OK, let's fess up: Some of us rarely use our best tablecloths, china, crystal and silver, and don't think about them at all until the holidays.
When we pull it out of storage, the silver is probably a tad tarnished, the china a little dusty, and there may even be a few telltale spots on the linens from the last feast.
We consulted experts, books and Web sites and found a variety of opinions that we've distilled into helpful tips for getting these things ready for action in the weeks to come, then storing them again for next year.
The tablecloth is the first decorative layer, and in some ways the trickiest to maintain because it is so subject to wrinkles and stains. Cotton and linen cloths are far more wrinkle-prone than polyester, so keep this in mind when buying new ones.
To iron, lightly sprinkle or spritz your cloth with water. Except for linen, which requires high heat, iron most cloths on medium. Take extra care if using spray starch, which can scorch under a very hot iron.
On the table, protect the cloth from wax drippings with bobeches, small decorative collars that fit between the candle and holder. Use saucers under the gravy boat and cranberry sauce, and wine coasters under bottles.
When guests leave, target spots on napkins and the tablecloth right away with a stain dissolver, dish detergent, enzyme-enhanced laundry soap, or other cleaner. Check
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for advice about common holiday stains or
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for tips on removing stains from more than 150 substances, including blood and yogurt.
Machine-wash your linens on the gentle cycle with warm water; to minimize wrinkling, shake them out before putting them into a medium-heat dryer.
Experts differ on when to iron table linens: One camp says iron as soon as they are washed (and still slightly damp); others advise putting linens away un-ironed and pressing just before use.
To minimize wrinkles during storage, fold the cloth between sheets of acid-free paper or roll around a carpet tube; alternatively, fold in thirds and hang on a padded hanger.
If you send linens to a dry cleaner, be warned: Dry-cleaning may not remove some stains, including wine.
Techniques for caring for china depend on how old it is and how much you cherish it.
Fine dinnerware produced in the last 10 to 15 years bearing a "dishwasher safe" stamp on the back, even if banded in gold or platinum, can be washed on the gentle cycle. To prevent chipping, do not overload the dishwasher or let edges touch.
Use only dishwasher detergent without citrus juice or scent; lemon, lime or orange varieties can damage decal patterns or metal banding.
Pieces without the "dishwasher safe" stamp, items made before 1995, and those that are expensive or have sentimental value should be hand-washed in warm water with mild, non-citric soap. Before hand-washing, remove jewelry and put a dish towel in the bottom of the sink to prevent chipping. Use a soft sponge - never steel wool or abrasive scrubbers.
Dry with a lint-free towel. Store in fitted cases or uncovered in a cabinet; put a white paper plate, napkin, towel or coffee filter between plates, bowls and platters to prevent scratching. Use cup hooks. To avoid chipping, do not stack items with handles.
Wash rarely used dishes at least once a year to keep dust and grease from damaging the finish.
Nothing sparkles like it, but some effort is required. With automatic dishwashers, use only the delicate cycle and gentle-care detergent; hot water and strong detergents can cloud the glass and fade metallic banding.
Make sure that glassware does not touch other items, and that pieces are positioned so they won't be knocked around by water pressure.
If washing by hand, remove jewelry, line the sink with a towel, and fill it with warm water and non-citric detergent. To avoid chipping, do not submerge stems or glasses together. Rinse with medium-hot water and let drip onto a linen or other lint-free towel. Turn stemware carefully while wiping to avoid snapping the bowl from the handle.
If you use crystal only occasionally, store in original boxes or fitted cases. For more frequent use, stand the pieces upright, making sure they do not touch.
Wash crystal decanters in warm water with a soft sponge, but no soap. To dry, insert a long strand of paper towel for several hours; remove carefully. Store un-stoppered to avoid condensation. To remove clouding, try mixing a cup or so of coarse salt with a pint of white vinegar and shaking it inside the decanter. Rinse several times and dry, storing un-stoppered.
Sterling silver and silver plate.
Though sterling acquires a lovely patina with use, it requires maintenance. That may explain the trend toward stainless flatware for holiday and formal settings as well as everyday use. So this advice is for the traditionalists and sentimentalists.
To polish sterling, which is usually 92.5 percent pure silver, use a soft cloth and nonabrasive silver polish. Rinse in warm water, lay it out on a soft cloth, and dry gently, a piece at a time. To remove tarnish from intricate scrollwork, use a very soft toothbrush and polish, then rinse and dry.
Some dishwasher-makers say sterling can be washed on the gentle cycle with mild detergent. To avoid discoloration, do not let sterling come in contact with stainless steel in the dishwasher.
Silver plate is just that, a thin layer of silver covering brass, copper or other base metal. The more you polish or wash it, the more silver you remove. If you must use the dishwasher, put it on a gentle cycle with mild detergent.
Never store sterling or silverplate in plastic bags or bundle together with rubber bands. Tarnish-proof cloth, which is used for storage bags and the linings of silver chests, will keep utensils and serving pieces shiny in storage.