavier and/or more colorful fabrics will compliment less formal table settings, and creativity can flourish when coming up with endless ideas for beautiful, imaginative and colorful table arrangements.


For informal, casual and everyday table settings, placemats are an excellent alternative to tablecloths. Placemats not only protect a lovely wood table but also add color and texture; they can also be used on top of the tablecloth to add interest, dimension and a dual color scheme. Placemats come in nearly every color, material, design and shape you can imagine.

Oops! Drops and Spills!

Drops and spills great and small are inevitable. It’s always better when our spills land on vinyl or Formica, but, more likely we manage to drop food or spill drinks on the lovely white tablecloth. If that doesn’t happen to you, consider yourself lucky and never judge another to whom it does happen.

Should you drop a tiny bit of food, merely scoop it up with your spoon or knife (or fingers, and then wipe them on your napkin) as unobtrusively as possible and place it on the edge of your plate. If no one seems to notice don’t say anything or make a big deal. If someone does notice, just smile and move on. Food dropped in your lap will land on your napkin, which is another excellent reason to use your napkin properly! Should you drop food – or anything else for that matter – on the floor, discreetly and politely advise your server so that the food can be cleaned up or you can be supplied with a clean fork or fresh napkin, whichever the case may be. If you’re dining in someone’s home, discreetly notify your hostess or server; if there are no servers leave it until you can take care of it later, either by notifying your hostess or cleaning it up yourself.

If your accident is on a grander scale, such as knocking over your drink, you will need to act quickly and smoothly. Immediately set your glass upright. If you are in a restaurant and the spilled drink is water or a light-colored liquid such as ginger ale or white wine, cover the spill with your napkin. If the drink has a deep color, such as cola or red wine, allow the server to handle it as those drinks can leave a deep stain. Of course, if the spill is leaking onto someone’s clothing, act quickly with the napkin. Servers will come to your aid to clean up and replace your drink, as well as to help any others. Accidents will happen, and it’s best to address them quickly and then play them down so they do not distract from the conversation and festivities.

In a private home, if an accident occurs look to the host to direct the cleanup, rather than risk staining the napkins as well. Don’t dwell on it during dinner, but when the evening has concluded and before you depart you should apologize again to the host and offer to pay for any professional cleaning or laundering; if warranted and possible, offer to replace the tablecloth if it cannot be cleaned. If the host declines your offer, be gracious and let the matter drop. However, in addition to sending your host a thank-you note the next day, also sending flowers or a small thank-you gift would be a good idea. Your host will appreciate your thoughtfulness and attentiveness. 

If someone else drops food or knocks over a drink, be gracious and don’t comment or indicate that you’ve noticed, unless it’s so obvious you can’t ignore it. In that case, say something to make the person feel better, or if appropriate make a joke to break any tension. This is especially important if someone spills something on you, and even ruins your clothing. Becoming upset or reacting badly will only serve to make the situation worse. The person who caused the spill will feel terrible; if she offers to pay for the cleaning or replacement, graciously accept and then forget it for the duration of the event. Always be kind and understanding, and take the high road. You will feel better and so will everyone around you.  

Coming Clean

If red wine or a sauce that stains is spilled it need not be a disaster. As an aid in removing such stains, international protocol and corporate etiquette expert Jay Remer recommends a product called Marseilles soap, which in turn was recommended to him by his colleague, William Hanson, the UK’s leading etiquette and royal protocol expert. As I trust both of these gentlemen on matters pertaining to table manners and formal dining etiquette, I do not hesitate to pass on this cleaning and stain-removing tip to dinner hosts to set their minds slightly more at ease over assaults on their table linens! 

Storing Your Tablecloths 

As I use placemats for everyday and informal dining, I store my tablecloths laundered but not ironed; I select and iron a tablecloth on the day I plan to use it. Baroness von Drachenfels advises, “To avoid unwanted wrinkles and an off-center crease where fabric rot may develop, wrap the tablecloth around a cardboard mailing tube that is as long as the tablecloth is wide.”  She further recommends storing white and light-colored tablecloths in blue acid-free tissue and avoiding storing any tablecloths in plastic bags that trap moisture and encourage mildew.

Whether you are just beginning your collection of tablecloths and other table linens, or have a treasure trove of family heirlooms, enjoy them as they grace your dining table! And be a bit more confident in your growing knowledge about the fine details of dining etiquette!

Until next time,


2 thoughts on “Dining Etiquette Series – The Tablecloth

  1. Jeanne Nelson says:

    Thank you for your question, Sophia. As I wrote in my entry, the overhang should not be so long that it drags in your lap. Floor length tablecloths are best for buffet and gift tables, or a table of dignitaries sitting on a dais. However, if you already have a floor length tablecloth for the table you will be using for your formal dinner, or want to use the tablecloth to cover up the table completely, sit down at the table and assess whether the tablecloth is cumbersome and interferes with the napkin that you place in your lap. If not, go ahead and use it. Just make sure it does not drag on the floor or in any way looks anything other than graceful and elegant. While I like to stick to the rules, budget and practicality must be part of any decision. Good luck with your dinner party!


  2. Sophia says:

    My dining table is 60 inches round. Is it appropriate to have a round tablecloth on it that drops to the floor (30 inches overhang) for a formal dinner?


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