There was a time, in our grandparents’ or perhaps even our great-grandparents’ day, when a bride was given several sets of table linens at her wedding, and later might hope to inherit heirloom family sets over subsequent years. Through the generations, homes of yesteryear could amass quite a collection. There were entire pieces of furniture (or even rooms!) created just to store linens and many, many instructions on how they should be used, cared for, and stored. In those days, no hostess would consider entertaining without a properly dressed table, and to past generations, laying a gracious table included layers of table linens: tablecloths, runners, placemats…and always drifts of napkins in various sizes, from tiny cocktail squares to pillowcase-sized dinner napkins, and everything in between.
The modern hostess—or host, for that matter—knows that many of those old rules and requirements are both cumbersome and too labor-intensive for modern entertaining. Elaborate, towering centerpieces are often replaced with more conversation-friendly designs that enable dinner guests to see each other across a table, silverware requirements are often far more modest, and many-course, sit-down meals are often abandoned for more casual buffet-style dining. One thing, however, that has endured from the tables through the years is that cloth napkins remain an important—and necessary—component of a gracious tablescape, particularly when entertaining, at the holidays and year round.
Cloth napkins are more elegant and sustainable than their inexpensive paper cousins, but there is a time and a place for both. In general, very large or very messy affairs (think barbecue rib cook-offs) are better suited to disposable napkins. But cloth napkins do not have to be synonymous with the stiff formality of a state dinner. The fabric and design of your napkins can have a big influence on the tone of the meal.
If you are lucky enough to have been given or inherited sets of napkins, rejoice! These are the perfect start to your family’s napkin collection. Vintage linen is often made with longer (higher quality) fibers than the linen of today, so you might have heirlooms that you can enjoy now and pass along to the next generation. If you are purchasing your own napkin sets, look for those made of linen or cotton. Of these two, linen is the stronger and the most absorbent. Linen, and woven linen damask, its upscale cousin, both display a classic crispness and “sheen” when ironed, instantly dressing up any table. Cotton is also a good choice, especially for everyday or casual napkins. It is less formal and softer to the touch, and, if whisked out of a warm dryer immediately, might not even need ironing. Avoid polyester fabric napkins. Though inexpensive, and easy to care for (no ironing required), they may look inexpensive and feel even worse.
Size is another consideration. The common size for dinner napkins is between 22 inches square and 24 inches square. Luncheon napkins are slightly smaller—18 inches square up to 20 inches square, and cocktail napkins, the tiny squares meant to sit under drinks to absorb condensation, are usually 6 inches square. To start a napkin collection, or to augment an existing one, it is not necessary to choose separate luncheon and dinner napkins, however. No one will be measuring, and you can creatively fold napkins to approximate the same size. Consider purchasing a minimum of 8, but 12 is better; having a few extras in case one of your napkins gets stained, torn or lost is always a good idea.
Etiquette experts will suggest that when starting your cloth napkin collection, you should choose napkins in white or ivory. The reasoning is that these are always elegant and are appropriate on a very formal table, but can also be at home on a less formal table—and they will match everything. However, today’s creative hostesses often throw the whole matching idea out of the window, preferring to mix up colors and patterns of napkins to create a more festive, fun and informal tablescape. Bold colors and whimsical patterns in coordinating colors personalize a table and set the scene for a relaxed event, so chose colors you like and that look nice with your other table decor. Don’t be afraid to mix and match. Try stripes with florals, or a bold pattern with a similar one in a smaller repeat or scale, to add dimension and personality to your table.
Speaking of personalization, there are practically limitless ways to personalize napkins. Since they don’t require lots of yardage, the napkins themselves can be made yourself, DIY-style, or purchased and then personalized. Embroidery, stenciling and hemstitching are time-honored methods of napkin embellishment. Delicately stitched patterns or monograms elevate the plain Jane napkin to a scene grabber. Remember, though, as you personalize, that you will likely fold these napkins in some way, so keep that in mind when choosing where and how to embroider or monogram. The most common placement is in the bottom left corner, so that when folded, the monogram will show right-side up. For cocktail napkins, embellishments go in the center.
Whether you choose to embellish your napkins or not, you still have many ways of personalizing, dressing up and displaying this hard-working accessory. Folded napkins at each setting become a canvas of sorts for a little tableau of creativity at each seat. A fancy napkin fold—such as the Christmas tree or snowflake for a holiday meal—is one way to dress up the setting. Another way is with add-ons like themed napkin rings (burlap and dried flowers at Thanksgiving, or jingle bells in December) and/or placecards or menus tucked into the napkin’s folds (the tuxedo jacket fold with a menu tucked inside would be darling at New Year’s.)
Whether you choose the timeless elegance of starched linen, the nostalgia of heirloom linen, the informal whimsy of mix-and-match cotton patterns, or anything in between, there are napkins to complement your own taste and style—and endless ways to dress them up or down to create a fun and welcoming atmosphere at your table this season. Beautiful napkins are an easy and inexpensive way to personalize your own gracious table at the holidays and beyond.