Dressing the table can turn any meal into an occasion. But the merriest holidays, those of the bountiful autumn and glittering winter seasons, inspire extraordinary adornment.
Whether made of cloth, leather, metal, woven straw or other materials, a backdrop changes the personality of dinnerware. Tablecloths, place mats, runners or combinations of these elements can go a long way to set the holiday mood.
Even the simplest, most minimal treatment can be enhanced with a balance of color and a mix of materials -- dinnerware and flatware, candle holders, flowers, serving pieces and baubles.
Basic white, for example. It's a classic -- the equivalent of the black cocktail dress or suit. It's available in the finest pure linen and less expensive blends, in tone-on-tone patterns such as damasks, or with applique and embroidery.
White tablecloths can be embellished for dramatic effect. Use ribbon or fabric about an inch wide, allowing enough to fold in so the edges are finished. Choose a holiday color such as emerald or purple, or a shimmery metallic such as a sheer bronze, copper, gold or silver.
A basic sewing manual will describe how to miter corners for a neat finish. Machine- stitch in matching thread to the edges.
The color can be served as a piping on top of the metallic. Piping can be bought ready to stitch in, or you can make it yourself. Narrow ribbon is also an effective trim. Gather the napkin into a ring that captures the hues you've brought together. Repeating the colors in the dinnerware, flowers and even the wine goblets will make an arresting presentation.
Instead of a centerpiece, cluster some white candles in crystal holders of different heights. Decorate the tapers with gold cording, spiraling around. Small votives placed in a crystal egg cup can be filled with water and a single floating blossom to match the linens for a striking setting.
The most subtly patterned tablecloth design is that of a damask. It might be tone-on-tone or two tones, such as white on buttery yellow. Such a cloth grabs attention when teamed with plates banded in a matching hue.
White scalloped place mats layered over the cloth further set off a lapis-banded service plate. Gold ribbons can serve as napkin ties and can be threaded through a fruits-and-greens centerpiece.
Other simple patterns might include checks, such as a Jacquard cotton checkerboard of autumn greens, golds and russets, echoing the warm colors of nature and woven with golden thread. You can also find those with patterns inside the checks, such as leaves faintly woven into the fabric.
A harvest of mini pumpkins and decorative squash is time-honored; match it with something that sparkles, like glass mosaic hurricane lamps of hand-cut stained glass in amber and jewel tones, for a warm candle-light glow. Many hurricanes are watertight and can be used as vases.
A luxury satin or quiet cotton in stripes can change the face of the table. Brocades and silks are abundant during the holidays, but simple fabrics also work well, and sometimes the contrasts are engaging. A soft sage-green stripe that's drawn from the colors in a plate, for example, is subtle and appealing. Introduce a solid cranberry napkin for a bold splash and repeat the colors in fresh fruit and blooms. The glint of silver candlesticks and ornaments can lend a bit of romance and Victorian formality to a dinnerware pattern that centers on a still-life framed by ribbon-laced greens.
Tactile beauty is more recent. Some fabrics once never dreamed safe or appropriate are coming to the table: sensuous silk charmeuse, silk dupione -- smooth or crushed -- nubby raw silks, taffeta, chiffon, organza, Swiss tulle and even velvets. Play off soft and crinkly features against nubby weaves, then team them with burnished metal plates.
California designer Ann Gish has been a trailblazer of this trend. Her newest innovation is quilted silk place mats in pretty pinks, melon, tiger-eye, bronze, ivory and a quilted black velvet.
She calls them "couture for the table."
"You can dress up these fabrics or dress them down, depending on what you do to the table," Gish said. "The crushed silks and velvet add a different dimensional quality that a flat cloth or napkin won't."
Napkins of crushed silk dupione (a pebbly, washable fabric) knotted over plates on woven raw silk over a skirt of crushed silk can take on a contemporary or traditional personality, depending on the china, flatware and crystal.
A heavier fabric such as chenille makes a great place mat. Designed as "over-table" mats, some festive cotton chenille place mats are not quite square. Instead, they drape glamorously over the table's edge, and the portion that drops down is V-shaped and trimmed with tassels. Choosing a contrasting but compatible color for a table runner and napkin keeps the table from getting too static.