Making cloth napkins – 7 finishes {& Best fabrics to make them}

A fabric napkin is a multi-tasker in my home – it does recurrent duty at the dinner table, with the lunchbox to school, sometimes drying plates over the kitchen sink, and at times over the wash basin sink as a towel and then when a hand towel is not visible (it is, to those who look) it even goes to the gym which is when I would have had enough and put my feet down. Give some respect to my napkin, puh-lease.

Yes, those fabric squares are really versatile. And they are so easy to make. Simply turn under the fabric edges of square pieces of fabric and stitch in place. Something a beginner sewist should be able to do easily enough. But I am not going to describe to you the easier version. I will tell you the more elaborate ways to make and finish your own homemade but store-bought look alike napkins

how to make cloth napkins

What is the size of a dinner napkin?

Usually table napkins are cut in 4 sizes :10 inch square; 12 inch square; 18 inch square and 22 inch square.In high end restaurants the dinner table napkins are around 20-21 inches ; even 24 inch napkins are used for big tables. 

That is not to say that you cannot make them in between sizes. You can and you should. When you are making things yourself, that is the creative freedom you have and you should enjoy it. I usually make an 17 inch square, which is neither too big nor too small, for my purposes.

What is the best material for cloth napkins?

cloth napkins

If you have seen those vintage Linen Napkins with fine embroidery done on them, you would want to buy only linen to make your napkins. Linen looks elegant and when embroidery is done on it, it turns exquisite.It gets softer with every wash and can last a long long time.

But linen wrinkles and is quite expensive. So I would make napkins in cotton for my everyday use. The regular printed cotton fabric for dressmaking can be used to make cloth napkins; just toss them in the machine and fold them fresh from the drying line – they  are good for many uses. Just ensure that you buy good quality cotton , not the thin cotton which will wear fast and then tear.A gingham cotton cloth is a popular choice for making napkins


But if you find such a thin cotton in a beautiful print which you really want to make into a napkin you can make a reversible one so that you have double layers to your napkin. This will make the fabric last longer.

Silk is beautiful and though it is high maintainence it can elevate your dinner table status to a much higher level. You can also use polycotton fabric to make your napkins. I have seen some hotels using napkins in this fabric. It has the qualities of polyester – slight shine, no wrinkles and the qualities of cotton – absorbent to a degree.

Some people like using home decor fabric for making their napkins. If you have a particular theme in mind this is good. But you will have to be aware that most of the home decor fabrics have loose weave and may not last machine washing. For festive purposes, to match decor you can use these novelty fabrics.

I love  pastel colours and tone on tone fine embroidery work on my napkins . Agreed that it is difficult to maintain. Imagine a drop or several of sauce or worse turmeric on the finely worked monogrammed white linen napkin with hand done entredeux embellishment. I will throw a hissy fit(at least in my mind).  Back to simple printed,  safe, stain resistant ( stain invisible rather) printed or dark coloured napkins

How to cut fabric for a napkin?

If it is a cotton fabric the easiest you would think to make a square cut is to tear the fabric. But that is wrong – it will most probably never give you a square. This is because the grain is mostly ‘off’ in fabric bolts, though it is supposed to be straight. You can start marking from the selvage as it is always straight and then cut off the selvage. If you have one of those big transparent plastic  scales you can mark the napkin squares easily

How do you finish the edges of a napkin?

 1.Turned under finish

This is the most commonly used finish for the edges of a cloth napkin. Simply turn under 1/4 inches of the fabric edges twice to the back of the fabric. Stitch in place. You have a simple and easy napkin.

cloth napkin diy

 2 Rolled hem finish for the edges

This is the easiest way to finish the edges of your napkin. You can use the rolled hem foot available with most sewing machines and a zig zag or straight stitch to sew this edge finish.

 3 Reversible napkin

This is another easy way. On either side of the napkin you use two fabrics. This method gives your napkin more wear and if you have a two colour theme this method is the best – show case a special print on one side while maintaining the other plain .

To make this reversible cloth napkin You have to keep two pieces of fabric squares of the same dimensions ( and the same fabric types preferably, definitely prewashed) right sides together and stitch all around with a 1/4 inch seam allowance. Leave 2 inch unstitched of course for turning the napkin inside out.

Press the seam allowances. Turn the napkin right side out. Press again. Get the corners sharp with a sharp tool (poking in the corners  ) Use a hand sewing needle to sew the opening closed. Use a ladder stitch. You have the napkin ready. Stitch all around 1/2 inches from the edge. You can finish the edges with a picot finish if you want a decorative edging

 4. Mitered corner

This is the easiest and the most professional looking edge finish for your napkin. You can checkout the tutorial to make a mitered corner here . This edge finish gives you a corner which is without bulk

 5 Nun Stitched Edge

This is an edge finish for you napkin that can create a frayed edge. It is most suitable to be used on fabrics which hascountable weave, as it is  a counted stitch. This is not a very sturdy edge for an often used,  machine washed napkin. But if you want a novelty edging for your napkin you can use this edging . This will give the frayed look , which is so popular, along the edges.

pulled stitch is made along the edge with a tapestry needle and embroidery thread.The nun stitch (individually )looks like alphabet C made backwards (blanket stitch in reverse). The nun stitch is made so that when you fray the edges of the napkin it will not advance further than the nun stitch you have made

How to get the frayed look with a nun stitch – Mark the edge of the napkin . Mark some 15 threads inside of this, parallel to the edge. This is where you will be making the nun stitch. Pull a fifteenth thread along this marking parallel from the edge . You have a space along the edge where you will be making the nun stitch. After the nun stitch is done pull out the long threads parallel to the nun stitched edge. The stitch is made over two threads.

 6 Pin stitch

making cloth napkins

This simple hand hemming stitch creates a decorative stitch with a pulled thread effect. This is a favourite hem stitch for napkins for this very reason. You turn under the edges and stitch the edges with a thick enough needle in a special stitch which creates beautiful lace like small holes along the stitching line.

pin stitch

 7 Machine sewn pin stitch

This is a decorative sewing machine stitch made with a wide needle, which can resemble a pin stitch  – it can be called hem stitching in sewist vocabulary

You need a wing needle to make this beautiful stitch or as an alternative you can use a wide universal needle – Size 16/100 . A wing needle is a very wide needle – the needle will create the holes  along the stitching line which looks close enough to what you would make with a hand sewn pin stitch . 

Many of the decorative stitches in your sewing machine can be used to finish your napkins in this way. You will have to experiment with the stretch stitches in your machine to know which works for you. The best fabric for doing a wing needle  stitching is cotton batiste. If you find that your needle plate is eating your machine you can try to keep some tissue paper or tear away stabilizer under the fabric and tear it away after the stitching is done.

My steps to making the cloth napkin

Step 1

Accurately measure square dimensions on your chosen fabric for making the cloth napkins. Remember that you will need to add seam allowance extra to the final size you want. For a rolled hem finish you only need 1/4 inch extra. For a mitered corner you need 1″ extra on all edges. For a simple turned under edge you need atleast 1/2 inch extra on each edge.For making a reversible napkin add 1/4 or half inch along the edges

If you are adding embroidery along the corner, leave some extra fabric along edges so that you can comfortably fit the fabric on a hoop – the embroidery is usually placed 2 inch from the corner.( After the embroidery is done cut out the extra)


Step 2


Work a fine embroidery design or an embroidered monogram or some words embroidered 

Step 3

Finish the edges . Choose any of the finishing mentioned above. You can combine them as well. For example, a reversible napkin with mitered corner along with a machine stitched pin stitch finish along the edge. Or if you hate complicated, settle for anyone of these.

fabric napking diy tutorial

Cloth napkins make beautiful gifts. Make them in different interesting colours and then unify them with a single decoration, applique or monogram or go for the simple white one with delicate embroidery. You can soon exhaust all the fabric pieces in your stash, making these fabric napkins.

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