What the hell is a table runner for anyway?

[post updated May 22, 2020 from original publish date of Aug. 29, 2011]

Every quilter has made a table runner. I admit it. I have too. In fact, I’ll even admit I have no less than six that are done and just need binding.

It is the ubiquitous quilting gift – fast, easy, good use for leftover blocks. And, they’re an easy way to play with color, pattern, and fabric scraps.

But what is a table runner? Have you ever heard somebody say, “All my table runners are worn out. I really need to get some new ones”?

Have you ever even seen anybody actually use a table runner for anything functional?

Me either.

And that’s really what this question is all about…does art need to be practical? The obvious question is, of course, NO, but I admit, I tend to make bed size quilts because they’re useful.

In fact, getting past the whole mindset issue of “this should be practical/make money etc.” has been a big piece of my creative journey through the years.

And, I’ve had clients who’ve said they chose to make jewelry rather than paint because they could wear the jewelry and and storing piles of paintings can become a problem.

Right or wrong, practicality often plays a role in what we decide to create.

As for table runners, I’ve never actually used one, other than to decorate at Christmas because I made myself one when I made a batch of them for Christmas gifts, but that’s not really using it. Is it?

I started thinking about this because the last quilt I made came from a pattern book that actually had table runner patterns in it for leftover blocks which I found curious on a number of levels.

If you’re writing a quilt book and offering instruction on how to make a quilt, why would your patterns require so much extra fabric that you can make extra blocks? Or why would the pattern require cutting so much extra fabric that you ended up with enough random strips and triangles to make some ever-useful table runners?

Out of curiosity, I looked up the history of the table runner.

Apparently, back in medieval times, people would wipe their faces on the table cloth. Eventually, thank God, this became unacceptable and somebody invented napkins, but people still ate like pigs and spilled their food and drinks all over the tablecloths which then had to be laundered, so some wise woman invented the table runner to protect the table cloth.

As I can imagine, doing laundry in the 15th century would be pure hell, especially a giant greasy, wine-stained piece of table linen. I’m not sure who invented the first table runner, but my guess is that it was the poor peasant woman who had to do the castle’s laundry.

I struggle to get the clothes out of the dryer and folded. Usually by the time a load has been folded, I’ve “reheated” it in the dryer 4-5 times to get out all the wrinkles because God forbid I might have to iron something.

I can only imagine the hell of having to go the river to drag buckets of water back to the fire to heat in order to wash the table cloth and then burning your hands in some sort of soap that you had to make by hand the day before. And you still had to rinse the damn thing.

The table runner was clearly invented out of necessity.

But I digress.

In order to avoid having to repeatedly wash the entire table cloth, the table runner was invented. Apparently, they were easier to clean than an entire table cloth which actually makes sense. For some reason, they stuck around, and now we quilters can make them when we want an easy fast project.

Thankfully, we don’t require the use of them anymore. Quilted table runners are somewhat useless when it comes to protecting anything precious.

If you’ve ever set a glass of wine on top of a quilted table runner, you know what I’m talking about. The sometimes poofy quilting can make the glasses a little bit tipsy (doesn’t have anything to do with drinking any of the wine) and causes them to tip right over, staining the table cloth and the table runner.

My table runner conclusion? In a functional sense, table runners are . . . completely dysfunctional.

But when it comes to quilting, or any creative play for that matter, who really needs function? Nobody actually, but the need to create “practical” things can often be a creative block. As soon as we begin to focus on the product rather than the process, or if we do it all the time, we stop ourselves from creating at all.

Have you ever been stopped by the need to be “practical” or “useful” with your creative work? Let me know in the comments!


  1. Susan Robison on August 29, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Thanks for clearing that up. I too have wondered who is using all those table runners and for what? Now please tell me where all the wall hangings are hanging. Who has that kind of space on there walls?

    • Amy Isaman on August 29, 2011 at 2:30 pm

      You make an excellent point. I know I don’t have that kind of wall space, nor do I have the enough beds for all the bedquilts I’ve made. I guess its the quilter’s permanent dilemma, or we just make it our family’s problem by giving all of our extra projects away! We can let them worry about wall space.

  2. Raymond on November 15, 2013 at 6:09 am

    It occurred to me – only yesterday – that the use of a table runner was a way of decorating, the probably heat resistant pads or planks of wood usually placed in the centre of the main dining table to stand either the hot dishes or pans on. The last might sound a bit odd; however, I did get my bacon and eggs served up in a two handled frying pan in a hotel in Sofia, Bulgaria.
    Then today I came across this article; spooky.

    • Amy Isaman on November 15, 2013 at 8:30 am

      You’re probably exactly right! It would be like a giant hot pad for the table and something the servers could easily carry to and from the kitchen as well if that was required.

  3. Patti on December 7, 2013 at 10:05 am

    I love table runners! They are like a really long coaster, where a drink can be set, or any other item that could potentially harm my beautiful wood table when not in use. They also add a decorative touch.

    • Amy Isaman on December 7, 2013 at 11:09 am

      I actually do like them too, but I can’t set drinks on them – they get tippy from the quilting and batting. All my table runners are seasonal ie. Christmas, so I definitely agree on the decorative touch, but since I have a small house with only one table (no formal dining room here), I don’t use them that often.

  4. Gunnar on August 28, 2016 at 6:14 am

    “…but people still ate like pigs and spilled their food and drinks all over the tablecloths which then had to be laundered, so some wise woman invented the table runner to protect the table cloth”.

    If food and drink got spilled, it would also get spilled on the runner, which then had to be laundered just like the tablecloth. Hardly an improvement. The poor ate off of simple, bare wooden tables. The well off showed their social status by covering their tables wth linen cloths. I’ve never seen a depiction in period art of a tab;e covered with just a runner, or a runner OVER a tablecloth. When oriental carpets were used as table covers, they were often covered during meals with a folded-over linen tablecloth to protect them. No runner.

    Napkins were invented at the same time that table etiquette was being stressed. They were thrown over the left shoulder, not placed on the lap. People hardly ate and drank like pigs when these were put into use, though by Victorian standards they did. Then again, the Victorians called a table leg a “limb” because “leg” was too suggestive. 🙂

  5. Srinivas Shenoy on August 19, 2017 at 6:34 pm

    Absolutely. , I wondered what trouble at laundering people take just for the sake of decoration!!!

  6. Roxie on August 10, 2020 at 6:46 pm

    I love table runners. I use them to decorate and then take them off when it’s time to eat. 🤷🏼‍♀️

    • Amy Isaman on August 10, 2020 at 7:00 pm

      I love them too. Though I’m a quilter, I actually prefer them as a strip of linen or plain fabric which is flatter and easier to set stuff on!

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