As it often happens in families, my eldest daughter has a passion for romance that she did not inherit from me. While my approach to dressing myself and my home is first and foremost about comfort and practicality, she is drawn to ruffles and flounces. And so when she asked to set the table with a tablecloth and place mats one night as I was rushing to get the food cooked and served, I told her, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to do that tonight. Ask me earlier in the afternoon tomorrow and we’ll get the table ready together.”
Our dining table is the centre of our home life. A large, simple oak table bought when we moved into the house, it sits up against a west-facing window that looks out into our green backyard. We eat there, but we also draw, write, sing, play games, paint, play with modeling clay and work at the laptop. Our house is a century old, and so the dining room has beautiful dark wood wainscoting but no built-in storage space at all. The dining table is where every random object passing through our hands usually comes to rest, and clearing it off is no small task.
The next day, she remembers to remind me earlier in the afternoon. “Remember, mom? We’re going to set the table today!” I am tired, worn out from a long day spent trooping around a busy place. I would like to serve pasta and tomato sauce for dinner, pushing the clutter further back towards the window so we have room for the plates. But I gave her my word yesterday, and she did remember to remind me in time. So I get up and begin to clear the table.
I make several surprising discoveries while dealing with the drifts of projects and papers that have accumulated on the table. Dust and dirt. A package that was supposed to be sent off weeks ago. A tiny plastic Pachycephalosaurus. All of these things are cleaned up and dealt with in their turn. I begin to breathe more easily.
The girls help clear the things away too, taking toys and books back to their homes. Then my eldest dives into the linen cupboard, searching for the simple cotton linens I have to dress our table. A handwoven tablecloth, given to me by my mother. Handsewn linen napkins, which I made earlier this year. Bright blue place mats. As I spread the white table cloth over the freshly cleaned table, I am amazed at how much of a difference one simple change can make. Our dining table is romantic now, freshly dressed in her white cloth. Our dining table is ready to honour our food, the harvest of many hands’ work.
Both girls are eager to set out plates, bowls, spoons, the butter dish and biscuits. Together they do this job quickly and joyfully. I carry the soup and serve it out. As we eat our meal together, napkins on laps and table manners employed, I am grateful for my daughter’s reminder to make the everyday special.
Handsewn Table Napkins
Sewing your own table napkins is a fairly straightforward job, one that requires more time spent carefully pressing seam allowances than actually sewing. Making a tidy mitred corner is possible for even beginning sewers. Just remember to iron carefully and sew the corner slowly!
Medium- to heavy-weight fabric, such as linen, cotton twill or cotton canvas. Allow 1 1/2 yards of 45” wide fabric to make four large napkins.
Iron and ironing board
Sewing the Napkins
Cut the napkins out. I like a generously-sized napkin, around 18” square. But you may make your napkins any size you like. Allow an extra inch for the seam allowance. If you’re using a natural fiber such as cotton canvas or linen, making a small snip at your desired measurement and then ripping the rest is an easy way to get a perfectly straight line, as the fabric will rip along the grain of the weave.
Fold and press ¼ inch along each side, making sure to press the folded corners too. If ¼ inch is too fiddly to press, feel free to make your folds ½ inch or larger, but remember that the larger your fold, the smaller your finished napkin will become. It’s also important that all the folds are the same width.
Fold and press another ¼ inch along each side. The first edge should now be folded under so the raw edge of the fabric is hidden. Remember to press the corners again.
Unfold the corners and snip across the square formed by your pressed edges. Fold and press ¼ inch across the corner.
Fold down the main edges again, matching the diagonal folds at the corner so they match up. I find it easiest to match the inner folds first and then pinch the corner’s outer point to bring the diagonal folds together evenly. Pin each edge in place at the corners, and pin as required along the rest of the edge.
Sew close to the inside fold to finish the napkin, turning carefully at the mitred corners.
Your napkins are now ready to be enjoyed with a good meal and a beautifully set table!
Michelle Carchrae is a freelance writer and mama to two little girls. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and loves to hike, sew, knit, write and learn how to do things by hand. She blogs about attachment parenting and playful self-discipline at The Parent Vortex.