Spills and thrills

I've succumbed to a family obsession with tablecloths

It's said that when a woman doesn't feel great about herself she will buy not new clothes, but accessories. There's another truism that if you want to sew but can't be bothered to measure and sweat about it, you make things that are a variation on a rectangle (the same is true of knitting; you make endless scarves). My early dressmaking was, in fact, rectangles of fabric made into actual clothes, but this only really works when you're 18 and weigh seven stone. Thus, my latest fad is making tablecloths.

When I went to Italy, I was reminded that everyone (at least in my family, which is 10 per cent of Italy, so a not unjust representation) does similar. Tablecloths are big business on market day. You can buy them ready-made or with blank panels that you can add your own cross-stitch to. My cousin has a vintage-print one with cherries on it. Miuccia Prada would have based an entire collection around it, if she had just seen it. This inspired me to get some tablecloths, too; after all, tables should be dressed.

When I lived a minimalist life, all my tablecloths were white, austere, judgmental. They required high maintenance, showed every spillage and mocked you for it, and there was no question of using any of them more than once. Now that I live in a home that dates from the 1960s, I want something altogether different - colourful, original, forgiving. The point of tablecloths in our family was always that you should be able to use them for a good few days. There is something comforting about following the chronology of the past few days' menu: splashes of tomato sauce from the pasta (Thursday, Friday, Saturday) and traces of icing sugar from the Sunday after-church pastries. When the tablecloth is too heavily autographed by various meals, you wash and replace it and the whole cycle starts again.

However, while virginal cloths are super-easy to find now, vintage ones aren't. You do get modern design shops and exhibitions that will sell you retro tablecloths, but at a price. But here is the glorious thing: there are now wonderful fabric websites that divide their wares up into decades: cloth from the 1950s, 1970s, and so on. For not very much at all, you can buy a metre or two of fabric. Then all you need to do is overstitch and hem it, and away you go. I do this of an evening, coming over all House of Eliott. Obviously, if you have an enormous table - as, in fact, we do - you need to spend more, but a very frugal Italian thing to do is to cover only the bit you're eating on. You can also get lovely, original children's designs from the 1930s through to the 1970s. The really covetable ones are more expensive but you need only half a metre, if that, to make a large place-mat-sized tablecloth - enough to help absorb most of Junior's messy habits.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically