Tablecloth Embroidery: Making a Thanksgiving Heirloom
Updated: Nov 26, 2022
Pictured above: The tablecloth's first year in use, pre-signatures.
All the way back in 2016, my mother sent me an article about a family who has a Thanksgiving tradition of signing the tablecloth. The concept is simple: if you sit at the table for Thanksgiving, you sign the tablecloth. No restrictions, no exceptions. After the holiday and before the next one, the names are embroidered to preserve the signatures.
I loved the idea and squirreled it away in the back of my mind, waiting for a time to take it out again. When the pandemic hit, Thanksgiving with the extended family was cancelled and we decided to have a much smaller, local, inside-our-family-bubble Thanksgiving instead. I hosted as my parent's kitchen was under construction at the time. This was the perfect time, I decided, to start a new tradition.
One tablecloth and one year later, it's time to get the tablecloth back out again and prepare it for it's second Thanksgiving. In this post, we'll go over some logistics, tips/tricks/learnings, and a quick how-to (with video!) of how to do the stem stitch which is perfect for embroidery beginners.
Logistics & Questions
Q: Who signs the tablecloth?
A: Everyone! No exceptions, no exclusions. If you sit at my table, you sign the cloth. While the cloth is for Thanksgiving, I plan to use it for Friendsgiving too. If you sit at my table, you sign the cloth.
Q: When is the best time to embroider the signatures?
A: Any time before the next Thanksgiving. Do remember that you won't be able to wash it until the embroidery is finished though, so consider that as a factor. I typically have a giant project list leading up to Christmas, so mine will never get embroidered until after the holidays are over. Personally, if it's finished and laundered by Easter, I'm happy.
Q: How can you tell the difference between the years?
A: There are a few options here - color-coding is the most straight-forward, but not the most accessible. You can mark the difference between years using color, stitch type, location on the cloth, or even small additions like underlining or stars off to the sides of the signatures. Whatever you choose, embroider the key along the edges so you'll never forget which is which.
Q: Can I start a tablecloth if I've never done embroidery before?
A: Yes! I use a stem stitch for my tablecloth which is the first stitch I ever learned from my Great Grandmother back when I was little. I haven't taken the time to improve my embroidery much since then, but stem stitch is something I can still do pretty consistently even if I do zero embroidery the rest of the year.
Q: What supplies do I need for this heirloom?
A: For this heirloom, you will need:
A tablecloth large enough for your Thanksgiving (or holiday of choice) table
Felt-tipped, washable marker (see notes below)
Embroidery hoop (a small one is fine, I use a 6 inch hoop for this)
Thimble (optional but highly recommended)
Needle minder (optional)
Interfacing (optional - see notes below)
Q: Could I use the tablecloth for a different holiday?
A: Of course! Pick the holiday (or more thank one!) that will make this heirloom the most special to your family.
Tips, Tricks, & Learnings
(Choosing a Tablecloth)
The most important factors for your tablecloth are size and color. Be sure to choose one large enough for your table when everyone is gathered (mine is 9 feet long!) and choose a color that will work with how you decide to embroider. For example, if you will color-code to differentiate the years, choose a light color that will make the colors pop.
If you'll differentiate years using something other than color (see notes below), choose any color you like, just be sure your marker will show up well enough so you can follow the lines when embroidering!
Fabric type is the third factor here. If you're thrifting (even through your own drawers), choose what you've got. As a general statement, try to choose a fabric thick enough to hold its own when being embroidered and made from a material that can be pressed smooth with an iron.
If you want to use a thin or delicate tablecloth, you can back each piece of embroidery with interfacing or canvas to prevent warping from the stitches. This is a good option if you want to give new life to a vintage cloth or even an existing family heirloom!
The one used at my table is actually from Ikea - a cotton/linen blend made using sustainable practices. Importantly, it's large enough for my table and affordable. Note that it cannot go in the dryer as it will shrink.
(Making a Custom Tablecloth)
Can't find a tablecloth you like? You can always make your own! Tablecloths are basically a giant rectangle or oval of fabric hemmed all the way around so they're easy to make yourself.
Note that this can end up being a more expensive option, depending on the fabric you choose. For example, this 60" wide linen from Fabric Wholesale Direct is $12.99/yd. That's a great price for linen. For my 9 foot table, I need a tablecloth that's about 132" long to have a one foot overhang on the ends - that's 4 yards of fabric which works out to $52. Not bad for an all-linen tablecloth, but certainly more expensive than the thrift store.
To make your own tablecloth:
Decide how big you want to make it, now add seam allowance to all sides (1.25 inches for a double-fold hem, 1/4 inch for a rolled hem)
Cut the fabric to size and shape. Tip: for curved corners, you can use a dinner plate, platter, or a pencil on a string to get an even curve. If you freehand a curve, be sure to fold the fabric into fourths so you can cut along the same curve at all corners. I did this in my Wedding Veil tutorial.
Hem all the way around. For a double-fold hem, fold and press 1/2 inch, then stitch. Then fold and press 3/4 inches, stitch. For a rolled hem, simply go all the way around with a rolled hem foot. I also showed how to do this in my Wedding Veil tutorial.
(Sign with Care) The first year I used my tablecloth, I had everyone sign with a #2 pencil. We all found it difficult to write anything other than a straight line. Based on that, I highly recommend using a washable felt-tipped marker. I like this one from Dritz which is available in most craft stores.
Whatever you choose, make sure the markings really will go away in when washed. Test the marker on the back of the tablecloth, let dry, then spray with water and see if it goes away. If it does, it will work for the signatures.
(Embroidery for Beginners) The stem stitch is the first stitch many people learn when they start embroidering. It's great for outlining as well as thin decorative lines, like flower stems. The nice thing about this tablecloth is you only need the one stitch. So even if you're a beginner, it's very do-able. Over time, you'll be able to see your own progress through how well the names are embroidered. You can also pass the torch of embroidery to younger generations this way, starting them off with the same, beginner-friendly stem stitch.
(Embroidery Options) While the stem stitch is what's shown here and is definitely the easiest route for newbies, it's not the only option. Color is a great way to differentiate between years, but stitch types can be used to the same effect. For example, one year could be stem stitch while the next is a running stitch and the third year done in satin stitch.
French knots make a good option if you will embroider names in Braille. Don't feel constrained to one stitch - explore and be creative! This is an heirloom and that doesn't mean a stuffy antique, it means an annual artifact of the time your family spent together, personality included.
(Laundering the Tablecloth) Once you've picked out your tablecloth, check for laundering instructions. If you've made your own, check the laundering instructions for the fabric. Most tablecloths should be ok in the washing machine - I recommend washing on cold to preserve shape and avoid damaging the embroidery.
I also highly recommend washing the tablecloth in a laundry bag (or pillow case tied shut). This will prevent snagging on other items in the load or on the wash tub.
Depending on your fabric, you may or may not be able to put the tablecloth in the dryer. Mine is line-dry only. If this is the case for yours as well, try to give it as much space as possible when drying to avoid setting wrinkles in place. Remember you will need to press the tablecloth (or assign that chore to someone else) each year.
How to Embroider the Stem Stitch
Check out the video below for a step-by-step tutorial of how to embroider the stem stitch! Scroll down for written steps instead.
(Step 0) Prepare your materials
Get everything ready to be embroidered. Press the tablecloth and assemble all materials. In the photos here, I'll be embroidering the year along the edge of the cloth in green embroidery floss.
(Step 1) Outline the year and signatures
This step is usually done between dinner and dessert at my house. Here, I'm doing the year ahead of time for purposes of this tutorial. Use the washable felt-tipped marker to outline the year and have each person seated at the table sign the tablecloth.
Tip: Remember how many pieces there are to embroider and keep track with tally marks as you go so you don't miss any!
(Step 2) Embroider over the lines
The stem stitch is worked from left to right along the lines drawn. Thread your needle and tie a knot at the end, then bring the needle up wherever you will begin embroidering.
To do a stem stitch:
1. Bring the needle up where you will begin (position A)
2. A bit to the right, push the needle into the fabric (position B) and bring the tip up about halfway between these two points. Pull through gently.
3. Now that you've made the first stitch, you'll repeat the process, bringing the needle back up where the last stitch ended.
When going around a curve, keep your needle to the outside of the curve.
After finishing a letter/number, simply bring your needle up in position to start working on the next one. That's it! Work your way slowly and steadily through all the outlined letters and numbers. Tie a knot when you run out of thread or finish a group of letters/numbers.
Common mistake: It can be easy to accidentally stitch through more fabric than the piece that's supposed to be getting embroidered. No biggie! Simply undo it and keep going.
If the fabric's weave is loose, you might be able to gently pull the needle through backwards. If not, unthread the needle and pick out the mistakes slowly, being careful not to pull too tightly. Once the mistakes are gone, re-thread the needle and try again.
(Step 3) Launder carefully and repeat the steps annually!
See the notes section above for thoughts on laundering without damaging the embroidery.
That's it! You now have the beginning of an heirloom tablecloth. Give it a few years and it will be covered in signatures and shrouded in memories.
Thanks for Reading!
A very sincere Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Holidays to you and your family, whatever shape it takes.
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See you next time!