Do you weave napkins? a woman asked me at a farmers’ market.
I smiled and said, No.
After I got this question the eighth time, I started to wonder why I was avoiding napkins. I realized I was slow to weave them because at my house they get dirtier than kitchen towels and end up with more stains. I was reluctant to invest time weaving them and then have them look ratty after a few meals.
I put my hesitations aside and wove a few napkins. Slowly I received requests for special orders, such as a set for a Thanksgiving feast. I particularly enjoyed making each one slightly different.
While weaving a subsequent request for twelve napkins in the muted colors of sea glass for a different client, I ended up with a thirteenth napkin. I kept it and started using it myself.
I was nervous at first, even though I’ve almost always used cloth napkins. Using a handwoven napkin felt different. As I laid it on my lap, I realized I needed to take my own advice about not saving beautiful things for special occasions and use it.
Slowly, I moved from using it to wipe relatively clean fingers to using it to wipe my buttery corn-on-the-cob fingers.
It seems to me that a napkin’s purpose is to keep you reasonably clean without leaving the table. When I prepare a meal, I move around the kitchen and it’s easy to quickly rinse and dry my hands. It wouldn’t be a relaxing dinner if I kept hopping up to rinse my fingers.
I decided to do some research on the history of napkins. Here are a few things I learned:
There were two types of napkins in Roman Antiquity. The sudarium (Latin for “handkerchief”) was a pocket-sized fabric used to blot the brow during meals. Each guest brought their own larger mappae that protected the couch (yes, they liked to eat in a reclining position!) and could also be used to blot the lips. Guests could then take leftovers from the feast home in these mappae.
In the Middle Ages, people wiped their greasy hands on the tablecloth.
Napkins became bigger and bigger in Florence, Italy in the 16th century (influenced by voluminous clothing and ballooned sleeves). Instead of putting a big pile of the cloth in front of a guest, they started folding the napkins. European courts wanted to have the most beautifully decorated table, so they folded the large napkins into heraldic signs, flowers, birds, and animals. There was an entire school devoted to this art in Nuremberg in the 17th century.
It wasn’t until the early 19th century that people laid napkins on their laps. In the late Middle Ages, people draped large fringed napkins over their left arm or left shoulder. In the 17th century, napkins were about 35” x 45”. (As a point of comparison, napkins today are around 16” – 24” square and bath towels are 27” x 52”.) They were worn around the neck to protect elaborate lace collars.
Forks were used as cooking tools in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. However, when the fork was first used as an eating utensil in northern Europe, it provoked scorn and laughter. As it slowly gained acceptance – first by the royalty in the 17th century, then by all classes in the 18th century – the fork brought neatness to dining and napkins become smaller.
As I explore this history, I’m struck by how our eating habits, utensils and fashion choices call for different sizes and types of napkins. With all these changes, they’ve retained their primary functions of protection and cleanliness. Better a napkin gets dirty than your clothes, couch or table.
It’s been four years since I kept that thirteenth sea glass napkin for myself. It’s now soft from repeated washings. And not very stained. I’ve enjoyed it so much that I wove a set of eight to go with my plates. I worry less about how dirty they get and instead enjoy their softness.
I’m curious: Do you use cloth napkins? How did you come to start using them? I grew up with cloth napkins and at the end of each meal, I’d slide it into my napkin ring to use again. It’s a habit I continue to this day.
I’ve spoken with others who grew up with paper and switched to cloth in a desire to be more sustainable. But you might be someone who just loves the feel and durability of a cloth napkin. Either way, I’d love to know.
P.S. Would you like to try a handwoven napkin? I have four other “thirteenth napkins” – woven when I don’t have enough warp left on the loom for a towel – that are for sale here. Prefer playfully designed pairs or sets? I have those too – right here.