Continuing the entries on table settings for my demonstrations at Williams Sonoma on Nov. 13, 2011 at 12pm and 2pm, today I take up placemats, napkins, napkin rings and the care, in general, of said items.
In general, I am not fond of placemats (the autocorrect on my computer doesn't even recognize the word--that should tell us something)--they create a broken visual line on the table--here's a setting, here's a setting, here's a setting. Placemats seem to suggest that dining is an individual affair, rather than a communal affair. Then there's the whole notion of how to set your flatware and stemware around a placemat--does it go on the placemat, does it go off the placemat? What type of mat should one use? But I live in the modern world and acknowledge that my clients and others like them, so I've learned to live with them. Here are some thoughts:
- Use rectangular placemats, round ones are most difficult to deal with.
- Placemats may be fabric, wood composite, synthetic or a combination of materials. Choose according to the occasion. Napkins should coordinate.
- Use flat placemats; no heavily textured ones as they make laying the flatware flat difficult and stemware will wobble on them.
- Use fine linen or cotton placemats for formal lunches or elegant informal dining.
- Never use placemats for more than 8 people--if you have that many people attending your luncheon or dinner, use a tablecloth.
- Placemats should be placed no more than an inch from the edge of the table.
- Don't overcrowd placemats, if necessary place stemware directly on the table (use coasters if necessary) and replace flatware between courses rather than crowd it all on the placemat.
I apologize for the blurry photo from Gouvernment House in Melbourne, Australia, but I use it here to illustrate why I believe a table this size should simply be covered with a table cloth. Imagine the unfortunate soul who has to sit on this curve in the table, his placemat hanging over the edges, making him surely feel like a guest squeezed in. And all that stemware either dripping liquids on the table, causing water rings or worse, and the slippage and breakage.
Napkins, more so than any other linen at the table, have a fascinating history. In The Art of the Table by Suzanne von Drachenfels, she writes: "The first napkin was a lump of dough the Spartans called apomagdalie, a mixture cut into small pieces and rolled and kneeded at the table, a custom that led to using sliced bread to wipe the hands. In Roman antiquity, napkins known as sudaria and mappae were made in both small and large lengths. The sudarium, Latin for 'handkerchief',' was a pocket-size fabric carried to blot the brow during the meals taken in the warm Mediterranean climate. The mappa was a larger cloth spread over the edge of the couch as protection from food taken in a reclining position. The fabric was also used to blot the lips. Although each guest supplied his own mappa, on departure mappae were filled with delicacies leftover from the feast, a custom that continues today in restaurants 'doggy bags.'"
Napkins disappeared from the table in the Middle Ages but returned around the 15th Century as a communal cloth spread across the table. Guests would pick up an edge of the cloth which had been draped around the table, as opposed on top of the table, to wipe their lips and clean their hands. Over time, this cloth became smaller, although still communal, and that tradition continues in some households today, notably in Appalachia and I suspect in other deep rural communities.
To quote von Drachenfels again, "By the sixteenth century, napkins were an accepted refinement in dining, a cloth made in different sizes for various events. The diaper, an English word for napkin, from the Greek word diaspron, was a white cotton or linen fabric woven with a small, repetitious, diamond-shaped pattern. The serviette was a large napkin used at the table. The serviette de collation was a smaller napkin used while standing to eat, similar to the way a cocktail napkin is used today. A touaille was a roller towel draped over a tube of wood or used as a communal towel that hung on a wall."
Napkins changed in size over the course of the next two centuries to finally arrive at an approximate size of 30 inches by 36 inches, these measurements found most often for formal dining. Informal napkins are often smaller, usually 12 inches by 12 inches square. Von Drachenfels attributes the smaller size of napkins to the invention of the fork in the eighteenth century. The fork allowed for tidier eating and negated the larger napkins of earlier times.
Selecting a Napkin
As we use napkins today, we see that they come in a variety of sizes, materials and serve many different purposes. We have cocktail napkins, luncheon napkins, dinner napkins. There are service napkins, wine napkins, bread napkins and napkins used as coasters. For all of these napkins, selecting a napkin is primarily based upon it use--what is its purpose? Let's concentrate here on napkins used for dining, exclusively.
As with tablecloths, you want to select napkins according to their design and pattern, their color and their texture. As with tablecloths, functional use is paramount. A napkin is used to blot the lips, to clean the fingers, to cover the lap, to cough into while at table, or to use when discreetly removing unpleasant food from the mouth. (I mention these last two instances because they are very real and very common.) Napkins at formal occasion should be of the finest quality available and of a simple weave and pattern. The formal table is not a place for showy table linens. Formal napkins are almost always white, with ivory or ecru sometimes used.
With informal dining, napkins may rightly be of a contrasting nature to add an additional depth to the entire table setting, but remember: too many contrasting elements leads to a confusing table. Keep colors and textures harmonious to the whole. Be a severe judge of your style and choices, always err on the safer side. A good general rule for mixing colors and elements at an informal table is for every two matches, there may be one mismatch: nubby tablecloth and napkin, then keep your dinnerware smooth. Lacy tablecloth and napkins, reduce the pattern in your glasses and plates. In formal dining, there is no mismatching.
Placing a napkin and napkin folds
Napkins in the US are generally placed either in the center of the place setting or on the left side of the place setting or lay plate. In Europe the napkin is sometimes placed on right side of the lay plate. Does the napkin go atop the flatware, or should the napkin be placed under the forks on the left and the spoons and knives on the right? I see it both ways, but I personally set the napkin atop the flatware, since the first thing one should do when sitting at table is to place the napkin in your lap, and it is most easy to do so when nothing impedes this action.
For napkin folds, I prefer a simple rectangular book fold, and place the folded napkin as a book waiting to be opened--with the spine to the left and any seam to the bottom. There are scores of other folds but they tend to detract from the general harmony of the table and I do not recommend them. A book fold is achieved easily by laying the napkin flat, the rectangle running horizontally. Fold the napkin in half from top to bottom, aligning the edges. Fold the long horizontal half into another vertical half, and then into another vertical half. The folded edge should be to the left, the"book" opening should be to the right. If your napkins are square, the same method achieves the desired fold.
Napkins rings have a curious history, again from Von Drachenfels: "Before the washing machine and dryer eased and enhanced our lives, fabric napkins were laundered by hand. To conserve time and energy, at family meals napkins were enclosed in a personalized ring, often made of silver, an accessory that identified the napkin for use." The ring identified the napkin's user and allowed the napkin to be used over and over by the same person. Today napkins rings are used more for decoration than identification. Napkin rings are never used at formal dinners but often appear on informal tables. I personally never use them--what do you do with them after you remove the napkin? They just sit on the table taking up what is often precious table space. If something is on a table, it should be serving a purpose, napkins rings do not fit that criteria. But there is a short etiquette for them, so here it is. Remove your napkin from the ring upon sitting at table, and place the ring to the left of your place setting. Generally when you sit at the table, the point of the napkin through the napkin ring will be facing toward the edge of the table, and the flourish of the folds will be toward the center of the table. After the end of the meal, pick up the ring and replace the napkin into the napkin ring and lay the napkin and ring with the point directed toward the center of the table (opposite than the start of the meal).
The Care of Table Linens
Some basic guidelines for caring for table linens:
Some basic guidelines for caring for table linens:
- Always wash like colors together, and do not mix table linens with terry cloth towels or other fabrics which may be linty.
- Always treat stains first, before washing; remove as much of the stain as possible by hand, before washing in the washing machine. Some good basic stain removers are Shout or Zout, but each stain may require a different method of removal.
- Do not use fabric softeners on table linens, doing so makes it more difficult to press tablecloths and counters the absorbency of napkins.
- Use bleach sparingly and infrequently on white table linens. Borax is a safer brightener. Frequent use of bleach is damaging to fine linens.
- Whenever possible, allow table linens to air dry, preferably in the sun. This makes ironing the linens much easier and also contributes to brightening whites. Drying linens in the dryer tends to over dry the items, and excessive heat rapidly breaks down the fibers in the cloth. Remove the linens from drying before they are fully dry, and iron while damp. If ironing at this time is not convenient, you may store the linens in plastic bags in the freezer until you are ready to iron. Keeping the linens just slightly wet makes ironing them a breeze, even better than lightly spraying them with water.
- Do not iron creases into tablecloths or napkins--let the folds of the items create the lines. Sometimes I prefer no creases in my tablecloth, sometimes I like a crease, but napkins should never be creased with an iron. Creases caused by ironing eventually break the fibers of the fabric.
- Store napkins flat and unfolded if possible, or with as few folds as possible if not left unfolded. Fold before placed on table.
- Use no starch on napkins; starch may be used on tablecloths and placemats. Starch inhibits absorption, and one's napkins should be absorbent.
- Although rolling tablecloths around tubes is often recommended for storage, I find this impractical for most people. Folding tablecloths is fine as long as it's done thoroughly and thoughtfully: use a flat surface on which to fold the tablecloth and incorporate as few folds as possible. I like to hang tablecloths across a wide hanger. Tablecloths should not be hung inside plastic bags, to prevent dust from collecting on less-used cloths, cover with fabric.
- Sending table linens out for cleaning at your dry cleaners should be done infrequently, try to do them at home. Professional laundries tend to use chemicals and methods that are too strong for the fibers in the long run.
- Again, always treat stains first before washing.