The Etiquette Behind Cloth Napkins

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By Cindy Edwards

I simply adore linen napkins. They set a beautiful table and make any meal or occasion just a little more special. There was a time (prior to paper napkins) when they were commonplace at most tables.
Napkin rings were not only decorative, but also functional. During the nineteenth century, silversmiths created napkin rings that were engraved with a name or specific number for each family member. After meals, the napkins were returned to the proper ring and only laundered about once a week.

Unfortunately, today cloth napkins seem to be reserved for special occasions. However, there is a silver lining: Because fewer people use them, you can find gorgeous—and reasonably priced—linen napkins at antique shops and estate sales. I enjoy collecting the ones with the beautiful and detailed monograms of yesteryear.

If you are not into antiques, the selections and price ranges of modern linen napkins are endless. Monogramming is affordable and adds a very nice touch. Work with your local monogram shop to design something that’s befitting the style of your home.

Below are some of the most common questions that people have asked about the proper use of napkins.

When do I remove the napkin from the table?

If you are having dinner at someone’s home, you should wait until the hostess is seated and places her napkin in her lap. This is her signal to her guests that the meal has begun. 

If you are dining in a restaurant or in a casual setting, you should place the napkin in your lap as soon as you are seated. At some nice restaurants, the waiter may assist you by unfolding and placing the napkin in your lap.

How should I place the napkin in my lap?

It should be partially unfolded with only one crease in the middle. The centerfold crease should be placed toward your body.

What do I do with the napkin when I leave the table during the meal?

Years ago, the rule was to place the napkin in your chair if you excused yourself during the meal. This placement was a signal to the wait staff that you would be returning. However, it is now acceptable to gently fold the napkin and place it to the left of your plate.

How often do I use my napkin?

You should use your napkin as often as you feel the need, but only to blot and never to wipe!

Try to keep the napkin as clean as possible. Do not wipe your lipstick on the napkin and only dab at the corners of your mouth. The napkin should not be used to wipe your nose or face. Also, the napkin should not be used to clean your silverware.

What do I do with my napkin when I am finished with the meal?

If the plate has already been removed, loosely fold and place it in the center of the place setting. Otherwise, just lay it gently to the left of your plate. The loose folds should cover any stains that may have occurred while you were dining.

Below are a few examples of table settings with different ideas for folding napkins.

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A napkin can add a special touch to a simple place setting and notice how a white-on-white monogram pops off a busy patterned dinner plate.

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A fold that really accentuates the monogram. The dark linen color is perfect for autumn. I use this napkin every Thanksgiving. 

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Because this place setting is a little more involved, I chose to simply fold the napkin and place it to the left.

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The napkin ring at this place setting enhances the plate and the napkin.

Now, go rummage through your drawers, visit your local linen or antique shop and find the perfect napkins for you and your lifestyle. Cloth napkins set a beautiful table and make your family and friends feel so special.

Properly yours,
Cindy

Cindy Edwards embodies everything pretty, perky and proper about the South. She's a wife, mother, volunteer and freelance writer. Cindy volunteers enough hours to exhaust most by serving on the Board of Trustees for the Telfair Museums, the Savannah Book Festival Board of Directors and the University of Georgia Honors Advisory Board. She has also served on the Boards of the March of Dimes and Young Life Savannah. Cindy has been married to her college sweetheart, Dr. Joe Edwards III, for 25 years and is the proud mother of two sons: Joe IV, a senior at the University of Georgia, and Jack, a freshman at Ole Miss. No matter how busy, Cindy always makes time for a competitive game of bridge.
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Leave a Comment

Reader Comments:

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This site was... how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something which helped me. Thank you!

By simple goose recipes on November 18, 2012

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Are cloth napkins with paper plates an acceptable setting for an event or dinner?? I think this is tacky.

By Char on August 30, 2012

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Beautiful photos. Thank you for another great post on Southern traditions and manners.

By Anonymous on March 11, 2012

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I never know where to place the napkins, Thanks!

By Shirley on December 15, 2011

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I like cloth napkins, make the table look special and unique.

By Servetele on November 12, 2011

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I just love the elegance of linen napkins and I think that is a wonderful way to complete a table setting.

By Jimmie Ruth on August 13, 2011

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I think a neatly folded linen napkin really formalizes a place setting and dresses a table. Thanks for another great blog Cindy!

By Jamie on July 28, 2011

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We always use cloth napkins, every meal. I never use paper napkins because I don't like throw-away items. It's on those very rare occasions when I fix fried chicken or messy hamburgers that we use paper towels. I also don't use paper plates or cups even for picnics. I have plastic plates and cups that we reuse. For holidays and special occasions, nothing thrills me more than to set a table with my Mother's Lenox Wheat pattern and all the crystal stemware and silverware. And cloth napkins with embroidered flowers that my Mother made. Do ya'll remember Paula Deen magazine of December 2006 I believe it was. She had a brunch with Bobby, Jamie and Brooke and she was using holly pattern "Adam Antique" dishes made by Canonsburg. I have those same dishes! I was so thrilled to see them in the magazine article. Mary from Tennessee.

By Mary on July 27, 2011

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Linen napkins are one the important details in setting a great table. I have fond memories of my mother setting themed tables for us using linen napkins with coordinating napkin rings. It's all about the presentation! Thank you for sharing this with us.

By Anonymous on July 21, 2011

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My comment is about cloth napkins. Many years ago I met a lady from another country. She said it was the custom among her friends to fold a nice paper napkin in with the cloth napkin. When you remove the napkin ring, place the cloth napkin in your lap and put the paper napkin to the left of your plate. Always wipe your mouth with the paper napkin never the cloth one. The cloth napkin is to special (and many times hand embrodered or nice quality ) to purposely stain it with lipstick and other things from your mouth. I have been including the nice paper napkin in my cloth napkin for many years. Esther Kramer Indianapolis In 317-251-1606

By esther Kramer on July 19, 2011

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@ Melynda. Thank you for your interest. I hope to post a napkin-folding blog soon. Cindy

By Cindy Edwards on July 14, 2011

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@ Mary Benson. You are right - These napkins are not for messy fingers! Thanks. Cindy

By Cindy Edwards on July 14, 2011

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@Joyce. Stay tuned! I will post a napkin-folding blog soon. Thanks! Cindy

By Cindy Edwards on July 14, 2011

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@ Libbie Summers. I bought the green wine glasses at an estate sale in Savannah. Glad you like them! Thanks. Cindy

By Cindy Edwards on July 14, 2011

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@Terri D. I recommend blotting lipstick before sitting down for dinner. Thank you for your question. Cindy

By Cindy Edwards on July 14, 2011

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@Karon. Thank you for your question. I discussed laundering techniques with my friend, Liz Palles. She recommends treating the spots with "Zout" first and soaking in cold water overnight. If the napkins are still stained, she applies lemon juice and direct sunlight. Good luck!! Cindy

By Cindy Edwards on July 14, 2011

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enjoy the information, find myself only using cloth napkins on special occasions but could easily use more, & toss in wash, interesting that use to be changed weekly, I might use for the 2 of us in that way.

By Henri Etta Tharpe on July 13, 2011

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I enjoyed reading about etiquette with cloth napkins. I would love to see more on table etiquette in the future.

By jerry vasaoikku on July 13, 2011

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So it sounds like you shouldn't use these if you're going to get messy fingers---eat the fried chicken with fork and knife?

By Mary Benson on July 13, 2011

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By Mary Benson on July 13, 2011

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Paula Deen
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hi! wink i was wondering if you could share the recipe for the chiken/grape salad-the one that is pictured on the croissant above? thanks! wink sandra
Sandra Neuheimer-Huller in Chicken Salad: A Southern Staple on April 19, 2014 at 9:37 am

Where do I buy these magazines
in A Basketful of Traditions on April 19, 2014 at 7:22 am

I WISH I COULD COOK. COULD I COME WORK FOR JUST ROOM AND BOARD AT YOUR NEW RESTURAUNT IN PIGEON FORGE FOR THE SUMMER? I WENT TO COLLEGE NOT FAR FROM THERE - HIWASSEE COLLEGE. YOU WOULDN'T HAVE TO PAY ME, I WOULD WORK FOR FREE JUST FOR THE EXPERIENCE. TAMMY LEVAN 19 SPENCER WAY KINGS PARK, NY 11754 HAPPY EASTER! CHRIST IS RISEN!
TAMMY L LEVAN in A Basketful of Traditions on April 19, 2014 at 3:31 am

Hi Bubbles, You have some great tips. Can't wait to read your other blogs! Please give Aunt Peggy a big hug from me and here is one for you! (((HUGS))) See you in May!
Jaci Pardun in 10 Quick Household Tips on April 18, 2014 at 10:05 pm

Paula, I am glad to know that I am not the only person who makes Easter Baskets for their adult children and mail them across the United States. My Daughter lives in Long Beach, CA and I not only sent her a basket but her husband and my granddaughter Reese. We also buy special Russel Stover Bunnies for each child too. My husband has the list in his phone... Sara .. Cookies 'n Crème.... Sidney and Stephen.. Peanut Butter Etc. It one of my favorite things to do for my kids.. no matter how old they get. And passing it along to my Grandchildren. It's even more special to me knowing we share a family tradition. Blessings and Happy Easter!!
Sharon Cason-Card in A Basketful of Traditions on April 18, 2014 at 10:03 pm