Homemade Cloth Napkins: An Easy Step-by-Step Tutorial

DIY Cloth Napkins

I am not very big on what the French call arts de la table (literally, table arts), an umbrella term that covers the choice and placement of dinnerware, silverware, and glassware, as well as flower arrangements and any other table decorations.

Unless it’s a party and there’s very many of us, only cloth napkins will do.

I do appreciate a nicely laid table, and admire those hosts who devote time and energy to thinking up seasonal themes and handcrafting little trinkets to prettify each place setting (especially if it’s done resourcefully, with three pieces of string and zero budget), but my own style is definitely more minimalist.

Round white plates (from Crate & Barrel, dating back to our California days), simple wine glasses (we’ve been faithful to the C&S range for years), embossed forks we brought back from Japan, and rosewood-handled knives bought in Laguiole — all of this we arrange in five minutes on dark woven placemats set on our black wood and frosted glass table, and call it a day.

Paper or cloth napkins?

Well, not quite. There’s the question of napkins, too. Unless it’s a party and there’s very many of us, paper napkins (or worse, sheets of paper towel torn off from the roll) feel all wrong to me: they lack that warm touch that makes you feel at home, they’re too light to stay put on your lap, and half the guests end up bunching theirs up beyond recognition, and it looks like the table is strewn with used tissues.

So, no. When I’m a guest somewhere I’m happy with anything I’m given, so appreciative I am to be fed dinner, but in my own house, I insist on cloth napkins.

For years we used a nice set of gray linen napkins, but last summer I decided to sew a new set: I am an enthusiastic amateur seamstress — in fact, my interest in sewing predates my interest in cooking by a good twelve years* — and I am lucky enough to own a sewing machine, a pretty and compact little thing that once belonged to my grandmother.

This napkin revolution was brought on by a tutorial I’d stumbled upon: it suggests creating a set of double-face napkins by assembling mismatched-but-harmonious pieces of fabric two by two.

I am lucky enough to own a sewing machine, a pretty and compact little thing that once belonged to my grandmother.

DIY Cloth Napkins: An Easy Project for Beginners

It is a very easy project that can be pulled off in an afternoon** — the only skills required are cutting fabric into squares and sewing in straight lines — and seven months later my heart still skips a beat when I consider my pile of colorful napkins.

Maxence and I use them daily, and because I made six, which happens to be my maximum number of guests for a sit-down dinner, we also use them when we have friends over, and they unfailingly earn me compliments.

For the choice of fabric, you could pick two different ones that you like and make six identical napkins, but it can be more fun to try and find twelve different fabrics*** in the same style, and have each napkin be its unique combo of two; prepare for people to fight over the one they like best, though.

In the US (and therefore on etsy.com), you can buy fabric in small rectangles called fat quarters and these are ideal for this project; in France, some fabric stores**** sell small squares of fabric (usually 45x45cm) primarily intended for quilting, and this format would work well here.

You Will Need

  • 12 squares of matching fabric, about 45 x 45 cm (18 by 18 inches) for a regular napkin, 35 x 35 cm (14 by 14 inches) for a child-size napkin, pre-washed and pressed
  • Matching thread
  • A sewing machine
  • Pins
  • Scissors
  • A chopstick
  • An iron

Instructions for DIY Cloth Napkins

1. Stack the squares of fabric two by two, right sides together, and pin them together along the sides.

Pin the squares together, right sides in.

2. Mark an 8-cm (3-inch) opening on one side with two pins.

Mark an opening..

3. Starting from one end of the opening, sew the squares together with a 1-cm (1/3-inch) seam allowance, pivoting the needle as you turn each corner. Stop when you reach the other end of the opening, so it remains open.

Sew the two squares together.

4. Clip the corners, making sure you don’t cut through the thread.

Clip the corners.

5. Turn the fabric out through the opening so the right sides face out. Push out the corners neatly using the chopstick.

Turn out the fabric and push out the corners.

6. Press the edges of the napkin so they lay nice and flat, folding back the lips of the opening so it becomes invisible.

Press the edges, including the opening.

7. Topstitch along all four sides, about 3 mm (1/8 inch) from the edges, pivoting the needle as you turn each corner: this will serve the double purpose of making the edges of the napkins crisp, and sewing the openings shut.

Topstitch around the edges.


* The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: everything I know about sewing I learned from my mother, who now runs a sewing blog of her own (in French) and an exclusive hotline reserved for her youngest daughter’s questions.

** This tutorial is part of a collection of ten Sunday Afternoon Crafts Projects, and is authored by Maggie, the very same person whose blog introduced me to homemade natural deodorant.

*** My mother suggests I add here that you should be careful with fabrics that may bleed (i.e. their vivid dyes may stain other fabrics when washed) or shrink at different rates. Before starting any sewing project, it is safest to pre-wash all fabrics.

**** In Paris, the neighborhood to go to for your fabric needs is to the southeast of the Sacré-Coeur: Marché Saint-Pierre, Reine, and Moline have wide selections that run the gamut between ugly and pretty. There are other, smaller stores in the neighboring streets, but you usually have to dig around to find anything remotely wearable in those.

  • Amy

    I love this simple, good for the environment, crafty idea! A great way to use fabric scraps from other projects. In my life, my love for food and crafts have intersected in making small aprons with lots of fun pockets, although I am in need of a new one myself. First cloth napkins though!

    • Very good point, Amy: you could also use scraps from other projects.

  • Nice idea – assorted napkins for the mood or the food.

  • I’ve made my own napkins for years, but never though of making them double-faced. I love the idea. Thank you so much.

  • For my wedding, I made cloth napkins for all of our guests to use in brightly colored fabric. My love of crafts and food intersects with the small crafty business I have making aprons, napkin sets, reusable bags which often have a food and kitchen theme and are very useful in shopping, preparing and eating.

    • Thanks for pointing us to your site, Anna, I especially like your cloth napkins!

  • wooooooooooow che delizia! complimenti, un bacio :)
    ps: ho realizzato un nuovo concorso “Fashion Food”: in premio 100 euro di shopping! Ti aspetto :)

  • Great idea for a new set of napkins. I’ve been wanting to make them for a while now, but I couldn’t decide on the color and style. Your suggestion of mixing several different fabrics sounds very appealing.

    I, too, love sewing. Mom taught me so long ago I can’t even remember a time when I didn’t know how to sew. I can’t imagine a bigger satisfaction then when I wear a dress or coat I made myself.

    • You’re right: it’s the perfect solution for the perpetually undecided who can’t commit to a single fabric choice. :)

  • ursula

    I too started using cloth napkins a few years ago for every day, to replace paper ones. I started with white, but after a couple of years got bored with those (and they were grubby). Last year I made a huge pile of brightly colored napkins, charming old-fashioned mix-and-match prints, and I love them! They make the simplest snack look beautiful. No six for us – with two kids, we go through 6 a day! I have a pile and just throw dirty ones in the laundry basket daily. Couldn’t be easier.

    • Indeed, one of the advantages of using bright colors and patterns is that food stains don’t show at all.

  • Mario

    I love how living in the USA might have influenced your style and made you question “the French way” of doing things, which is what makes your approach to food so refreshing!

    But believe me, there are people in the USA who are as crazy about “les arts de la table” as the French. There is a term called “tablescaping” (as in landscaping) that makes me cringe!

    Less is definitely more :)

    • Oh, I certainly wasn’t suggesting that elaborate table decorations were a French exclusivity. I’ve been to houseware stores in other countries, and that interest is certainly shared elsewhere. :) Thanks for introducing me to the term “tablescaping”!

  • When it comes to table presentation I don’t have one definite style or preference. Sometimes our dinners are thrown together at the last minute with no tablecloth and pretty paper napkins. Other times I put in a lot of thought and effort into presenting a theme and this can range from beautiful flowers and matching napkins and candles to an elaborately crafted centrepiece. Our dinnerware and glassware is classic though and this rarely changes.

  • Fabulous idea, so simple but could turn into an interesting mission searching for fabric. I’m going to try these this year! Thanks

  • Sharon

    Do you iron yours after each use? When I use cotton napkins they come out pretty wrinkled, but I really don’t want to iron them.

    • No, I don’t iron them. I take them out of the washer, shake them, and hang them out to dry (I have a dryer but only use it for emergency needs). When they’re dry, I fold them and pile them up, and they finish ironing themselves out in the pile. :) I also feel that the double layer of cotton makes them less susceptible to creases somehow.

  • I’m making this! thank you so much…
    I actually love arts de la table, as you say. My blog is about entertaining and I’m always looking for new ideas…maybe these will make an appearance soon.
    Thanks again!

  • Thanks for introducing me to Fat Quarters and this tutorial. i always use cloth napkins and this would be an easy way to have a colorful supply.

  • This is awesome – thanks! I love cloth napkins but don’t love the prices so I’m definitely going to look at making my own!

  • I love making and using cloth napkins, although I hadn’t considered making them double-sided (Thanks!)

    Our table must be covered with some kind of crumb-and-sauce catcher, such as placemats (you can make them the same way as your napkins, just larger) or a table cloth, since I use our dining table for so much besides dining…such as typing this!

    Placemats and napkins were my very first sewing project, and I recommend that to anyone who would like to start sewing. Or to anyone who just loves beautiful fabric!!

  • A friend made my husband and I a set of cloth napkins as a wedding gift. We use them almost every day, and they get softer with each wash. Five years later, they are still in great shape. I just got a sewing machine that was my Oma’s and am looking for some simple projects to try. This might be perfect. Oh, and I think you could make burp cloths for new babies almost the same way. thanks for sharing! :)

  • I love cloth napkins too. I picked only colorful ones since out dining is not that well lit at dinner time. Giving it a sparkle using 1 foot X 1 foot pieces of cloth i find at the stores when on sale.

  • Reversible, double-faced napkins – what a great idea. I hold a dinner party at least once a month and definitely don’t take enough pride in my table design. This has inspired me to get more creative, and I may even get the sewing machine out of the loft now :) Thanks for the link to the tutorial.

  • Elizabeth

    Wow, those are very pretty napkins, and I love the DIY project! I tend to be more of a knitter, and the only project I have in mind that I can knit is a tea-cozy for our teapot.

    I grew up in California, and we’d only use the “nice” plates and silverware on holidays. Since moving to Paris, we’ve been much more consistent in using our pretty table linens and our antique forks and spoons. It certainly does bring an element of semi-formal elegance to mealtimes!

  • Natalie

    Those napkins look so lovely. I too have my grandmother’s sewing machine (vintage 1930, solid as a tank), and if I get around again to using it as something else than gorgeous furniture (it hides away in a beautiful wood cabinet), this is what I’m going to make. A whole bunch of them, to give away as gifts. Thanks for the inspiration, Clotilde.

    • They would indeed make wonderful gifts! And then, instead of trying to find fat quarters, you can simply get a yard of each fabric and cut squares into that.

  • ~love the fun napkins Clotilde! I’m going to have to try the double sided idea. I hope you still have the hand-painted tablecloth of mine to use with your new creations! and yes, my idea of a well-dressed table is a simple toss of flower petals over it all~~~*

    • I do still have, and cherish it, Julie!

  • Ruth in London UK

    What a fantastic idea… my next project I think.

  • Liz Thomas

    Lovely idea — I could do with new napkins too.

    I too used to make all my own clothes — a sewing machine was my first purchase when I started working — but haven’t really been near the sewing machine for ages.

    Two reasons: deteriorating eyesight (age, sigh!) so I cannot sew at night as it gets dark early here, and the climate. It’s difficult to work with fabric when it’s hot and your hands get sweaty.

    We are having cool weather at the moment so perhaps I should get my act together and get the machine down. A plus here is that we get great fabrics really cheaply.

    You may just have motivated me!


    • I agree that sewing when it’s hot is rather uncomfortable, and can only imagine what it’s like when it’s humid!

  • Here here for cloth napkins! I agree on insisting to use them over paper. (I am biased since I am a textile designer and foodie.) I look forward to this tutorial.

  • I have tried this before, but it has been a while! My table definitely needs a makeover, and napkins are a great place to start! Not to mention, what a great gift idea!

  • Blue mistral

    I’m tempted Clotilde! Looks pretty and I like the idea of being able to use prints not woven fabric.

    But I have a question: how do you avoid the feeling that you’re dabbing your mouth with a pillow case? Don’t the two sides balloon away from each other? Especially if, like you, one has no more than a nodding acquaintance with the ironing board. Thanks!

    • I see what you mean. The two layers of fabric never balloon away from each other, and I think the reason is twofold: one, I used a quality cotton that isn’t too thin or too soft, so it holds itself nicely; and two, after the two squares of fabric are first sewn together and turned right side out, you sew them again all around the edges, and this reinforces their “bond”.

      • Blue mistral

        Thanks so much! I’ve already found an online shop in Birmingham (Britain not Alabama) selling gorgeous fat quarters. I’ll be borrowing my mum’s sewing machine soon…

  • Jena

    This is how I made the flannel wipes I use when I change my daughter’s diaper. Never occurred to me to make napkins this way, but I love cloth napkins, and I’m feeling confident in my sewing skills after sewing a few dozen wipes. Too bad fabric is so hard to come by where I live. I’ll keep my eyes open at garage sales this summer.

    • You can also consider ordering fabric online. Happy sewing!

  • shivangni

    This is one project even I can replicate sitting in India. So far I’ve been just enjoying your posts with exotic ingredients many of which are not used regularly by us.

    I have been thinking of introducing sewing to my daughters (alas it is no longer taught in schools here) & this is a perfect project for their summer holidays.

  • That is really unique and creative idea.
    I just discovered your blog and I like it very much.

  • Sam

    I love this idea. I think i’ll have my work cut out if i try and do this for my next dinner party in 2 weeks time, but it seems like a wonderful concept..

  • Love love love this idea! It may inspire me to drag out the sewing machine…

  • I make lots of home made napkins, and whipped out 14 for a dinner this weekend. I have always been all about the mitered corner napkin, but I am definitely going to try this double sided napkin…

  • I am really into arts de la table; I love to use fine silver and china and create beautiful floral arrangements, and candle setups.

    I undertook a new sewing project recently (my mom is also an excellent seamstress and taught me well), in which I purchased a beautiful tablecloth to be used for other things. First I’ve been making tray liners for serving trays (fabric-backed with a little batting inside to thicken them slightly). Once I finish about 5-6 of those, which I am edging in a nice complementary bias tape, I’ll use the remainder of the tablecloth fabric for large dinner napkins. Regular size napkins never seem to be quite large enough!

    And yes, I think that creativity with cooking definitely coincides with table arts.

    • That’s a very good point, Emily, if you make your own napkins you’re free to decide on their size!

  • Pascale

    I love knitting but have never used a sewing machine in my life. But these napkins are so beautiful, I’ve decided to try… I’ve digged out of the attic two Laura Ashley dresses I bought when I was 18 (that’s 34 years ago, would you believe it ?!) – I was right to keep them – and will start on the project soon. My mother will be happy to teach me how to use her machine. Yes, happiness is in small things. Thank you, Clotilde !

    • I’m delighted to have inspired you, Pascale, happy sewing!

  • Lesley

    Everything about this posting is brilliant, maybe most of all that you went to Japan and brought back…forks ;oP

    • You know, I hadn’t thought of it that way at all — thanks for the giggle! :)

  • Sheila

    Just made 3 for our Valentine dinner! Am ready to make several more! This also inspired me to use my scraps for lined coin/cellphone purses-zippered, of course!Thanks for the inspiration!

  • This is such a great idea! My friends and I will be moving into our first apartments and houses next year in college. These cloth napkins will be such a fun and personal housewarming gift. Plus, they look so simple and inexpensive. I can’t wait to get creative with the fabrics and designs.Thank you for sharing!

  • Judith

    when I was first married (1970) my American husband and his English bride faced our first cultural division. He was used to paper napkins, I to linen ones, used for several meals with personal rings. My solution was to make loads of cloth napkins using sheets – a fresh one each meal, both of us were happy. It was very cheap and they launder well, no ironing. We are still using them daily.

  • I love this idea. I can’t wait to go fabric shopping.

  • Lisa

    I too love cloth napkins. I also shake mine when taking them out of the machine but I pop them into the dryer, and fold and stack them in groups. I don’t really enjoy laundry but I do enjoy folding all the napkins. We go through a lot of napkins as there are 4 of us and our children even bring them in their lunch box to school with them.
    I have made napkins out of cotton tea towels that were on sale – simply cut in 1/2 and finish off that one edge. They can even be hand sewn at the point.

    • Eileen Sweeney

      Wow! I love the tea towel idea! I never thought of that! Thanks!

  • Bob Wells

    I’m a quilter… A bit of advice concerning the bleeding of fabrics. Pre washing only reduces the problem. To eliminate the bleeding, use a product called Retayne on the very first washing before doing anything else. Retayne can be found at any quilt shop.

  • I love this idea and have found the comments and your answers really useful too. I shall have to try this with some Christmassy fabric I’ve had for ages.

    Please thank your Mum for the advice to wash all fabrics first to avoid both bleed (and Bob Wells for the Retayne advice) and different shrinkage which would spoil the end result. :)

  • astridula74
  • Melanie Dumas

    What is a good fabric to use for these napkins? Just a cotton?

  • Terramom

    What type of fabric do you think is best–all cotton, or a blend? This looks like such a fun project. I love cloth napkins, but they are so expensive to buy. I may just give this a try! I’m going to check out your mom’s sewing blog. I can read French, so I think I’m looking forward to seeing what she has to share. Thank you for the tutorial.

  • Janice Dean Wright

    I’ve been trying to be less wasteful and this is a perfect project for my 3 young daughters who are beginner sewers. We’re going to have to make a bunch though! Our family of 7 has sit down meals for every meal and we love hospitality. They are going to be so proud to display their napkins every meal. I may also consider teaching this at our 4-H sewing club. I was wondering if fat quarters would work for this. I’m so relieved to see that they do! Less cutting..less time to make!

  • Lara Angel

    I found on line an idea to make cocktail napkins from vintage sheets. I did and absolutely love them. Have been using them for 2 years now. I cut my fabric 13 x 7 then fold in half, sew on 2 sides, turn under for my hem, press, then turn with the right side out, press again then top stitch very close to the edge all the way around then a second round the width of the pressure foot. The second round makes them “prettier”. These are smaller but when you wash them they do not have to be folded. Like a store bought paper napkin. I just toss them into a square basket on the table.

Get the newsletter

Receive FREE email updates with all the latest recipes, plus exclusive inspiration and Paris tips. You can also choose to be notified when a new post is published.

View the latest edition of the newsletter.