In the 16th century, napkins became an accepted form of refinement in dining, and by the 17th century, the standard napkin was about 35 inches wide by 45 inches long (this was a time when people ate with their hands and needed to wipe more food stuff off). In the 18th century, the fork was accepted by all classes of society and brought neatness to dining that reduced the size of the napkin to approximate 30x36 inches (whereas it had been much larger before). Today, napkins are made in a variety of sizes, but typically for a formal, multi-course meal, a large square napkin (between 22 and 26 inches on each side) is used.
At a formal affair, to save space at a place setting, the napkin is placed directly on the table or on a service plate (if one is already in place when guests are seated) in the center of a cover. At an informal meal, the napkin is placed wherever and however the host/hostess likes.
Napkins are sometimes folded into fun and/or fancy shapes. the 18" napkin is easiest to fold in a decorative manner, and you can even create these artistic centerpieces at home! Your guests will love it. To retain shape, before folding a napkin, you can lightly starch the fabric and iron out any creases. Heavier fabrics will hold shape well, whereas lightweight fabrics are recommended for horizontal (closer to the table) folds. A wise hostess will have extra napkins ready just in case.
When you are dining, your napkin should be unfolded and placed in your lap. It should be kept there at all times until you leave the table. When you leave the table, be careful not to drop it on the floor, and do not leave it in a heap at your spot. Fold it (however you'd like) and place it along the left side of your place setting (so as to leave room for the next course to arrive in the center if you are away) or fold it (soiled side up) on your chair.
Note: I've had a number of people send their napkins back on their plates after the main course. I would not recommend making this a habit because:
1) you may need it for dessert as well.
2) the main course often has juices on the plate and the napkin will get even messier there than it did when you used it for your face and hands.
3) it makes it more difficult for servers to clear when they have to consider napkins as well. Their focus at that point is on getting your dishes back to the kitchen so that they can bring you the next part of your meal (which might be coffee or cake), so let them work! :)
A Few More Napkin Etiquette Notes:
- Before unfolding your napkin at a seated meal, wait for the hostess to remove her napkin from the table and unfold it in her lap. If the meal is buffet style, unfold it when you are ready.
- When messy finger food is served, such as shellfish or spare ribs, before tucking your napkin under your chin or tying it around your neck, look to the host to see if he does the same.
- Use the napkin to blot the lips, not wipe the mouth.
- When a napkin ring is provided, place it to the top left of the cover above the forks.
- Ladies: Please refrain from replenishing your lipstick before sitting down at the table. This is done to prevent an imprint of lipstick on the rim of a glass or a napkin.
Here are a few fun folds you can try yourself! I did these at home with napkins we got at Kohls and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Nothing super fancy, but they look pretty special, don't they?!
- When sneezing or coughing at the table is unavoidable, turn your head to the side (careful not to sneeze on your neighbor or anyone's food), cover your nose or mouth with a napkin and proceed as quietly as possible. Never use your napkin to wipe/blow your nose. Use a handkerchief or a tissue instead, and if needed, excuse yourself to go elsewhere and get a tissue or some toilet paper if you do not have anything.
- If you have to burp, cover your mouth with a napkin, quietly burp and softly say, "Excuse me".
- If you have the hiccups, excuse yourself from the table until they have passed. Say sorry quietly when you return and move on :) No biggie.
The Tavern Fold is commonly seen at restaurants and dining venues. For Step 3, you'll want to turn your napkin so that the middle point of the triangle is facing upward (long edge at the bottom) and pull the 2 side corners up to the center. For Step 4, you'll flip the whole thing over and pull what was the bottom corner (in step 3) downward. For Step 5, you pick the whole thing up from the middle line and stand it up on the table.
The Fan is an easy fold, and a pretty way to incorporate your napkin and a glass at a place setting. Fold the napkin in half with the fold at the top, fold it accordion-style from left to right and place one end into the glass (fold still along the top).
The Pocket Fold is used at many venues as well, and is very popular today for weddings, as brides & grooms are creating menu cards that fit inside.
The Bow Tie is simple, yet fun on the table. Fold into a triangle, roll from the point to the long edge and tie the rope into a loose knot.
The Astoria Fold is especially pretty when you have a monogram on one corner of your napkin.
The Luncheon Fold is nice when pulled through a napkin ring or tied with a bow.
The Envelope Fold is fun for kids' parties.
The Sailboat Fold is, too!
This different take on the Pocket Fold was the first fold that I learned and one that I've used for years. It's fun and easy and sweet for knives, forks and spoons to start out the meal in a little home.
The Echo Fold is a bit complicated, but is so neat! Fold the napkin in half, then fold each side in twice so that it reaches the center and looks sort of like a scroll. Fold one side backward behind the other and adjust. You can put it out vertically or horizontally, and you can even add a little decoration if desired.
The Orchid Fold is beautiful and is the main feature of our dining room table right now! Fold the napkin in half, then bring each of the top corners down to the bottom center. Then, take the 2 bottom corners and bring them UP to the center. Finally, add a napkin ring and fold down the 2 top wings to make your flower petals.
The Candlestick is pretty simple, and will stand on its own when created with a stronger fabric, or with a napkin ring if not. Fold into a big triangle, fold up the bottom a few inches, flip it over and start rolling from one side to the other. Tuck the end into the fold and voila!
Try not to leave your napkin like this.
The Artichoke fold opens in the center and can be used to keep rolls warm.
The Bishop's Hat is a standalone fold that can be folded down (below) for a different look!
The Cathedral Fold is a small, pretty fold that does not take very long to create.
The Diamond Fold is slightly complicated, but really cool! I added a little bow that I had floating around.
Here's the back of the Diamond fold.
The Fleur-de-lis Fold has a very majestic look.
The Fortunella Fold is appropriate for any meal.
The Iris Fold is a European custom that goes way back. Please forgive the napkin ring tags- I've since removed them!
Thanks to The Simple Art of Napkin Folding by Linda Hetzer, which I found at my local library, and which inspired this folding frenzy! There are many more folds out there, but these were just a few that I tried and liked. Hope they inspire you, too.