Every family has that one person who is super picky about table settings. Sometimes it is the family matriarch while other times it is a cousin you only see twice a year. That person might talk about tablecloth etiquette with the same impassioned knowledge you would expect from a sommelier talking about the latest wines.
You might find yourself wondering if tablecloth etiquette is a real thing. Yes, it is. Like so many other things in the formal dining culture, there are right and wrong ways to use tablecloths. According to Salt Lake City’s Alsco, tablecloth etiquette actually goes back centuries. The etiquette begins with an understanding of the purpose of the tablecloth.
Proper etiquette dictates that the tablecloth is a decorative element whose primary function is to unify all the elements of the table setting. It serves a secondary purpose of insulating the table and reducing ambient noise.
5 Principles of Tablecloth Etiquette
Do some research and you will discover that tablecloth etiquette is governed largely by five main principles. Those principles are dominance, weight, color, texture, and pattern. Let us look at each one in more detail:
- Dominance – This principle dictates that a tablecloth should complement the most dominant element in a given table setting. Likewise, the table setting should complement the most dominant feature of the dining space.
- Visual Weight – Visual weight relates to how much attention a tablecloth draws in relation to the entire space. It should be in direct proportion to the size of the space.
- Color – Tablecloth etiquette suggests that color should be understood in terms of how it affects the overall mood. Certain colors just do not go well in certain settings.
- Texture – The texture of a tablecloth should complement the texture and finish of the tableware. It should also not conflict with the overall theme of the space, nor should it be contrary to the purpose of the gathering.
- Pattern – Patterns should be chosen according to their shape and size. Like color and texture, pattern should complement the table setting and general atmosphere of the space. It should never detract from tableware.
Understandably, all five principles are open to interpretation. People perceive things like color and weight differently. As such, there is a lot of flexibility here.
Alsco says a bigger concern in tablecloth etiquette is the size of the tablecloth chosen. Size matters in relation to how much excess fabric hangs over the sides of the table. The shape of the table being covered also needs to be considered.
As a general rule, dining room tables stand about 27 inches high while most chairs are between 16 and 17 inches from seat to floor. This suggests that the excess fabric, known as the drop, should be between 10 and 15 inches. This provides just enough fabric to rest gently in the lap without interfering with legroom.
During occasions when guests will not be seated, like cocktail parties and formal teas, a drop of up to 18 inches is acceptable. Drops can be slightly longer to accommodate taller stables at which guests might stand from time to time.
Finally, silence cloths are acceptable during occasions when noise is expected to be louder than normal. A silence cloth is a heavier piece of fabric placed underneath the tablecloth for additional sound absorption. A cloth made of a thick material like wool or felt can give the tablecloth a more luxurious appearance.
Yes, tablecloth etiquette is a real thing. That family member who insists on doing things a certain way has not lost her mind.