OK, let's fess up. Some of us rarely use our best tablecloths, china and crystal, and usually only think about it maybe a week before Thanksgiving. When we pull it out of storage, the china is probably a little dusty, and there may even be a few telltale spots on the linens from last year's feast.
We consulted a passel of experts, books and Web sites and found a variety of opinions, which we've distilled into helpful tips for cleaning and storage.
The tablecloth is the first decorative layer, and in some ways it's 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 a new one.
¢ To iron, lightly sprinkle or spritz your cloth with water; even better, remove it from the dryer while it is still damp and iron right away.
¢ Except for linen, which requires high heat, iron most cloths on medium. Take extra care if using spray starch, which can scorch under a hot iron.
¢ 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 www.heloise.com for advice about common holiday stains or www.extension.missouri. edu for stain-removal tips on more than 150 substances, including blood and yogurt.
¢ Machine-wash your linens on gentle cycle with warm water; to minimize wrinkling, shake the cloth out before putting it 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 unironed and press just before using them.
¢ 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.
Techniques for caring for china depend on how old it is and how much you cherish it.
¢ Fine dinnerware produced in the past 10 to 15 years bearing a "dishwasher safe" stamp on the back, even those banded in gold or platinum, can be washed on the gentle cycle.
¢ Use only dishwasher detergent without citrus juice or scent; those lemon, lime or orange varieties can damage the decal pattern or metal banding.
¢ Pieces without the "dishwasher safe" stamp, items made before 1995 and those that are valuable or sentimental 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.
¢ 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.
¢ Wash rarely used dishes at least once a year to keep dust and grease from damaging the finish.
Nothing sparkles like crystal, but it takes some effort.
¢ 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 glassware does not touch other items and that pieces are positioned so they won't be knocked around by water pressure.
¢ Rinse with medium-hot water and let drip onto a linen or other lint-free towel.