By M. Diane McCormick
Claudia Himes lays down a swatch of “Rio” – deep teal taffeta embroidered with sea-glass aqua sequins and gold thread. Himes loves Rio for event tables, “but a whole room of Rio is a lot of Rio.” She adds a sample of green-satin “Clover,” and suggests the bold paisley in blues, pale golds and earthy greens called “Watertown” for the bar tables.
“Now we have a female aspect, a male aspect and a quieter aspect that allows the life of each of those fabrics to shine,” she says. “Harmonies are often more visually interesting than one-notes, even if the one-note is fantastic.”
Himes is in the showroom of Special Occasions & Queen Street Linens, the Lancaster events-linen business founded by her mother in 1983. Even when illness struck the family, Marcie Woodson would dress rooms for every occasion.
“She always said, ‘Dress the part, and you will rise to it,’” says Himes.
Special Occasions offers event linen rentals – tablecloths, napkins, runners – in 140 fabrics, plus custom linens for purchase. The business operates from a 1907 building – post-and-beam construction, wood floors, rope-pulled elevator – that originally made umbrella ribs. In those days, Lancaster was the black-silk umbrella capital of the world.
“We’re a niche in the party industry,” says Himes. “We just do linens. We’re just one part of the umbrella.”
The location allows Special Occasions to reach events throughout the Mid-Atlantic. Clients range from the maid of honor renting one table runner for a bridal shower to elaborate weddings in the DuPont country of Wilmington, Del. Himes recently tied double bows in willow organza on 48 chairs for a spectacular, crystal-bedecked table at a Longwood Gardens fundraiser.
“There’s no party too small for us,” Himes says. “We’ll rent one tablecloth. We like to help with whatever you need to make your outfit right.”
The perfect linens, arrayed properly, set an event’s tone, says Himes. Fundraisers might want to announce to guests at first encounter that they’re in for a special night. But, at a wedding, the cocktail-hour area often calls for simpler, lower-cost linens because guests are busy reconnecting with family members and friends.
“The reveal of the wedding dinner is where we want to get them gasping again, the way they did when the bride came down the aisle,” Himes says.
Special Occasions’ 14 full- and part-time employees work with a precision worthy of an Army mobilization.
Fabric is pre-washed, and pieces are sewn to exact measurements meant to maintain their shapes. Every design is stored by type, size and name – “Admiral,” “Blush Damask,” “Bollywood.” Event shipments are carefully boxed, labeled and color-coded.
Himes’ mother, still a Lancaster County resident and active in the community, taught efficiency, communications and organization. Every problem is solvable, Woodson advised. Good luck comes to people who plan.
Himes’ father, Tom Woodson, was in the materials-handling business. He believed in treating everyone like the president of the company, a philosophy that proves its worth for Special Occasions when back-of-the-house staff help track down a stray napkin.
Collaboration is a key to success, says Himes. Event sites get advanced lists of all orders, minus the prices paid, so organizers can spot potential snafus, such as the bride who orders all 60-inch rounds but actually needs two 72-inch cloths in the mix. If the flowers are meant to be the star, Special Occasions guides linens toward a supporting role.
“A lot of people think one linen,” says Himes. “They don’t think mixing and matching and creating harmonies. We can express to them how different fabrics can play. We call the linens the dress of the room.”