Though I knew better, I couldn't wait to use the pretty new table linens that arrived in that day's mail. "Made for every day," the website assured. That was all the encouragement I needed.
I spread the crisp cotton placemats, which came in pretty patterns of fern orange, fleur-de-lis basil and scrolling lemon, paired them with not-matching napkins, stood back and admired my handiwork.
I probably should have saved the new linens for company or when serving something un-messy like pretzel sticks, but delay of gratification has never been my long suit. I was making spaghetti and salad for my daughter and me. I looked forward to the fact that this simple touch would make our ordinary weeknight dinner feel special.
At dinner I was tense. I tried to act nonchalant as if this were an everyday dinner with everyday linens, but when my daughter went to dish out her spaghetti, I pushed the pasta bowl closer to her plate.
"Let me serve the salad," I offered.
She looked at me weird. "Is it our last meal or something?"
I took a cleansing breath. "It's just, well, they're new." As I pictured splotches of red sauce and vinaigrette christening the new linens, I could feel the blood rising in my ears.
"We can wash them," she said, stating the obvious.
I could barely eat. I finally forced the fork to my mouth. Steady now. Whew! Soon I needed to wipe my mouth. I looked at the pristine lemon and white napkin on my lap, then ... reached for the tissue box.
My daughter looked at me as if I were being as ridiculous as I was.
I realized she'd busted me. In my books and when I speak on living well, I harp on these mantras: Use the good stuff every day. (Who's more important than your immediate family?) And the closer something is to your body, the nicer it should be. (Napkins qualify.) So here I was, testing my own resolves.
Just then my daughter looked me in the eye, then brazenly raised her napkin to her mouth and wiped.
And it was okay.
From that moment on, we ate. We spilled. We enjoyed.
"People need to get over their fear factor of linens," said Jenny Davids, owner of Hen House Linens, maker of the everyday line. "But next time, don't start with spaghetti."
Here's what else she advised about the use, wear and care of table linens:
•Misplaced panic. A lot of women associate linens with setting a formal table and, because they're not sure where the butter plate goes, avoid them. "Women who think that linens will ratchet up the stress level have to work through that."
•Fancy or casual? Heavier, solid-colored linens are more formal. Lighter-weight prints are considered casual. White linens need to be heavy or you look like you're using a sheet, she said. Plus solids show every flaw. Prints are more forgiving.
•Mix don't match. If you don't have any hot pink in your home, but you love the pink patterned linen, use it, says Davids, and layer it with other prints. "This is a small color commitment and it's for the meal, not forever." And yes, you can put patterned dishes on patterned linens.
•The touch test. Linens should feel smooth. When buying them, also check how well stitching is done. Mitered corners indicate a little more care in the making. If the fabric has a print, look closely to see if the dye is woven into the fabric, or just stamped on it. If the pigment is just on top, the fabric will feel slightly waxy and color will degrade quickly when washed. Get all cotton.
•Wear and care. To preserve their newness, wash linens in cold water and fluff dry or hang. When you add heat, whether from hot water or a hot dryer, cotton's properties change. Fibers can shrink and buckle. Spot treat stains by rubbing a drop of liquid dish soap in with your fingers. Rinse in cold water, then put it in the laundry pile. If you ball it up with the stains in and leave it for the weekend, you could have more trouble. That crisp new feeling comes from sizing manufacturers add to the fabric. It washes out. Once it's gone, the cotton absorbs better. Davids likes hers softened, but if you want them like new again, iron them with light starch, or send them to the cleaners.
•Why every day? "Linens are like a fashion accessory. They're the bracelet or scarf; they add another layer that makes things pretty," said Davids, who lives near Baltimore with her husband and three sons. "We use cloth napkins every night. I take that back. We all have cloth napkins, but I'm pretty sure the 7-year-old uses the shoulder of his shirt."
•Now matters. Paper napkins and plastic placemats make the moment feel disposable. Setting out pretty linens at mealtime tells those you love, "This time right now is special."