Easy Handmade Napkins

I wanted to come up with a hostess gift a few weekends ago. My Mom was hosting a July 4 weekend at the beach and everyone would be staying with her. Knowing how much work that was, I wanted to show up with something that contributed to the entertaining and then leave it as the hostess gift.

This project does involve sewing (there are a lot of versions online that are no-sew) but it is only sewing in a straight line and even I can do that (actually, that might be debatable as you will see). I’m going to kick this project up a notch for you though by showing you the fancy folding for:

I adore a table with cloth napkins. I think they really finish the look no matter what style. They can look elegant, casual, or modern. They look intentional (grown up?) and they aren’t fussy to use. Just throw them in the washing machine and toss them in a drawer/basket when they come out of the dryer. The fact that you wash and reuse them also puts them in the green category. Win. Win. Win.

I started planning the project the way I usually do: way over the top. I was going to do runners, candle holders and probably some kind of centerpiece.

Lots and lots of fun to plan but this time I listened to my little voice when I started the project and I prioritized the results. At the very least I wanted the napkins. The rest of the project was gravy. This was a fortuitous decision as I unexpectedly started a kitchen renovation in the middle of the project. Hopefully I’ll get to do the runners sometime since I still have the materials (somewhere in a box around here).

Not pictured here: the sewing machine and the iron


  • Two contrasting, but complementary, fabrics (I prefer 100% cotton)
  • A great pair of scissors (I found my rotary cutter ROCKED with this project)
  • Measuring implements: tape measure, my T-square was very helpful but the best was the cutting mat)
  • Lots of straight pins
  • A long knitting needle or chopsticks or some kind of strong, pointy stick (not sharp)

Note: I was measuring the fabric with my measuring tape and cutting it with scissors when I had to make a quick run to the fabric store. While there I found a large cutting mat on sale for $30. It fit perfectly on the dining table. I grabbed it and using that with my T-square and rotary cutter made the cutting go about 100x faster. Worth every penny.

The fabric for me was very important. It must be washable and I don’t like the feel of polyester against my mouth. Plus polyester isn’t very absorbent and I think that makes the napkin less effective. I stuck with 100% cotton and it has worked perfectly. It comes out of the dryer looking great.  I wanted to make Fourth of July napkins that weren’t too holiday-specific. Red, white, and blue would work for the holiday and everyday. The only thing I knew definitely was that I wanted a dark navy blue. I fell in love with the red fabric. I love it so much I want to marry it and have red, white, and blue babies.

Wash, dry, and iron your fabric before you start anything. That should get initial shrinking out of the way before you start cutting the squares.

Square size for these napkins is important. A standard napkin can be anywhere from 20″ to 15″ but for the folding method we are going to use, you need napkins that are at least 20″ x 20″. Cut squares at least 21″ but if you can make them 22″ then you give yourself a little wiggle room for making mistakes. You may not need mistake wiggle room but I always do.

I made 8 napkins so it was 8 blue squares and 8 red squares.

Sewing is a lot of ironing and this was no exception. I ironed the squares before I pinned them.

When you pin them, pin a blue square to a red square with right sides together.

Sew a 1/2″ running stitch along the edge. Remember when I said this was an easy project? Of course I screwed up a few times and all you have to do is come back and sew another line a little further in. Look at that wonky line! And I don’t drink. Good grief. How can a perfectly competent adult sew something like that when perfectly sober? Anyway, proof that the worst sewers out there can do this project too.

Leave about two inches open in one corner. This is where you’ll pull the napkin right-side out.

Clip the corners of the sewn squares. This helps the corners look a little sharper. I forgot a few times and they didn’t look bad so if it is something you forget too, you’ll be fine. I’m going to point out the bizarre zig zag I sewed on the left. Yes, even with this and some puckers, it all worked out fine. Have I made my point yet that this is a very forgiving project?

Turn the square inside out through the gap you left.

At first it will seem really difficult to do and just wad up.

Just gently pull the fabric around the bottom and the sides. That loosens up the wad.

When you get the square inside out, use the pointy implement to poke at the corners to get them nice and pointy. I also found that running the pointy implement along the edges from the inside helped finish off the sides a little.

Huzzah! Now you iron the squares again. Really work to get the edge folds as pushed out as much as possible. Tuck in the edges from the gap you used to make the napkin right-side out and iron them flat so the gap looks like the rest of the sides.

Now you’ll sew another running stitch 1/2″ along the edge on the outside of the napkin. This finishes the napkin and this shows so you want to make an effort to keep them straight and looking good. For me it was just about slowing down. In this picture, one of the arrows points out how the fabric is lined up with the edge of the foot. This is about 1/2″ so it makes a great guide when you are sewing these napkins up.

To make a corner, sew to that center point of the foot (the second arrow is pointing to that edge but the napkin has already been turned in this picture) and stop the machine with the needle down through the fabric. Pull up the foot, turn the fabric so the next edge of the square now lines up with the side of the foot, put the foot back down and proceed on as before with a nice, straight line. When you get to the gap, just sew over it like the rest of the square and now the gap is closed up.

And your napkin is done! Take time to admire your cleverness.

This is already such a long post, I’ll cover the folding method tomorrow. In the meantime, I’ll close this with a shot of some of the help I had while trying to make the napkins. As usual, she thought biting things would be helpful.

Her motto always seems to be, “What is this? Can I play with it?”

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