In my books and when I speak on living well, I harp on these mantras: Use the good stuff every day. (Who’s more important than your immediate family?) And the closer something is to your body, the nicer it should be. (Napkins qualify.)
But is it tempting fate to bring out new cloth napkins and a new tablecloth for a spaghetti dinner?
“People need to get over their fear factor of linens,” said Jenny Davids, owner of Hen House Linens.
“But next time, don’t start with spaghetti.”
Here’s what else she advised about the use, wear and care of table linens:
• Misplaced panic: A lot of women associate linens with setting a formal table, and, because they’re not sure where the butter plate goes, avoid them. “Women who think that linens will ratchet up the stress level have to work through that.”
• Fancy or casual? Heavier, solid-colored linens are more formal. Lighter-weight prints are considered casual. White linens need to be heavy, or you look like you’re using a sheet, she said. Plus, solids show every flaw. Prints are more forgiving.
• Mix, don’t match: If you don’t have any hot pink in your home, but you love the pink patterned linen, use it, says Davids, and layer it with other prints. “This is small color commitment, and it’s for the meal, not forever.” And yes, you can put patterned dishes on patterned linens.
• The touch test: Linens should feel smooth. When buying them, also check how well stitching is done. Mitered corners indicate a little more care in the making. If the fabric has a print, look closely to see if the dye is woven into the fabric, or just stamped on it. If the pigment is just on top, the fabric will feel slightly waxy, and color will degrade quickly when washed. Get all cotton.
• Wear and care: To preserve their newness, wash linens in cold water and fluff dry or hang. When you add heat, whether from hot water or a hot dryer, cotton’s properties change. Fibers can shrink and buckle. Spot-treat stains by rubbing a drop of liquid dish soap in with your fingers. Rinse in cold water, then put it in the laundry pile. If you ball it up with the stains in and leave it for the weekend, you could have more trouble. That crisp new feeling comes from sizing manufacturers add to the fabric. It washes out. Once it’s gone, the cotton absorbs better. Davids likes hers softened, but if you want them like new again, iron them with light starch, or send them to the cleaners.
• Why every day? “Linens are like a fashion accessory. They’re the bracelet or scarf; they add another layer that makes things pretty,” said Davids, who lives near Baltimore with her husband and three sons. “We use cloth napkins every night. I take that back. We all have cloth napkins, but I’m pretty sure the 7-year-old uses the shoulder of his shirt.”
• Making “now” matter. Paper napkins and plastic placemats make the moment feel disposable. Setting out pretty linens at mealtime tells those you love, “This time right now is special.”