Table covers – choices

Almost the first thing the audience sees at your concert is your table dressing. Make it convey the image you want to project. As a beginning soloist, you’ll probably use table covers provided by whatever organization lends you bells. If not, you can buy a length of heavy black cotton corduroy, cut to the length of your table plus 1 yard. Hem the cut ends, and lay it over the foam. Once you’ve settled on your table configuration (including height), it’s time to start thinking about performance table covers. If you decide to make your own covers, you can incorporate your piece of black corduroy as the table top, or continue to use it as a practice cover.

I used to sew things myself more cheaply than buying them. These days, fabric (not to mention Velcro and thread) costs so much that it often makes more sense to buy your table covers made to order from companies that buy their components in bulk. (See below for a list of vendors.) You may want to sew your own covers if you:

• Can get fabric at a steep discount, or donated
• Have an odd table configuration, and covers to fit it aren’t commercially available
• Want a different fabric, color, or style than provided by vendors
• Need covers immediately, and can’t afford to wait the 6-8 weeks that custom covers usually take.
• Enjoy sewing projects and have the skills to turn out a professional-looking project without patterns, on the first try.

Regardless of who makes your covers, you’ll need to choose:

• Color
• Fabric
• Style
• Number of pieces and configuration
• Trim

When you attend handbell events with massed ringing, tour the ringing floor and see what colors and styles you like. Take pictures, make notes, and talk to the people ringing at your favorite tables about where they obtained their covers and what they like or dislike about their choice. If someone in the choir made them, ask to talk to that person, and get contact information in case of further questions. You can also go to YouTube and handbell musicians’ websites and look at the coverings used, though the camera may distort colors. For example, my sapphire table skirts look much brighter in person than on video. It can also be hard to discern construction details.

Color: If you play primarily in one location, like a church, think about how your color choices will fit that space. First find out if any major changes are planned, like carpeting or repainting, that could influence your color choices. In a liturgical church, determine whether any particular colors are frowned on because of their associations. For example, an Episcopal priest I know refused to let the bell choir buy a shade of blue she considered too “Catholic.” (The bell choir decided not to fight this battle, with plenty of other options to consider.) Other colors may have strong seasonal associations, like Christmas red, and you probably don’t have the luxury of changing table covers as freely as the Altar Guild changes the altar appointments. Ask who needs to be part of the decision, and make sure they participate throughout the process. You don’t want to spend a lot of time and money, then find out some key person is justifiably upset about your choice.

Table cover vendors supply fabric swatches, but they’re too small to tell how the covers will actually look in your space. When I made my first set of table covers, I initially planned purple skirts. As soon as the clerk unrolled the fabric from the bolt onto the table, I said “too much purple,” and asked for black instead. So get large fabric panels that approximate the colors you’re considering, then test them in the space. If you can borrow or rent tablecloths close to the colors under consideration, those work best. Otherwise, find items in your closet, like sweaters. Ideally, check these color samples in the same lighting conditions you usually perform in. Perhaps you can test them right after a Sunday morning service, when you can get all the decision-makers together.

A bell choir or soloist with heavy performing commitments outside a home church should consider what would look good in most spaces. You may want two sets of covers: one for formal concerts, and one for church services. You may also want covers especially for Christmas.

The most popular colors are black, burgundy/maroon, and navy blue. That’s because they form a neutral backdrop, coordinating well with most color schemes and wardrobe choices. These are similar to the color choices offered for commercially-made velvet covers: black, burgundy, and royal blue. Avoid white (too hard to keep clean), gold (not enough contrast with the bells), silver (conflicts with the bells), and bright red (overpowering, especially on camera). Hunter green (like burgundy and navy) never goes out of fashion. Other colors offered by handbell vendors include beige and medium blue.

Regardless of your choice, always practice on table covers that are the same color as your performance covers. In general, you get better results if your practice conditions match performance conditions. You can’t easily control many aspects of your performance conditions, like acoustics and lighting, but coordinating the color of your practice table is easy. Either use the actual performance table tops without skirts, buy extra fabric, or buy tablecloths or heavy muslin in the same color. When I started out, I would rehearse and perform on different colors, and it was very disconcerting to an inexperienced solo ringer. Once I realized this and stuck to the same color, my performance felt that much more secure. This also applies to fabric and foam. The table responds to damping and bell changes differently depending on what’s on top of it, so duplicate performance conditions as closely as possible during practice.

I always use black for my table tops even if the skirts are a different color. In fact, one criterion for table skirt colors is that they must look good with black. Obviously, black skirts work with a black top. I was surprised the first time I paired black with maroon; it looks really sharp. Below is a corduroy skirt from Malmark with my own corduroy top. Notice the bell symbol at the left; this is exclusive to Malmark, and helps position the table covers when you align the symbol with the front left corner.

I also have a sapphire blue skirt with a black top, and I like how that looks. (You can see it in the picture at the top of this article.) If I make another table skirt, it will probably be dark green, for Christmas and general use. In addition to choosing different colors for the top and skirt, you can add colors with trim, valances, banners, and/or embroidery.

Fabric: Corduroy is the classic fabric for bell table covers. I recommend it for the top, even if you use something else for the skirt. Corduroy is durable, comes in a wide variety of colors, and has good acoustic properties, if it’s mostly cotton. Use the heaviest corduroy you can find for the top, with a high percentage of cotton. Though 100% cotton wrinkles badly, wrinkles won’t show once you stretch the cover out on the table and put bells on it. A small percentage of spandex, for stretch, also helps. You can’t use 100% cotton corduroy for the skirts because you will never get all the wrinkles out, even with a handheld steamer. (You can’t iron corduroy.) You need some polyester in it. Jeffers offers corduroy (either as finished table covers or as yardage) that’s 83% cotton and 17% polyester. It’s very popular. If you’re ordering a skirt that matches the table top (not mixed colors like I do), you’ll probably use the same fabric for both, slightly compromising the sound quality to avoid the color mismatch that would probably result from two different fabrics.

With corduroy, also consider the wale (or ridges). The lower the number of ridges, the bigger they are; this is called wide wale. It might have a number like “4.“ Conversely, narrow ridges are called pinwale, or “16.“ Medium wale “14” is even better for a soloist, because the ridge helps coax a bell back into position, without actually getting in the way (as wide wale would). That’s what the handbell vendors offer, though they advertise it as pinwale. Some musicians prefer no-wale corduroy, with no ridges. You might consider this if your upstroke catches the ridges and makes a scraping sound. If buying covers ready-made, you won’t have a choice of wale; the vendor will offer only one option.

My practice table cover is heavy black corduroy (14 wale 95% cotton/5% spandex); I would buy again if I could find it. Note that corduroy is a seasonal fabric, usually available in stores only in the fall. Even if you place a special order (often a one bolt minimum), the warehouse won’t have it in stock. You’ll need to look for it online.

If you order ready-made corduroy table tops, they usually come with corduroy skirts. Velvet table skirts make a nice option for soloists or historic churches. Don’t use real velvet unless you really know what you’re doing. Besides the astronomical cost, real velvet is a fussy fabric. You can’t fold it (unless you put tissue paper in all the folds), or press it, or put pins in it (they make holes). Even if you have a suitable workspace to make something so large and fragile, and survive the sewing process (which takes far more skill than I have), transportation and care are problematic. For example, you need to transport and store velvet skirts on hangers instead of bags, boxes, or stuffed into your Port-a-Bell case. I recommend velour or crushed panne velvet instead. From a distance, it looks like velvet, but it’s far easier to work with, transport, and store. It’s also a fraction of the cost of real velvet, even cheaper than good corduroy. I haven’t found this fabric option available for commercially-made table skirts. If you want velvet skirts ready-made, you have to order real velvet, or else find someone to make them from a velvet substitute.

You test the acoustic properties of fabrics you’re considering (for table tops; skirts don’t matter) by taking a small piece of foam and a bell to the fabric store. Ring the bell and set it on the fabric-covered foam. It should continue to sound slightly, but not for long. If you buy covers ready-made, a handbell vendor will have taken this into account in choosing fabric to offer.

Finished table covers, especially for a whole bell choir, are surprisingly heavy. Make sure the fabric you’re buying will work for future setup and transportation.

Remember that fabric colors can vary from one dye lot to the next. Swatches don’t exactly reflect the color of your finished table coverings. If you buy table coverings after your initial purchase, they may not match. You may want to buy extra top pieces, which will wear out before the skirts do. If you’re buying yardage, check that it all comes from the same dye lot.

What I used: My table tops are made from black lightweight pinwale 100% cotton corduroy, which was all I could find locally. I would have preferred a heavier corduroy, in 14 wale with a little stretch to it. My table skirts (in the order I made them):

1) Black crushed panne velvet – Pictured below
2) Royal blue twill – Intended for church services, but it’s impossible to press. I don’t use this unless the table is hidden behind something. I made a back panel for this skirt, for churches where people walk behind me during the service.
3) Burgundy corduroy – Second attempt at skirt for church services, as well as venues that don’t allow enough setup time to use my black concert skirts. I made the mistake of using 100% cotton corduroy, because that was the only fabric I could find in the time available. I spent hours trying to steam out the wrinkles. You’d think I would have learned my lesson from the twill fiasco, but no-o-o-o-o-o-o-o. I would have been better off borrowing the Malmark skirt again and waiting until I could find the right fabric.
4) Sapphire velour – 100% polyester with some stretch. I bought this at a costume shop that sells it for skating outfits. It was pure joy to work with and doesn’t wrinkle. Success!

Style: You can get (or make) covers that range from a piece of fabric tossed over the table to an elaborate design that would feel at home on tables at Versailles. The fundamental choices you need to make are:

• Fitted or draped like a tablecloth – Fitted obviously looks more tailored.
• Pleated, gathered, or straight skirts – Using pleats or gathers adds fullness to the skirt. To me, pleats look more businesslike and gathers more luxurious. There are various options for pleats, and the length of fabric required will vary with the type of pleat (or amount of gathering) planned.
• Skirt length – The most popular is floor length. Some people use shorter skirts. This look doesn’t appeal to me, because bell table legs are seldom attractive. Using a floor-length skirt also allows you to store bell cases and paraphernalia under the table. That both cleans up the stage (so you avoid a backdrop littered with empty bell cases and gear boxes) and provides added security for your possessions. It would be very hard for someone to steal your purse or wallet from underneath the solo table while you’re ringing there. Some fabrics look luxurious if they’re slightly longer than floor length, and allowed to “puddle” on the floor. That works only if the stage is off-limits to the audience. Otherwise, someone is sure to step on your beautiful fabric skirts, possibly tearing them, when they come talk to you after the concert. The skirt should just graze the floor, but it’s hard to factor in every possible floor surface (carpet? wood? terrazzo?). It’s better to have half an inch too short than half an inch too long, so the skirt will hang properly.

Something that I’ve looked into, but haven’t tested, is banquet or trade show table skirts. These come in numerous colors, fabrics, and table lengths, but only a single height (29”). If that works for you (or if you can shorten these skirts), you can clip them onto your tables as an underskirt, then drape a corduroy panel over the top of the foam like a pelmet or valance. You can also buy clips to attach another skirt (perhaps one you’ve made) to the table. Some people use Velcro for that, but it makes the table edge a sticky mess.

Number of pieces: Table covers often have a top piece edged with Velcro, to which you attach a separate skirt. The skirt usually wraps around the front, sides, and about a foot at each end on the back. The advantage of a separate skirt/top configuration is that it’s easier to handle than a single piece, and it’s easier to launder (if the fabric is washable). You’re more likely to need to clean the top than the skirt, especially if the skirt is used only for performances. Conversely, a single piece can save time at the end of the concert, because you just flip the skirt up onto the table and roll the whole cover up.

You also need to consider how many pieces you want along the length of the table. As a soloist, I prefer a single table top surface, without breaks. This gives me the flexibility to set bells down anywhere, without rolling. Some soloists use the breaks as landmarks, especially between bells like E and F that are hard to distinguish during jumps. A single length for a choir would be unwieldy and limit setup options in different spaces. I suggest a mixture of 3’, 6’, and 9’ top covers to match your table sizes, which should be modular. For 4’ and 8’ tables, you would of course use 4’ and 8’ covers. You can order a different size top than skirt. For example, you might want 3’ pads for ease of transport, with a single 9’ or 12’ skirt across the front. This both creates a more unified look and reduces the gap between tables that results from the table skirt thickness, where it wraps around the pad.

If you travel with your solo bells and have to adapt to either an 8’ or 9’ table at different venues, have your table coverings made to fit the 9’ table, with a separate top and skirt. Sew extra Velcro (the soft “loop” side, not the rough “hook” side) along the table top so it will also fit an 8’ table. You can do this at both ends (with each piece of Velcro 6” from the end) or just 12” in from one end (I suggest the bass). Then you can use the Velcro strip as another landmark on the table. If your table skirt is long enough for a 9’ table, you can easily wrap it further around the back to fit an 8’ table.

You can buy a style from Malmark called Tote-Pac, where you stuff foam permanently into a kind of envelope, either 3 foot (1 piece of foam) or 6 foot (2 pieces of foam, with the whole package folding in half so it’s 3 feet long). This makes it easier to carry the foam and table top cover as a unit. The disadvantage is that you end up practicing on your performance covers, unless you buy more fabric to lay on top, or have a duplicate set of foam. I also had a lot of trouble stuffing the foam into the fabric, as it tended to stick. I’ve since heard you can wrap plastic garbage bags around the foam, which makes it slide in more easily. You also have to train the bell choir to undo the Velcro fastenings before setting the foam down on the table. Otherwise, the foam forms a ridge in the middle of the 6’ covers (at the joint between two pieces of foam), causing bells to roll.

If you simply drape fabric panels over the foam, avoid overlapping fabric edges on the table top. On rapid bell changes, it’s too easy to pick up the fabric edge along with the bell, possibly upsetting other equipment.

Wenatchee PAC closeup of table skirtsSkirt trim: You can order skirts with the bottom hemmed, covered with matching braid, or with matching tassel trim. Hemming a heavy fabric makes it bulkier. Tassel trim will leave the table legs (and anything stored under the table) visible to the audience. That’s mostly an issue if you perform on a stage where the bottom of your table cover is at eye level to the audience. Braid seems to work well, sealing the bottom edge without adding bulk. If you make your own skirts, you can put trim at the top instead of (or in addition to) the bottom. My black concert table skirt has a beautiful ribbon at the top. However, it takes extra time to straighten the ribbon during setup. Then during teardown, I have to attach an extra length of Velcro to shield the table skirt’s sewn-in Velcro. Otherwise, it snags the ribbon as I fold the skirt.

You can order banners, valances, and custom embroidery from vendors who sell custom table skirts. These can change the look of your basic covers for different occasions. Vendors also offer mallet/glove pockets for the ringer side of the table. These are very useful for a choir, but not necessarily for a soloist. I made a small mallet pocket to attach to my practice table. I could also use this in performance, but prefer to keep the mallets on the table or extras table until I’ve used them, then put them in the gear box under the table.

Vendors who provide custom handbell table covers include:

• Jeffers (now owns Covers by Norris) – Jeffers fulfills orders taken by the other vendors
• Malmark
• Schulmerich

The vendors either provide detailed information online or will send you an information packet, with swatches. There may be a small charge for this, or they may ask you to return the swatches.

You need to provide:
• Choices about color, fabric, style, and trim (including trim color, which can match or contrast with the fabric)
• Number of tables/covers
• Brand of table
• For each table: height from floor to table top, table width, table length
• For each piece of table foam: height, width, length (either separately, or included in table measurements) – sometimes you don’t get a choice of skirt length; the vendor just asks if you’re using 3” or 4” foam.
• Any other items you want, like banners, valances, mallet pockets, cover bags, or skirt hangers

Be sure to measure the actual tables you plan to use, in the space and configuration you usually perform in. Remember to factor in leg extenders or wheels, if you have them. Even carpet pads under your table legs can affect skirt length. Measure carefully, preferably with a metal tape measure (fabric stretches); don’t guess or trust your memory. Custom covers can’t be returned, so this could be a costly mistake. You should receive a confirmation of your order with a request for you to sign off on the details. This would be a good opportunity to double-check all measurements.

Allow a minimum 8 weeks’ lead time for your custom table cover order for Christmas or Easter delivery, 6 weeks at other times of the year. Individuals should plan to prepay their orders, though churches, schools, and other organizations with established accounts may get 30 day payment terms.

I’ll write another time about making your own table covers.

Copyright © 2013 Nancy Kirkner,