Yay!! During the summer we finally got back to inviting our friends over for a meal, and I am so happy about it!! I love cooking for people, and a huge part of the pleasure is setting an inviting table: choosing the tablecloth or placemats, designing a centerpiece, and arranging the napkins, dishes, flatware and glasses just so. And although I often use my good silverware (because it just feels special), I don’t like things to be overly fancy or formal. I’m always aiming for a “relaxed, but elegant” look.
One way to achieve that is using cloth napkins. I particularly like fringed linen ones. But have you checked out the cost of those guys?? They can be pretty pricy. (At Pottery Barn: $48 for 4 frayed linen napkins.). Yikes!! What to do? It’s a conundrum.
That’s where handmade fringed linen napkins come in. These are gorgeous and super-simple even if a bit time-consuming. They require only a tiny amount of sewing (easy by machine, but still doable by hand.). You can leave them plain like these simple white ones for our Thanksgiving table. Or you can decorate them. I made these these grey ones for a gift using fabric paint and leaves to create a distinct motif on each napkin.
Oh, and did I mention that they’re seriously cost-effective?? You can buy beautiful, washable linen-look fabric for about $13/yard. With three yards of fabric and some pretty thread (about $40), you can make ten 20” dinner napkins plus 15 cocktail napkins. What a deal!!
HERE’S HOW TO MAKE THEM
First, figure out how many napkins you want to make, and what size. Dinner napkins typically range from 18” square to 22” square. Luncheon napkins are smaller, usually around 14” to 16” square, and cocktail napkins are even smaller--I make mine 6” square. You can choose any size you want.
At the yardage store look for washable linen or linen-like fabric. Typically, it comes in widths around 52”. Doing the math, you can cut two 21” dinner napkins from a 52” wide piece of fabric, and have enough material left over to make cocktail napkins. Note that because you’re not hemming these, you can cut the fabric to the exact final size.
For example, if you decide to make twelve 21” square napkins, you’ll need 126” of fabric, or 3 ½ yards. (Remember, you’re getting two napkins out of each 21” length of fabric because it’s 52” wide.). To be safe though, I always add an extra ¼ yard to my calculations to allow for shrinkage and an uneven cut at the fabric store. So, for this project I’d buy 3 ¾ yards.
Before cutting, always wash and iron your fabric. Then fold it in half lengthwise, carefully lining up the selvages. (This is important because—without making yourself crazy--you want to cut your napkins along the grain of the fabric as closely as possible. That ensures they’ll be truly square, and any small corrections to even things out can be done during fringing.)
Now you should have a 3 ¾” long, double layer piece of material. Iron it again to crease the fold. At this point I lay the fabric on the (clean) floor, and straight pin along all the edges so it stays in place as I measure and then cut it.
Next, using a measuring stick and a colored pencil, I mark my fabric into 21” squares, starting right at fold. (Any colored pencil marks will disappear once you fringe your napkins.). If the fabric is really long, sometimes I’ll pin the individually marked squares so they don’t shift as I cut them out. Do a quick re-measure before starting to cut--no mistakes here!
Once you’ve cut out the six 21” squares from the doubled fabric, slip your scissors inside the fold of each piece and cut them apart. Unpin everything. At this point you should have twelve pieces of fabric, each 21” square.
Now for fringing! Decide how big you want the fringe to be—usually ¼” to ½” on smaller napkins, and around ¾” on larger ones. Next you need to make a border along the edge of the napkin so it won’t unravel after washing. Do this by sewing a simple square ¾” on from the edge of the fabric along the four sides of each 21”piece. You can use any color thread—I often use a slightly iridescent, neutral color, which is easy to see when you fringe, and it becomes a very subtle detail on the finished napkins.
Creating the fringe is easy, but it does take patience and good lighting! Look at the edge of your first napkin. You’ll notice it’s slightly rough and maybe there are some hanging loose threads. Start by gently pulling one loose thread until it comes out of the fabric. Only pull one thread at a time, or you’ll end up with a snag. You can use a straight pin to loosen each thread so it’s easier to grab.
As you’re making the fringe, you’ll probably notice that it’s not even—you may have pulled enough threads that the fringe on the right side is up to your line of stitching, but on the left side it’s only ¼” wide. No worries—DO NOT USE YOUR SCISSORS!! Just keep gently pulling the threads on the left side until they stop at the line of stitching. Then trim that thread to match the length of the rest of the fringe. Eventually you will end up with an even fringe. Do this on all four sides of each napkin. And voila!!! A beautiful handmade, fringed cloth napkin!!
EMBELLISHING YOUR FRINGED NAPKINS
There’s lots of ways to decorate your napkins. You can embroider or stamp a monogram or shape in the corner, along the edges, or all over your napkin; or you can stitch lines of contrasting thread across them.
On the grey napkins in this article, I used leaves from my yard and metallic fabric paint. Put the open napkin on a plastic trash bag (to protect your surface). Using a brush, apply a thin layer of paint to the leaf and place it facedown in the desired location on the napkin. Lay a paper towel over the leaf, then gently use a rolling pin to transfer the leaf impression. Carefully remove the paper towel and the leaf and let the painted napkin dry. You can do one leaf or scatter them over the whole napkin. The options are endless!
Use caution with this technique, though. If your fabric is light-colored or thin, the paint may bleed through. Practice on a scrap of the same material, using more or less paint until you’re satisfied with the result.
-Figure out what the maximum number of guests you’re likely to have, and make/buy that number of napkins, plus two. That way if a napkin gets lost or ruined, you’ll still have a full set. (I always make fourteen, because I never entertain more than twelve people for dinner.)
-All that thread that you pulled out for your fringe can be added to your compost pile (assuming you used fabric made of natural fibers like linen or cotton.)
-Beside linen and linen-look fabrics, you can also use Prairie Cloth, or even some kinds of washable upholstery fabric.