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Embroidery and the Art of Napkin Folds

Embroidery and the Art of Napkin Folds

Embroidery and the Art of Napkin Folds

By Cathy Sundermann

The art of folding napkins was first documented in the year 1639. Yes, the 1600’s! Napkin folding was considered a highly regarded art form. Universities and schools had classes dedicated to the art of folding. Heads of households paid to send their staff members to these schools in Rome and Florence to learn folding techniques or they hired an expert to come teach the skills in their home. The folded napkins were intended to impress their guests plus be utilitarian by holding place cards, bread, sweets, or even a live bird. (Side note…..I’ve never folded a live bird in my napkins!) The napkins were intended to delight the guests while impressing the guests with the host’s wealth and status. Napkin presentations became quite the competition between hosts.

The era of napkin folding ended during the eighteenth century replaced with diners just wiping their hands and faces on the tablecloth. Let’s just skip that century…..

During the 1800’s napkins and folding made a resurgence in use. Since then its popularity has ebbed and flowed during turbulent times of war, the Industrial Revolution and the invention of paper napkins. Over the centuries there were so many rules on how to fold napkins and the etiquette of using a napkin it would make your head spin trying to remember them all.

When choosing napkins, select heavier weights with body to the fabric to hold your folds in place better. Select square napkins instead of rectangular shapes. If the square is slightly off, it usually will still work for your design. And it’s easiest to start with a well ironed napkin free of lines and wrinkles.

The Overcoat

The Butterfly Butterfly Kisses

Do you choose the napkin fold first, or the embroidery to be highlighted? That is totally your choice. I usually choose the napkin fold first fitting to the occasion. Then I select a style and size embroidery design to match.

The most important tip…..Pin Pin Pin!

Start by placing your napkin on your work space. Place a straight pin in the top right corner if starting with a square. Or pin the top tip if starting in a diamond position.

Now fold the napkin into the selected style.

Look at the completed fold and decide where your embroidery will be highlighted best. Mark that spot using pin(s) so you’ll know where to place and stitch your design.

Unfold the napkin and stitch the design in the pinned designated area. Remember that first top pin placement? This is where its importance comes in. When you place the embroidered napkin on your work table to fold it again, you’ll know exactly where to start. Without that pin, you’ll be trying every corner on top, fabric right side up and right side down, until you find the right starting placement point so your embroidery design lands in the chosen spot and not inside a fold or upside down. (Yes, I’ve done this and end up folding and refolding the napkin for what feels like a gazillion times.)

The Elf Hat


If you’re looking for inspiration you will find a multitude of written instructions and video instructions online. If you prefer a book in hand, there are many books dedicated to napkin folding available. Among my favorite books are; Napkin Origami edited by Brian Sawyer, and The Complete Illustrated Book of Napkins and Napkin Folding by Rick Beech.

The Rabbit

The Lover’s Knot

The Triangle

Try some new folds on your holiday, celebratory, and everyday tables. As everyone gathers at the table watch their reactions to your handiwork.

The reactions usually go one of two ways. The guests who smile and admire your work and are reluctant to unfold the napkin. And the guests who immediately reach for the napkin and with a quick flick of their wrist unfold it and drop it into their lap. The life of a folded napkin is short. But the ones with your embroidery will delight your family and guests. You now have the art of the fold and can be creative for the next event.


Ideal for inserting silverware or treats.

Japanese Folds

Perfect for holding an embroidered place card.

It’s just embroidery, have fun with it!

The Candle Make a Wish




  • Cathy Sundermann

    Thank you for posting! This was a fun article to create.

  • JD

    These are so creative. It is wonderful to sit at a table with a “crafted” napkin as part of the place setting. Thanks for letting us glimpse some of the talent that is out there.

  • Vicki

    How do you hoop the napkins to get the design so close to the edge? Oh, and I love them all. Thanks!!