Half a croissant, on a plate, with a sign in front of it saying '50c'
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Puzzle Piece Tablecloth

Instead of washing or replacing the entire table cover just replace the splotched bits
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Many place mats are currently fabricated from thin pressboard, cork or similar materials. I suggest a product containing a large set of these cut in the manner of a jigsaw puzzle. These fully interlocking mats would link together in such a manner as to cover the full table surface. Such tessellation would provide the entire table with protection from both heat and spills.

When the inevitable happens and a piece is damaged or terminally stained, it is a simple matter to replace that single piece rather than the entire table covering. Five or more spare pieces should be included in the pack to allow for replacements or table extensions. The number of spares depends upon the size of the original pieces. I envision a size similar to current place mats but you could make them as small as you wish down to the size of coasters and beyond.

Practicality requires that a minimal number of shapes be used for to allow for interchangeability of pieces. Ideally there would be one shape for sides, one for corners and one for the middle pieces. Furthermore, the pieces should have mirrored symmetry where possible so that you could flip pieces over for reuse.

On the other hand, if one is seeking a thoughtful yet awkward gift for the in-laws, you could design a set where each of the many small pieces is subtly different from the others and they will only combine together in one particular pattern. Setting the table for dinner could actually take them longer than preparing the meal itself and I guarantee that they will always be thinking of you while using your kind gift. And it is the thought that counts.

AusCan531, Dec 28 2011

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       nice idea. the spares might not fit though - which is hardly a problem if its a temporary measure.
po, Dec 28 2011
  

       Very creative! Plus, kids would enjoy putting the table cover together when setting the table.
phundug, Dec 28 2011
  

       Simply put a regular tablecloth underneath. Oh, wait a minute.
phundug, Dec 28 2011
  
      
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