Why damaged tablecloths may be the most surprisingly useful item in your home

September 3 2014 | Guest post by Andrea Parrish

tablecloths-in-use

You know those things that you don't necessarily think will be useful, and find yourself using nearly every day? Inexpensive tablecloths from a rental shop have become that completely indispensable thing in my life, and they could well save you time, money, clean-up effort, and stress.

I promise, one of the most useful sub-$20 purchases you'll ever make…

Damage to two of tablecloths.
Damage to two of tablecloths.

Finding Magical Tablecloths

When planning for our low-budget, aluminum-funded wedding (which succeeded in large part to Offbeat Bride!), my now-husband and I bought "damaged" tablecloths from a local rental store. When a rental tablecloth comes back somehow damaged, they can't be rented out again, but they are often still in decent shape.

If you call and ask, rental shops are usually more than happy to make money off of what they can no longer rent out. The damage ranges from wax stains to rips, paint stains to mold or mildew spots, and the pricing at our local place ranged from $5 for the smallest, most damaged cloths to $20 for the largest, least damaged ones. Color and size selection are pretty random, but that's part of the fun.

Despite the damage, these tablecloths are incredibly durable, can be machine washed, and are anywhere from six feet round to 8 x 12 feet long. So what to do with these?

Tablecloths spread out under the tree for easy harvesting.
Tablecloths spread out under the tree for easy harvesting.

Dropcloths

Even before we moved to our mini-farm, food harvesting and processing was a yearly tradition. Without a tall enough ladder, we discovered that shaking a tree often brought down ripe plums, apples, nectarines, and pears. Spread these tablecloths out under the trees, and harvesting goes from an hours-long effort to pick individual fruit off the tree or off the ground, to laying out tablecloths, shaking the tree, and gathering up the cloth to easily funnel into a container.

After getting the harvest in, these cloths prove very useful for setting up processing space — they keep everything from straw and chaff to cherry seeds and apple peels from hitting the carpet or floor, and can be machine washed, unlike the carpet. Spread the cloth out under the processing area, and cleanup takes less than a quarter of the time.

This same principle applies to spreading these cloths out under art and craft projects, to piling up laundry in the absence of baskets, to protecting the floor while deep-cleaning a room.

The tablecloths protecting our carpet from straw and oat chaff.
The tablecloths protecting our carpet from straw and oat chaff.

Shade, shelter and blanket forts

Hanging these tablecloths up on our back porch proved an easy fill-in way to create shade on very sunny summer days. Or, if you don't have a back porch, then hanging one between two trees or even a couple of well-placed big sticks helps shade and shelter. Indoors, these make great blanket fort fodder, because they're light enough that a few chairs or well-stacked couch cushions can hold them up, with the bonus of leaving blankets available for camping out in the fort!

Super-simple sewing

A few of my steampunk friends actually found this use: as large chunks of solid-color fabric with minimal hemming and few seams, these tablecloths make great raw material for sewing projects. The large round tablecloths, especially, make for easy circle skirts: just cut a central hole and add elastic, then hem to the right length.

Anora K. modeling for the Northwest D20 girls.
Anora K. modeling for the Northwest D20 girls.

Photo backdrops

In most houses, finding a nice, solid-color wall without any distractions with which to get a good photo can be tough, at best. For selling products on Etsy, for getting a photo of a friend, or for any other picture-taking, these tablecloths (well-ironed) are easy to hang up with a couple of $2 clamps from the hardware store, and the large ones provide enough height and width to be an easy backdrop. The wide variety of colors provide lots of creative options, and the fact they can be laundered and can be folded extend their life far beyond the $120 rolls of flat photo backdrop paper. They're not 100% professional quality, but they do a very passable job.

Actual tablecloths

And lest I forget, these tablecloths do also serve their original function: tablecloths. For outdoors or indoors, on the ground or on an actual table, they do their job. One of our favorite tricks was to throw a cloth over our chest freezer and use it as a buffet table. If you're going for a fancier look, use the caterer's trick of placing several boxes, bowls, or stable items of varying heights on a table, then throwing a tablecloth over them all, and placing your buffet items on those pedestals. It creates a great professional look, you can hide the damage to the cloth easily, and it is a lot less expensive than the "buffet stands" you can buy or rent.

The long and short of it is this: these "damaged goods" tablecloths are inexpensive enough that they can be abused, are flexible enough to serve as tarps-with-color-and-class, and you'll always find another use for them.

Have YOU found surprising alternatives for your tablecloths? Let us in on the ways you use yours.

  1. 100% cotton woven tablecloths
    Such as the mahogany ones on amazing makes amazing and cheap baby carriers.
    One 60×120" rectangular one can be split in half lengthways to make 2 shorty wraps or sewn into ring slings

    So if you could get 100% cotton woven tablecloths from a rental place. And the damage was only aesthetic and not structural you could have a good cheap woven wrap for babywearing

    7 agree
  2. I've used tablecloths to wrap really big presents (usually for children) on multiple occasions. We also always used an old tablecloth or bed sheet as a tree skirt at Christmas.

    If they're the 100% polyester ones where water just beads up you can also put them under a baby who needs some naked time to protect your carpet from accidents.

    5 agree
  3. OK! I am so glad to see this…I DIY my wedding pretty hard core including buying table cloths because they were cheaper than renting ( $14 to buy $16 to rent, I had a coupon)…So I thought it was a no-brainer. I have used these table clothes so much. I do a lot of theatre and historical event things and laundry gathering but there is not a month that goes by that I don't think…I'm so glad I have these. I had to share my joy that someone else appreciated their greatness.

    2 agree
  4. They make nice temporary curtains for the undecided. I have the rods with clips so I can change them whenever.

    The light colors make soft seat covers for the car. No scratchy or sticky car seats on bare legs. Crumb catching is a bonus.

    2 agree
    • Agreed on car seat covers! We use a big rectangular tablecloth as a dog-proofing cover over the backseat. It catches most of the dog hair and dirty pawprints, and it's easy to remove quickly if we have human passengers.

      I also keep a crummy old tablecloth in the trunk of my car for miscellaneous purposes. I use it to protect my car when moving furniture, to separate things in the trunk that are rattling, and all sorts of other things.

    • Yes, these are all such great ideas! You could probably do a lot of this with secondhand curtains, too…I know around here, at least, you can sometimes find curtains for a dollar or so in thrift shops. (Randomly thinking of The Sound of Music and the outfits made from curtains…She would have had to have taken down a lot of curtains in the Von Trapp residence to make clothes for that many kids…)

  5. Also picnic/beach blanket! We have a couple 6×9 tablecloth that we use on the beach & when we go to concerts & things in the park, or just want to hang out in the backyard. They work great. I'm considering lining one of them them to give them just a little more cushion/protection from the elements.
    It also sometimes goes in the back seat for protection from doggy paws.

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