As if putting meals on the table wasn't enough to worry about, deciding what to serve them on (and in) can be even more overwhelming. We've cooked up a guide to make it easy -- with tips from centerpieces to cleaning to finding replacements.
Mixing and Matching
Putting out a complete, single-style set of china is bound to make your home look more like a hotel restaurant. Create a distinctive table setting with real personality by blending items culled from a wide variety of sources. Here are three easy lessons on combining a stellar plate with several satellite dishes -- and ending up with universal appeal.
Dinnerware with an organic, handmade feel is ripe for reshuffling, and with a lot of stoneware and earthenware up for grabs today, potential pairings are plentiful. For best results, stay within one color family, or stick to nature-derived hues like oatmeal, green, and brown. Choose one chunky piece -- a dinner or bread plate -- and balance it with at least two thinner items so the effect isn't heavy and Hulk-worthy.
Piling on Patterns
Banish the image of clashing paisleys and plaids: Done right, layering mismatched patterns can yield dramatic, harmonious results. The key is to pick pieces in the same colors. Include one solid piece, and draw from large and small designs, which will make the variety look planned, not haphazard. Also make sure at least one item has a fair amount of "white space" (even if it's not actually white).
Truly formal plates can come out of the china closet more often when accessorized with playful (but not over-the-top) everyday items. We added a low-key striped salad dish and a simple mug to a clean, monogrammed dinner plate, all of which pick up the same understated shade of blue. This arrangement would also work with other design schemes (like polka dots), but remember to limit yourself to one pattern at a time so it doesn't look like you're clowning around.
Finding Your Center
Even an elegantly set table needs an eye-catching accessory or two.
How to Speak China
A general term used to describe all dinnerware.
The most durable and purest white of all ceramics, made of clay and bone ash. Expensive.
Any tableware made from clay or sand that's been fired or baked.
A porous terra-cotta material fired at lower temperatures; most affordable (and least durable).
The clay-and-mineral pieces are very thin (even see-through), but also chip-resistant. Most expensive.
Stoneware: Handmade from dense clay, resulting in unique textures.
How to Store Stuff
Proper storage is key to keeping everything in tip-top shape. Never stack dishes without dividers between them -- even if you simply use paper towels or napkins as a buffer. Keep silver in a felt-lined tray, chest, or tarnish-proof bag. Store wine glasses upright (hanging them upside down can put stress on delicate stems) with space between each to avoid chipping the rims.
A Separate Piece
Whoever said it isn't a party until something gets broken clearly doesn't collect Baccarat champagne flutes. But there's no need to cry over smashed stemware -- even the heirloom stuff. Sites like chinareplacements.com, patternfinders.com, and mytableware.com sell individual pieces of hard-to-find or discontinued designs. Search by manufacturer and pattern or sign up to be notified when your gravy boat comes in.
Clean Up Duty
Plain porcelain, bone china, and stoneware can usually go in the dishwasher (just be sure not to crowd it), but styles with delicately painted details and metal bands call for hand-washing with a soft sponge and air drying. Check manufacturer's instructions for earthenware.
Everyday glasses are safe for the dishwasher, but crystal should be hand-washed with a mild detergent and lukewarm water. Never soak stemware that has metal accents; it could tarnish. Dry with a soft cotton cloth.
Stainless items can be machine washed, but detergents with lemon or chloride can dull or pit them. Some sterling silverware can go in a delicate dishwasher cycle (but never alongside stainless items, which can scratch them). Otherwise, wash silver by hand with gentle dish soap and dry immediately.
Pardon My Reach
Listen up, bread-plate poacher: Before you go grabbing for another dinner guest's hot cross buns, check your directions with this trick. Make an OK signal with each hand: The right hand's lower-case "d" tells you to reach to that side for your drink, and the left hand's "b" shows where your bread is buttered.
Ready, Set, Go!
Red items are for everyday entertaining and include the salad fork, dinner fork, dinner plate, napkin, dinner knife, soup spoon, and water glass. Blue items are for formal entertaining and include the bread plate, butter knife, fish fork, dessert spoon, dessert fork, fish knife, and red- and white-wine glasses.
Linens and Things
Tablecloths and runners may be backdrops for the main attractions, yet they're essential to the drama of a well-laid scheme. Just think about the mood created by a red-checked vinyl cloth versus a clean, white linen. Convinced? Here are some go-to sources for ready-to-spread tablecloths, plus an easy way to ramp up that ho-hum runner.
It's a good idea to have a few different tablecloths on hand to cover (sorry!) all types of events. Keep a solid white one around for formal affairs; we like Williams Sonoma for its hemstitch styles and monogramming (williams-sonoma.com). A color, stripe, or floral is perfect for more casual gatherings: Cath Kidston can't be beat for whimsical prints, plus napkins in sweet blues, pinks, and greens (cathkidston.co.uk), while Crate and Barrel offers reasonably priced cotton-blend solids (crateandbarrel.com).
The four most common shapes and sizes of tablecloths are 54 inches square, 70 inches round, and rectangles in 60 inches by 90 inches or 70 inches by 108 inches. Bear in mind that a tablecloth should hang at least 12 to 15 inches off each edge. If you're looking for something bigger than a standard size, try libeco.com, which lists retailers for its high-end, signature-striped, larger-than-average Belgian linens.
Fringe with Benefits
To make perpendicular table runners like the ones above, follow these steps:
1. Purchase 2 yards of a loose-weave linen fabric for each runner, and cut it to the desired length, adding 2 inches at either end for fraying.
2. Trim fabric to the desired width (at least 26 inches; enough space for a place setting, plus allowance for hems).
3. Sew a line across the runner, 2 inches from each end.
4. Pull out individual strands (right) from one side of the runner to the other up to the sewn lines (far right).
5. Fold over each long side 1/2 inch and iron. Fold over another 1/2 inch and stitch hems.