How to....Lifestyle

How to Set the Table

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Now, we’re not talking plonking a knife and fork either side of your plate on the coffee table in front of the television. No, this is really setting the table – setting it with love and lashings of style (but nothing artificial and contrived).

That is what writer and stylist Hannah Shuckburgh’s book, The Set Table: The Art of Small Gatherings (Cicada Books, £17.99), will teach you. And the book in itself is a beautiful thing – something well worth perusing (and, ahem, having on your coffee table). It’s packed with simple, but brilliant ideas (including recipes) and lovely turns of phrase.

I can attest to Hannah’s charm, talent and impeccable taste: she was my desk mate at Easy Living, where she was Lifestyle and then Features Editor. I have also eaten at her house: she is a stupendously good cook (and gives precisely zero appearance of slaving over a hot stove) and the table was the probably the prettiest at which I have ever sat.

We are altogether thrilled to feature this mini extract from Hannah’s book (we are also mega impressed that she has WRITTEN A BOOK), and highly recommend investing in it today, post haste.


Just a brief sampler of things I have jotted down for future use…

– “Tablecloths say: today is different. This supper is special, and you, my guests, are worth it.” Hannah recommends trying brown packing paper, cheesecloth, calico, hessian and tea towels as makeshift tablecloths.16410024

– Supersize your napkins (I am with her on this one); pretty up your table with cheap crockery picked up at secondhand and charity shops (top tip: choose a theme and stick to it e.g. rose-patterened, hues of blue).


– Don’t be restricted by what you think is right. Try serving red wine in sherry glasses; water in jam jars or Moroccan tea glasses; coffee in a tumbler (or one of those teeny tiny demitasse, child-sized china cup and saucer).


– Herbs do excellent service in place of flowers (try tucking mint into a jug; or rosemary into a small glass); turn supermarket flowers into something altogether lovely by cutting them very low so they rest of the lip of the vase.

From The Set Table – The Art of Small Gatherings by Hannah Shuckburgh

‘The Table’

“When I was a child, to be put in charge of setting the table was a privilege my sister and I would take in turns – it’s not a job that lends itself to teamwork. To be in control of table setting was to create your own vision: to carefully count out the knives and forks – five of each – and remember which went on what side. It was to choose napkins and then match them with homemade napkins crafted from the inner cardboard of a loo roll, with each person’s name scrawled on the surface in felt tip. It was to fill a jug from the tap to the very, very brim and carry it – slowly, wobblingly – to the table, sloshing bits on the way. It was to remember the ketchup, the sticky bottle of squash, the huge, foot-long pepper grinder, and then to be given a small jam jar and sent into the garden to pick “only weeds, no poppies” which would form the centrepiece. At the age of 12, I mastered the paper-napkin-origami fan, inspired by one deconstructed at our local Indian restaurant, and for the next few years there was barely a supper table at home that didn’t feature my handicraft.


Twenty years on, setting the table is still one of my very favourite things to do. To gather the elements of a good table: even if that is just the right plate and a proper napkin, is to set the scene. Laying a table well is to frame the food we eat, to suggest savour it, to think about style as well as content. There’s nothing wrong with a  snatched sandwich, standing up at a bus stop – sometimes life dictates that’s how we should eat – but setting the table is about clearing away the clutter and complications of daily life, and pausing, even for just a few stolen moments.

…….I will not be encouraging you to replace all your plates and glasses, or invest in any expensive kit. I won’t be bleating about measuring the millimetres between your knife and your side plate, or suggesting you make a napkin swan or start creating complex floral displays. You don’t need to be brilliant at craft or cooking, or have hours of time to spare. Creating a beautiful table is not a matter of having money nor about cupboards bursting with heirloom china and priceless crystal – it’s about thought and care and imaginations and, mostly, generosity. I will encourage you tho use and revive what you have, to make a few things yourself and to think about purpose and what feels and looks right. Se a good table, gather some friends, and everything else will fall into place.”

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