An argument against table cloths

I’ve read in numerous organization books the suggestion of covering an end table with a table skirt so that you can hide things under the table (your child’s toys, active knitting projects, etc.). Table skirts don’t really mesh with my design style, but I can see that this suggestion would work for people whose style it complements.

Table cloths for use on dining room tables are a completely different monster, however. Most people don’t hide objects under their dining room tables because that is where human legs belong, so a table cloth isn’t being used to hide clutter. If you’re worried about your table getting damaged by heavy objects, a flimsy layer of cotton isn’t going to protect the wood. It makes more sense to have a piece of glass or clear plexiglas cut to fit your tabletop to better protect its surface. Plus, a piece of glass or clear plexiglas will let you see your table instead of hiding what you likely spent hundreds (maybe thousands) of dollars to purchase.

Table cloths have to be stored when not in use, need to be washed after a single meal, and often have to be ironed to look their best. All of these steps and necessary storage space can be eliminated by not having them at all.

If you like the look of a decorated table, buy Chilewich table mats that have a sophisticated appearance and wipe clean with a sponge. They don’t require ironing or a spin through the washer and dryer after each use. Plus, a stack of 20 table mats takes up the same amount of storage space as a single table cloth. Combine the table mats with a glass or clear plexiglas covering, and you’re on your way to an uncluttered and easily maintained dining room table!

25 Comments for “An argument against table cloths”

  1. posted by G on

    Why do you even need to protect the table’s surface? I love the way wood picks up bumps and scratches as it ages, and glass is so harsh (and plexiglass – yuck!).

  2. posted by Erin at Unclutterer on

    @G — I agree with you about the look of wood that is well loved and used. I only offer up glass/plexiglass as an alternative to people who are worried about nicks and scratches. If you’re not worried, don’t invest in a piece of glass/plexiglass.

  3. posted by ottan on

    I don’t think tablecloths are as much of a nuisance as this suggests. I keep a few hanging in my closet, and if you pull them from the dryer (the casual type), they don’t need ironing. Also, in my home, they certainly don’t need to be washed after every meal. In my small apartment on my very small table, I find they look less cluttered than overlapping placemats that are never straight. They also add a bit of color to my otherwise neutral dining room and table settings. A few table cloths take up much less space than multiple sets of china.

  4. posted by Andamom on

    Generally, I agree with you… We actually don’t have any tablecloths ourselves– but here are three additional thoughts on why people might have a use for them:

    1) If you’ve got a table that isn’t in the best of shape… A tablecloth can hide considerably more than a mat.
    2) A plastic tablecloth can protect a table when doing craft projects or eating very messy meals.
    3) My mother has tablecloths that were hand-made by her grandmother and mother. These are honestly gorgeous and I remember feeling as if they were still enjoying a meal with us even after they themselves had passed.

  5. posted by mary on

    I prefer a table cloth over placemats. It saves on cleaning the wood table every night. I can take the table cloth outside and shake it. I will wash it and line dry it once a week. Placemats don’t help with newspaper ink, and small children. They still manage to spill stuff onto the table. The secret is to get a tablecloth that doesn’t show stains.

  6. posted by TC on

    Here’s my argument FOR tablecloths: It makes it possible for you to only have one beat-up old kitchen table and STILL host Thanksgiving and Passover at your house. All you do is move the kitchen table into the dining room, pop on a tablecloth, and voila! Nobody knows that underneath is the white-topped kitchen table with the black Sharpie marks all over it!

  7. posted by raisin on

    I have 3 table cloths. One is a clear plastic cloth that goes over my dining room table. The table is wood and tile, and placing a plastic table cloth over it means that the wood and tile don’t get damaged, and it is easier to clean.

    The other two table cloths are with the christmas decorations in a box, because we bring them out every christmas and thanksgiving, along with a folding table so that the whole family has a place to eat and both table look like they match because the table cloths are the same. If we didn’t host family gatherings, then I suppose we would get rid of the two seasonal cloths.

  8. posted by Jesse on

    Here is an argument FOR tablecloths (though my husband and I don’t use them): My grandparents STILL have the same table they got when they married, and it is still in PERFECT condition. They have always used a total of 3 tablecloths: One that is crocheted (by my great-grandmother!) for FANCY occasions, one that is used for Sunday Family Dinner (fits the table when they extend it and put in the leaf), and a third (plastic) one for everyday for just themselves and the occasional guest. The plastic one HAS had to be replaced in the past, but she could wipe it off and then sweep, and if something was a little warm but not so hot that it needed a potholder, she could be sure she wouldn’t leave marks on her table. She stores them in the linen closet with her other linens.

  9. posted by Sally on

    For a while we lived in an apartment with a very small kitchen and we used our table to do all food preparation and it completely destroyed our table top. We had to get the table refinished and now I use a single tablecloth most of the time to protect the surface. The table is already old, but right now is just beautiful, and I think the trouble of washing our single tablecloth (which does provide a good deal of protection from cup rings and little stuff that gets into the grain and ruins the table) once or twice a week (hardly after every meal!) is a small price to pay to maintain my now beautiful table.

  10. posted by Mags on

    I’ve recently started using a table cloth again, after two decades of avoiding them. This is partially because it means that when you have messy eaters around you can remove all the crumbs they leave scattered across the surface by folding up the cloth and shaking it out in the back yard. The birdies get some crumbs to eat and you don’t have to hoover up. And like most people, I wash them once every week or so, not after every sitting. So I suspect the potential clutter aspect is balanced by the ease of ridding your room of crumbs.

  11. posted by Margaret on

    I see the point, but you’re missing an important aspect of many dining room tables: they have leaves. When you must extend the table, a big piece of glass on only part of the table will look weird. And if you take it off, where do you store this fragile and potentially dangerous piece of glass? Glass tops on these types of tables is a bad idea.

    Plexiglas is equally bad, in my opinion. It’s far too easy to scratch, so in a short period of time, it looks permanently dirty. I’d rather use a temporary table cloth to protect my table (and with a table pad, it’s totally protected).

    Finally, as others have noted, unless you’re a consistently messy eater, you don’t need to wash your tablecloth after every meal.

    I’ve always thought the Chilwich stuff was neat, but I’ll bet their texture makes them very difficult to clean. All the food gets into the little woven crevices. Soup would be a nightmare! It would take a toothbrush to clean out dried soup. (And yes, you could clean it right away, but really, are you going to grab a placemat from underneath a guest’s bowl if they spill a drop? Not exactly hospitable.)

  12. posted by Max on

    You are using table cloths wrong.

    When it’s just you and a friend or two you use placemats. When you are serving a big feast with lots of dishes of food on the table you use both a table pad and a table cloth.

    The pad is what protects the table from dings, hot dishes, wine spills, etc. The table cloth simply floats on top of it to look nice.

    We leave our table uncovered almost all the time, the only time the pads and cloth comes out is when we are hosting a party. Then the cloth makes things festive and fun (and easier to clean!). Having lived with a glass table for many years I won’t go back to one. It’s loud, it’s hard on dishes (even with a cloth), and knocking a wineglass over on it is almost a guarantee of smashed glass.

  13. posted by Nat on

    If I had a newer table with great structure, I’d probably go without the table cloth. But right now, I’ve got some ugly, particle board table with wood grain plastic veneer, circa 1980. Of course the leaves don’t match the grain at the seams. BTW, the chairs have plastic lattice made to look like it’s wood. Getting a new table is not a priority. Until then, I’m covering it all up with one of my two tablecloths, which I don’t launder after every single meal. I do however sweep up crumbs with a piece of stiff paper when necessary. And I don’t iron because once I put them on the table, the fabric eventually relaxes enough that folds are not noticable, especially if it’s the one with a little polyester in it.

  14. posted by Jasi on

    I have 2 white Ikea Iris table cloths. They’re like all of my other linens; sturdy, cotton, and white. If it’s a mess, I can throw it in with the towels. And ironing.. I don’t even own an iron. Wrinkles are beautiful. Just ask Gramma.

  15. posted by twosandalz on

    I’m a fan of place mats, especially the kind with cork backings. I get the best of both decorating worlds… adding a splash of color yet still seeing the table itself. For myself, tableclothes are extra work for everyday use, and they hide the table. But I enjoy using them on special occasions. They feel festive, which makes the storage space they take worth it.

  16. posted by Colin on

    You’re seriously overplaying the negatives. My grandmother, who used to iron underpants never mind the tablecloths, managed to use them with less fuss than you describe, and she is (was, I suppose) my technical reference for household overkill. Like others here, though, I tend towards only using them for company, but that’s mostly so my daughters don’t attempt to remove the cloth without disturbing what’s on it.

  17. posted by Hanmee on

    I’ve used table cloths for a long time b/c I wanted to avoid damaging the table, but then I started using the placemats. However, I find the table looks more cluttered as you’re trying to have them all look nice with kids and that doesn’t work out. My son always seems to take something off the placemat and purposely make a mess on the table.

    I wanted to point out to please check the limitations on the table cloths and even table pads. Many of them say that they will NOT protect your table against hot foods (so the rubber feet trivets are still the way to go).

    Also, you are not supposed to have vinyl or plastic against the wood. Many of the vinyl table cloths go around this as they have a cloth backing, but the clear plastic ones do not. Just wanted to let you know as I almost was going to go with a plastic one (way back) but happened to find that out.

  18. posted by Lee on

    Clear Plastic/Vinyl on good quality urethane finished wood tops has worked throughout our house for years well for us for years.

    Recently, in our dining room we have a paper table cloth that looks like a very elegant and expensive croched cloth. To protect it (very flimzy)we cover it with a crystal clear plastic vinyl table cloth. You can still see the wood as well as the cloth. It fools a lot of our friends. And we don’t have to worry about the Kids (8!).

    On special occassions and Holidays we cover the whole thing with a white-on-white cotton table cloth.

    An of course, we always have the option of removing everything and show off the entire nature wood top (still almost showroom perfect).

  19. posted by ewong on

    We have a beautiful antique applewood dining table, 3’X 8′, from the Civil War period. We also have 3 young grandkids (3, 4 and 5 years) who visit us periodically.
    Chilewich is a wonderful product. We have 4 patterns of their non-backed woven placemats and their non-skid backed shag rug. The placemats are not leak-proof and the other is too textural as a table covering. And a clear vinyl sounds like a great solution showcasing the beauty of the wood but can cause the wood table to form white patches from being a non-porous covering. Wood still needs to breathe even after they’ve been cut and polyurethaned. One solution was to call on a woodgrain tablecloth company called TablePads Direct ( (888)498-4345 where they offer
    many woodgrain patterns and colors. They can also back their vinyl sheets with felt with 6 color choices to allow the wood to breathe. At each of the corners and at the center points I’ve dotted self-adhesive non-skid spots to the felt side to prevent this tablecloth from sliding. It is easy to clean, roll up and store once the kids go home.

  20. posted by Marianelli on

    I love this idea. I use these on top of my table pads that I purchased from the

    They look great!

  21. posted by C. Raybourn on

    I inherited my great-grandmother’s dining room table and the only way to care for it properly is with table pads and a tablecloth. My kids are 5, 3, and 2. A microfiber tablecloth protects against spills and the pads protect against heat/scratches. I don’t see any other way to properly care for this table. After all the care that my grandmother and great grandmother took with it, allowing it to be scratched or damaged unnecessarily when prevention is very simple seems disrespectful to me.

  22. posted by Keeper Of Stuff on

    We bought a tabletop which had extra leaves, but no legs (due to freight damage or loss)at an upscale store for a garage sale price. We made very simple legs and attached them. The leg color does not even match the tabletop.

    I went to a craft store and bought heavy-weight clear vinyl by the yard, very inexpensively. I put my gorgeous, but easily stained, tablecloth on and topped it with the clear heavy vinyl, which I cut long enough to work with or without the leaves.

    The end result: a beautiful and much complimented table effect, that is super easy to wipe off with a damp sponge after meals. We have used this arrangement for 2-3 years with nary a stain or problem. If I want to “dress up” or alter the look, I top the vinyl with coordinating placemats, usually holiday ones.

    To protect against hot dishes, I bring out matching tiles. The tiles are those I found discarded at construction sites. I added peel-off protectors on the bottoms of all four corners.

    The whole thing works – and the price is right!

  23. posted by Christine in DC on

    I find when I have a tablecloth, I’m less likely to use my dining room table as a dumping ground. I don’t always use one, but that’s what I’ve found.

  24. posted by Elizabeth on

    We have an antique table with mutiple leaves. We also have 3 very young children. We don’t have a huge house that could separately accomodate special-occasion and everyday dining. Our solution is to use our table for both functions. Usually, it is covered with a thermal-protection mat so that when people forget about hot staff, it isn’t fatal to the table or the offender. On top of that is a waterproof mat so when the littlest one gets too excited and knocks over drinks, everything’s cool. It also means we can use the table for art and craft. Both of these cloths look pretty hideous so we have two decorative tablecloths over the top, rotated weekly for cleaning. For parties and celebrations, the cloths are folded up and hidden and the table looks gorgeous.

  25. posted by debbdesign on

    I have one table cloth that I use to dress up the table when Im having a dinner party. Besides the pleasure of eating at a made up table, where Ive already spent the time and money to prepare a gourmet meal – I have found that its saved us from all rushing to grab towels when somethings been spilled. the table cloth just soaks it up – I place a white paper napkin over the spot and the meal carrys on. I would only get white table clothes though – so I can just bleach the stains out of them.

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