Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Thanksgiving (or any occasion) Napkins: A Tutorial

My friend and I were at an anniversary party for The Linden Tree when we dreamed up a joint project of sewing cloth napkins for our Thanksgiving dinner. She so generously welcomed us among the 15 people she hosted for a lovely, delicious evening of gathering and sharing yummy food. We decided to use four coordinating fabrics and that we'd each make (and keep) 8. It was fun to work on a project together - sewing is usually a very solitary (and, often, gratefully so) activity for me, and it was a nice change to compare notes as we progressed.

As we were (taking our sweet time) choosing fabrics we conversed with a couple of women who work at the store about the various ways to make cloth napkins. One mentioned that she teaches a napkin class and the other expressed some awe at the concept of making napkins with mitered corners. It's true, your guests will never think much about (or even notice) whether your napkins have mitered corners. But when you set out to make your own it seems like a big distinction. While the women were well intentioned and very helpful, I admit I left the store feeling like I'd be taking on a big challenge with this whole mitered corner business. Really, I need a class to sew napkins?

At home I did a bit of searching and found several tutorials that seemed somewhat overly complex and one that seemed quite simple (though just a bit different from what I intended to do), which is what I based my napkins on.

My friends, I am happy to report that sewing mitered corner napkins is quite far from rocket science. And yes, you can do it - without a class even. I understand some appreciate the hands-on learning and camaraderie that a class can offer. But for those of you, like me, who are the just-dive-in-and-figure-it-out-on-your-own type, I'll show you how I made mine in this tutorial. They are quick and so easy.

Naturally, now that I've made one set - and know how easy it is - I am dreaming up napkins for every season, for every occasion. Limited only by storage space, I imagine table dressing for the most grand and simple of meals. Because sitting down together for a family meal is one of the most important things you can do for your family's health, cohesiveness and well-being; and setting a beautiful table makes that meal feel even more special, even more important, whether it's a Thanksgiving feast or take-out dinner.

Tutorial: Quick and Easy Mitered Corner Cloth Napkins


  • Fabric - quilting cotton works well for cloth napkins. You can make your napkins any size you'd like. I cut 18" squares, which produced 16.5" square finished napkins. So for four napkins of this size you'd need just over a yard of 44" wide fabric to give yourself some wiggle room. 
  • coordinating thread
  • sewing machine 
  • iron
  • self-healing mat, rotary cutter and ruler (optional, but really will make your job so much easier)
  • water soluble marker or chalk

How to Make your Napkins

1.  Cut out your napkin squares. Again, you can make any size napkin you'd like. I cut 18" squares, which produced 16.5" square finished napkins.

2.  Measure and mark 3/4" from each corner on each side (see image below).

3.  Cut off each corner using your marks from Step 2 as your guide.

4.  Simultaneously fold and iron each corner so that the edges meet and create a new 90 degree angle at the corner.

5.  Iron down the the rest of the sides of the napkin to create straight edges. I found I was able to do this easy enough without using a ruler once the corners had been ironed down (and in doing so, I believe I saved lots of time without sacrifice).

6. Fold and press each corner in towards the center of your napkin where the two edges meet and form a right angle (see image below). You will create two new 90 degree angles at each side of your fold.

7.  Fold and press the sides of each corner in towards each other so they meet exactly at midline and create a nice new (mitered!) corner. Pin in place.

8.  Fold and press the sides of your napkin to form straight lines between each of the mitered corners and pin in place. (Again, I was able to do this free-hand so to speak, without a ruler. Doing so will save you so much time. Trust me, you can do it.)

9.  Stitch around your napkin using a 1/4" seam allowance. When approaching a corner, sew all the way to 1/4" from the edge, drop your needle down into your napkin, lift your presser foot and turn 90 degrees. Make sure your seam allowance is 1/4" from the next side before you start sewing. Lower your presser foot and continuing sewing down the next side and repeat until you've sewed up the entire napkin. Be sure to back stitch at the beginning and end of your sewing.

10. Press each of your corners well on the wrong side of the napkin.

And there you have it! You've made a mitered corner cloth napkin.

Now, go make some food, sit down with your loved ones and put these little pretties to good use. Perhaps, like me, you'll already be dreaming of your next set - napkins for each season, napkins for each holiday, napkins for a certain meal (in our house we have chicken napkins for roast chicken night), the possibilities are endless.

Be sure to link to your napkins in the comments when you make some. I look forward to seeing them!


  1. Your tutorial is the best I have found for making napkins. But I do have a couple of questions. I assume you washed your fabric first? The "premium" cotton fabric I picked up seems pretty thin. Do your napkins seem on the thin side? I am wondering if I should line them or make them double sided. Thanks!

    1. I'm so glad you find the tutorial helpful, Kim! Yes, it's always a good idea to wash your fabric first. (It's probably not the end of the world if you don't pre-wash when making napkins as long as you're working with fabric you are familiar with and you know won't shrink significantly.) Before I made the napkins I shared your concern that they might be too thin. But I used quilting cotton (the fabric above is from Joel Dewberry's Aviary 2 line) and they turned out quite similar in feel and weight to other store-bought cloth napkins. When I experimented with double sided they ended up feeling a bit bulky to me, but you could certainly make them that way. This tutorial would not work for double sided, though they are quite easy to put together. Good luck and let me know how your napkins turn out!

    2. Thanks, Alyssa. After I posted my comment I did wash and dry my fabric without waiting for your reply, as I was pretty sure it should be washed first. It feels nicer and thicker after washing, so I'm glad I did - not to mention it's the right thing to do for a much better end result. I also compared my fabric after washing to some napkins I have from Pottery Barn and it is every bit as nice if not more so. I tried napkins earlier this year, but was frustrated with the mitered corners. Your tutorial was really helpful in making it seem easy. I'll let you know how it goes! Thanks again!

    3. I made 16 napkins yesterday and they turned out great! I used four different coordinating, orange print fabrics. Most of my corners look pretty good, I'm happy to report. Thanks again for the great tutorial!