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How to buy the right tablecloth or placemats for every table and occasion

The size, material and spacing you should consider when shopping for table coverings.

The size, material and spacing you should consider when shopping for table coverings.

(All images by Si & Oui.)

A tablecloth or placemat is essential to any place setting — I would suggest that a table without one or the other is not quite finished being dressed. A tablecloth lends itself to larger gatherings or formal events while a placemat tends to be reserved for casual get togethers and family meals. With such a variety of shapes, colours, materials and price points it can be daunting to make a choice on which one to purchase. They can be found just about anywhere home goods are sold and more often than not change with the seasonal merchandise in those stores. Here is what you need to know when purchasing the perfect tablecloth or placemat for your needs. 

Know your dimensions

Tablecloth: A standard table is 30 inches high and a table cloth should cover ⅔ of the table leg, meaning it should overhang the table by approximately 20 inches. Tablecloths are sold by shape and size, so know your tabletop dimensions before purchasing. Standard shapes are square, rectangle, oval and round, but pay close attention to the dimensions listed on the packaging, they are of the tablecloth inside and not the size of the table it is meant for. For a very formal look you may want to have your tablecloth touch the floor. In that case, you will have to measure the exact height or your table, multiply it by two, and add it to the diameter/width of your table for an exact length. 

Placemat: A placemat offers a bit more flexibility when it comes to size, so there are a few things to keep in mind. Know the diameter of your dinner plate. As a rule of thumb, you want to have enough room on the left and right side of your placemat to comfortably sit a full place setting. Another thing to keep in mind is your tabletop size. You do not want placemats to overlap one another; the purpose of a placemat is to keep one place setting contained, so avoid having it overlap with the neighbouring one. 

DII 100% Cotton, Machine Washable, Dinner, Summer & Picnic Tablecloth, $29 - $29, Amazon 

Havana Rustic Round Tablecloth, $109.99 - $199.99, Bed, Bath & Beyond

Make the material work for you

Tablecloth: You really only have two choices here, synthetic or natural fibre tablecloths. Cotton, wool, silk and linen are the most popular natural fibre options, while nylon, polyester and spandex are the most popular synthetic options. It used to be that synthetic was cheap while natural fibres were expensive, but not any more. For price points today, it generally comes down to feel and durability. Patterned and colourful tablecloths can fade and can be affected by spot treatments, so consider a synthetic material to help with their longevity. Solid and tone-on-tone tablecloths tend to be more classic and will stay in the family longer. Durable, natural fibres are also easier to clean, so look to them when picking a solid or neutral tablecloth.

Placemat: PVC plastic placemats are everywhere and for good reason. This woven plastic is easy to wash, can be cut to any size and is available in endless colours and patterns. As far as synthetic placemats go, PVC is running the show. For natural fibres, there are a few things to keep in mind. Avoid anything with a cardboard or structured framework. Averting these will allow you to machine wash your placemat as you would a cotton shirt. For materials like wood or rattan, be sure the weave is tight, and look for ones that are sealed to make them resistant to both heat and stains. This allows your placemat to do double duty as a trivet. 

Mason Fringe Placemat, $79, Pottery Barn

Pinstripe placemat, $5.95, CB2

Willow Charger- Natural, $24, Pottery Barn

Pick a style for the occasion

A casual patterned tablecloth is perfect for an informal get together or family style dinner. Choose something that works with your overall decor and coordinates with your dinnerware. When styling, specifically a square or rectangular table, make sure the corners have a soft mitered edge. 

A solid tablecloth is the way to go for a formal event but consider tone on tone pattern or texture to elevate the look. Classic white is the easiest option for coordinating with dinnerware, it matches to any environment and can be spot treated with a little bleach. For round or oval tables, do not try and get away with a square tablecloth, you want a consistent waterfall around the whole table. 

Placemats are perfect for everyday and smaller dinner parties. Because they are reasonably priced you can keep a few in your roster to mix things up. The best thing to keep in mind is coordinating your placemat and your dinnerware. Keep your cutlery, plates and napkins in mind while shopping for a new placemat. Whether your placemat is plastic or all natural, the goal should be for your table setting to read as a cohesive whole. 


Lindsay Agnew cut her teeth working in the background of design shows both big and small, she has now set her sights on bringing her know-how and impeccable taste to everyone. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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