How to Pick Table Linens

When planning for a holiday meal, a regular dinner or a party, the table linens you choose can transform your dining area. Table linens come in many colors and fabrics. Some, like paper linens, hold up for a single use. They’re designed for messes and are easy to dispose of after your meal. Others, like woven fabric linens, last years with proper care. If you're looking to dress up your table with color and texture, this guide from us at Pottery Barn can help you make your selection.

Types of Table Linens

As you’re starting to decorate your dinner table, it helps to know the different components that you can layer atop it to impart color (and some helpful functionality) to the surface. You’ll start with the tablecloth as the base. This is a large section of cloth that you spread directly over the entire table. It protects the surface from spills, stains and scratches, and it also sets the decorative tone for the table, and sometimes even an entire room. Tablecloths are made from a wide range of materials, including cotton, linen, polyester and others, all of which can add a dramatic draping effect to soften the space.


Tablecloths should drape over the edge of your table at least 10" to 12", so you’ll want to size yours accordingly. If you have a round table, measure the diameter and add twice your desired drop (20" or 24", for example) to the measurement. For a square or rectangular table, measure the length and width and add twice the desired drop to each to get the final tablecloth measurements. If your table measures 40" by 60", get a tablecloth that’s at least 60" by 80" if you want a 10" drop.


Atop your tablecloth (or on a bare table), you can place a table runner down the center of the table. These lengths of fabric are longer and thinner than tablecloths and can either add contrasting or coordinating color or serve in place of a tablecloth for a more casual look or one that sets the stage for snack buffet. They’re mostly decorative, providing opportunities for you to have fun mixing textures and colors. However, they also serve as bases for table centerpieces. Choose a runner based on length using the drop formula above; add 20" or 24" to your table’s length measurement.


Placemats are individual rectangles of fabric that you lay at each place setting around the table. They delineate your seating arrangement, add color and protect your tablecloth from spills and splatters. Placemats also look nice on bare tables and can protect the surface from water rings and heat damage. Most placemats are 12" by 18" or 14" by 20".


Finally, napkins are another common, useful type of table linen. These fabric squares fold in half and protect diners’ laps once everyone is seated and eating. People also use them to keep their hands and fingers clean while dining. Most napkins range in size between 18" and 24" square.

Fabric Options and Selection Tips

Table linens are available in a variety of fabrics, but some are more common than others because they’re easier to keep clean. Many people choose woven cotton tablecloths because you can simply toss them into the washing machine – with bleach if they’re white – to get stains out. Cotton also comes in different weights, so it’s easy to create a luxurious look with a thick, floor-length cloth. Or, go for something airy with a shorter, lighter weave – it’s up to you. Another wonderful thing about cotton is that it’s available in such a wide array of patterns and colors, so your decorating options are virtually endless.


Linen is another popular fabric for tablecloths and other table fabrics. Like cotton, linen is a natural fabric that’s absorbent and easily dyed to showcase solid colors and prints. It’s crisper than cotton and can feel lighter and more informal at the same time. It also provides more natural texture, which makes it a great choice for rustic tablescapes. Linen and cotton both require ironing.


Placemats also come in many colors and textures. They’re often made of the above fabrics, but you can also find designs that are a little more substantial. Woven reed or cork placemats have a sturdy and durable build, so they stand up well to repeated use while adding some natural texture to the table. Placemats can also help your table linens pop. Create place settings with matching placements in a hue that contrasts with the tablecloth, or create visual contrast by alternating colors around the table, such as black and white. You can easily create the same effect with napkins.

Other Considerations

Table settings are also important. Consider choosing a dinnerware set that features assorted plates, cups and bowls in a color or pattern that pairs well with your favorite table linens. This way, you’ll always have decorating options on hand that you love.


In addition to the table linens and placemats, napkin rings are also popular tabletop additions. Napkin rings give individual place settings some extra pizzazz. These rings hold rolled or fanned napkins, and you can place them atop each plate on your table.


With beautiful table linens on hand, it’s easy to turn mealtimes into something even brighter. Have fun experimenting with colors and textures using this helpful information.