For over six hundred years, fabric napkins have adorned the tables of European Royals, aristocrats and elite. But you probably didn't know that the dinner party staple was actually born out of the Italian rebirth - the Renaissance.
A piece of luxurious damask evolved from the Florentine’s famous taste for the finer things. It was the Italians who then introduced the napkin to the French and the English, precipitating their use at dinner parties and high tea luncheons ever since.
Using table napkins – cotton, linen and even damask - is a tradition steeped in a fascinating history of ceremony and etiquette. Some of which...
- When taking afternoon tea, white is the customary colour, matching with the tablecloth, and tea napkins are placed unfolded on the lap.
- Napkin rings were historically used to identify an individual’s napkin. After each meal the same fabric napkin would be replaced in the ring until used again.
- According to etiquette, napkins should never be scented.
- A truly formal table has only one correct placement for a napkin, to the left side of the place setting. The napkin should be folded with the closed edge to the left and the open edge to the right. This rule applies for rectangular, triangular, and square shape folds.
- The proper protocol when excusing yourself from the table, whether during or after a dining experience, is to gently place the napkin to the left side of your place setting. When you have finished your dining experience, a napkin folded with a crease and placed to the left side of your place setting indicates to your host or hostess that you wish to be invited back.
Today you’ll find most napkins measure around 50cm x 50cm, though at one point they measured one-third the size of a standard tablecloth. Napkins recorded in the trousseaux of the Royal Courts (as far back as 1497) were a standard size of 35 inches x 45 inches, probably made so large to protect the fashionable stiff ruffle collars of the time.
It wasn't until King Louis XV of France introduced the formal dining table with proper place settings in his private apartments at the Palace of Versailles, that individual napkins reduced to 30 inches by 36 inches. They were then folded in half and placed on laps, a lot like they are today. The highest-ranking member of Court unfolded their napkin first, followed by the host, followed by the remaining guests.
The art of napkin folding became elaborate, fanciful and popular during this time, with things like fabrications, embellishments and stitching coming into fashion.
Pre-revolution French linens were always white Damask, matching the napkins to the tablecloths. On formal occasions at Court, gold embroidery added embellishment to the linens - a tradition which still holds true at dinners of State at the White House and official receptions worldwide.
Throughout history, the colours of threads and embellishments to linens reflected the time and position of those who commissioned them. Using gold, red or yellow indicated the head of a Royal house, almost always embroidered in silk thread. By the nineteenth century, imitations began to trickle down to all those who could afford them in an attempt to imitate the aristocracy.
Monograms were placed on linens, silver and crystal in lieu of a coat of arms. It is customary for a monogram to appear on a folded napkin in one of three places: The centre of a square, the bottom tip of a triangle or the lower right corner of a rectangle or square.
Design your own bespoke set of Linen Napkins or Placemats using our curated edit of fonts and thread colours. Order our monogrammed set of Linen Napkins here.