I don’t know how to sew napkins and tablecloths

tableclothsThere are plenty of things I’ve never sewn but I don’t worry too much about it. I figure it out one way or another since so much of one’s repertoire applies from one project to another. I’m guessing most of you feel the same way. I have to say though, I have been defeated by this project -namely linen tablecloths and napkins. I do not know how to sew these. I got through it okay but there is no way these are sewn in the factory the way I did mine -because that’s how I gauge successful completion of a project -that it looks as good or better than expensive RTW.

For the longer seams, a hemmer is required -unless you’ve been sewing 1/4″ hems so long you can turn them better by hand. There are people like that. The long edges on my products look fine. It is the starting and stopping at each corner I had problems with. I think they look terrible. I wanted them for the holiday. I console myself that the only person who’d notice would be my mother in law but she wouldn’t be so graceless as to mention it.

I used two different hemmers (Lisa B provides most of the advice on hemmer types in the forum). A 1/4″ basic hemmer and a swing hemmer. Or was it a spring hemmer? I am confused. I bought four of them. I just know I’m missing something, that one little trick that someone who had sewn in a napkin or tablecloth factory would know right away. Accordingly, I have wanted to meet someone who sewed in a cloth napkin factory in the worst way. I couldn’t find anything about it on the internet.

I have figured out a few things. Tensioning is critical. When the fabric goes through the folder, it stretches the tiniest bit more than the rest of it so you end up with a telescoping edge by the time you get to the other end. I suppose I could have fiddled with the tension (or maybe it needs a puller?) but I didn’t want to get the machine all set up for this fabrication and then have to readjust it to regular use later. I figured I could deal with it like this for such a small lot. Anyway, of the two hemmers I used, there was a pronounced difference in tensioning between them. The scroll hemmer that most of us have, didn’t feed as evenly as the more expensive one ($26, a double fold spring hemmer) I bought from SouthStar.

I also couldn’t get the starting edge to feed as evenly as I liked. It was easier to manage the start point with the scroll hemmer, less so with the spring hemmer since the foot print is larger and you can’t see the fold as easily to know where to stitch. The usual advice on hems like this is to hand crease the hem to start, sew down an inch or two normally (not feeding through the scroll), then lift the needle and foot and work the hem into the fold guides of the foot. This sounds a bit awkward but with a little practice, wasn’t as difficult as it sounds. Again, the scroll hemmer was better for doing it like this but then again, the scroll hemmer pulled more on the fabric resulting in telescoping hems so I preferred to use the spring hemmer instead.

In the end, I sewed all the long edges with the spring hemmer and then went around and repaired each corner. Considering I made 4 tablecloths and 21 napkins, that makes 100 corners. Plus I didn’t trust my handling of each corner so I pre-pressed them. There is no way they do it like this in production.

Speaking of handling… I learned first hand why linen is awesome material for napkins. Guess how I know? My hands are fried and dried. Linen is outstanding at pulling oil off your fingertips. My hands feel like I’ve been cleaning with ammonia for a week. Okay, not a week but my hands and finger tips look pretty bad. I’m guessing that people who sew this regularly have built up a lot of calluses.

If there is any interest, I can provide some photos of the issues I mention (telescoping hems etc) with the hopes someone out there has suggestions for improvement. And of course, I’d love to hear from someone who has experience sewing these operations in production.

One last mention -fabric sources. I bought this linen from Fabric-Store.com. Their prices are very reasonable considering it’s retail. For the napkins and cloths, I bought the medium weight goods (5.3 oz, IL019). The per yard cost is about $7 but they have sales every week. Sign up for the mailing list to be notified of specials, usually 10% off. One last thing to mention about weights is that I would recommend going with a heavier weight than what I used. The color selection isn’t as good but there’s always a trade off. Then again, I suppose it would depend on how much use you intend to get out of yours. My project was inspired as a replacement for much worn cloths and napkins. We use cloth napkins and table cloths every day -the last time I bought some was about ten years ago. So, if you don’t use cloth napkins except for special occasions, the medium weight linen will probably be fine for you. If you intend to use them daily like I do, you should get the heavy weight.

Oh, one last last mention since this came up this morning -ironing. You don’t need to iron linen tablecloths and napkins but there is a trick to having them look clean pressed. Don’t dry them all the way, they should be slightly damp. Lay them out on a slightly padded surface and wipe them flat. Then fold them, creasing each turn with your palms. If your napkins are dry, spray them with a bit of water to fold. Here in the desert, I fold them right out of the washer (we have one of those front loaders). It is so dry here that you can put a pair of wet swim trunks in the laundry basket on Monday and by the following wash day on Saturday, not only are the trunks or anything else not mildewy, they’re bone dry (although in a hard wadded mess).

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  1. Lisa Blank says:

    How timely that you posted your experiences. I was hoping to get to napkin sewing next week. I managed to find two colors that worked for me in the heavier 4C22 weight and bought a third color in the IL019. The colors you selected are really cheerful!

    You’re very gracious to say that I’ve provided advice in the forum. I feel like I have more questions than answers! Since my project was a piggy back of yours the whole way, I’m definitely interested in any other details you’d like to share.

    I’ve pondered how I’ll handle the corners, and your experience tells me I won’t be pleased either. With all the variety in hemmers, you’d think ONE of them would actually work. I suppose they do if you just know the right tricks. All the more reason why it would be fantastic to find someone who has sewn the same sort of thing in a production setting.

    BTW… Did you prewash your linen? Did you have any trouble with colors bleeding?

    Interesting how the linen affected your hands. I would never have anticipated that.

    Thanks for the pressing/folding tips. I’ve never owned cloth napkins before, so I would never have guessed that I could go without ironing them.

  2. Esther says:

    I’ve had similar difficulties hemming tablecloths. I’ve even tried hemstitching with my hemstitching machine and that presented difficulties. In any event, I prefer a merrow edge rolled hem for napkins and tablecloths. It is quicker and easier. My silly little home serger has the ability to do it, which I guess makes it kind of worth it. When that doesn’t work, I hand roll my hems for projects like this. Linen is great because it holds a crease really well.

  3. Sandy says:

    Hi. I have been reading your blog for a while, but this is my first comment. I made my own napkins this fall with much the same complaints. I gave up on my hemmer, and just folded the fabric twice, mitered the corners, and sewed in one big square, rather than starting and stopping at each corner. It looks so much better and washes neatly too. I have an explanation and photos at my site http://livinginred.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/my-best-cloth-napkins/. I hope that helps.

  4. Jomama says:

    If not using a rolled hem, I would recommend wider hems than in the picture. I have made them with half inch hems in the past, and find that the edges tend to curl the wrong way. Another friend recommended 1″ wide to prevent that.

    Thanks for the fabric source tip–I wasn’t sure where to get good linen. Would you recommend these for everyday or just fancy dinner style. I like something heft for everyday. We don’t use paper napkins unless we get behind on laundry.

    I have handled corners by trimming a little off the edge, then fold the corner in before folding in the long edges. This gives me a folded, mitered corner. I don’t bother handsewing, just do a bartack across the corner where the folded edges meet and keep going. But I mostly sew casual napkins, so that might not be neat enough.

  5. Leslie says:

    I am also really interested to hear from someone who has produced these. I’ve used a couple different foot types for my juki and still haven’t solved the corner/begininning issue or the telescoping issue to my satisfaction. I also prefer my spring hemmer out of the ones I’ve tried. (The one you linked from south star is a spring, the tensioner can flex to cross seams. The swing hemmer is on a bracket that can swing out of the way completely, I believe for finishing things in the round, but I haven’t used that one.)

    The only napkin tip I remember reading, but I cannot remember the source, was to cut your napkins in long strips first, and hem the two long edges before cutting into individual napkins. Less stopping and starting. But you still have the corner issue/feed problem.

    I looked at some store bought linen napkins (not high dollar, but linen and with 1/4″ double fold hems). It looks like they are hand turned. I say that because the stitching starts in one corner, and goes clockwise around the piece. I can’t see backtacking at each corner, it looks like they stitched to the corner fold of the next, and only back stitched to start the new side. I would have to take a photo of this, it’s hard to explain. But it doesn’t look like it came out of a hemmer foot.

  6. Sabine says:

    I once bought two hemmers and cannot work with them for the life of me. I am better and faster folding hems by hand, corners are easier that way too. Linen is great in that way that it wrinkles easy…which means if you squeeze a fold with your fingers, it stays.
    When i made dish towels, it was not unusual for me to do 20-30 at a time. Other then the corners, it is not any different then hemming pants with a double fold hem.
    Fold, fold, put under foot, put needle through, slide your fingers a good foot down the edge, fold, fold, (with a bit of pull on the edge) then squeeze first fold between thumb and index finger of left hand (while holding onto the folded part with right hand), with the index finger being on top and crease the first fold back to the needle, then put your index finger on the second fold line and crease it back to where your right hand is still holding the fabric.
    Before your get to the corner, start folding the edge after the corner, then finish folding the edge you are just finishing. Once you sew to the corner and turn, back up 2-3 stitches and then start forward again.
    One day when I finally arrive at a place called home I shall make myself some again.

  7. Kathleen says:

    Lisa: I did not pre-wash the linen. There was no need for it in that regardless of shrinkage, dimensions were fixed. By that I mean that the fabric comes in 59″ width, I trimmed .5″ off the selvedge and divided it in thirds for 3 napkins going across. I forgot to mention something with respect to that… I can be such a baby in some ways, I *had* to have the napkins perfectly on grain. By that I mean that I pulled threads to ensure it. That was very time consuming. I bought a special magnifying light to do it. I am too picky…

    Esther: I don’t have a merrow but that finish can be nice if you have the right machine to do it. I agree it is quicker and easier.

    Sandy: welcome to the site! I think the next time I make some, I will try turning them by hand. Linen is so crisp that it lends itself to doing so especially if the goods are completely on grain.

    Jomama: I have been using cloth napkins for daily use for many years. If you worry about the pretty ones getting stained, a good option is to go to Sam’s club and buy the restaurant pack. These are one dozen white napkins and nicely made for not much money. They aren’t linen, a poly cotton but they have the same sort of abrasion that linen does. A bit of abrasive property in a napkin is a good thing (speaking as someone who has used them a lot).

    My attitude about “saving” the good linens is oh go ahead and use them. For several years, I shopped estate sales for them. I always thought it was sad that there were always pristine monogrammed linens that no one had ever used. So I had a bunch of mismatched ones. It was nice, a bit of unanticipated fancy at every meal no matter how humble the food. At least someone was using them instead of them being stuck in a drawer and rotting. Then again, I have a heavily hand embroidered snow white tablecloth and dozen matching napkins that I bought in Belgium that I haven’t used… I thought of using them at Christmas but we’re having lasagne…

    Leslie: I read the napkin tip of hemming a full length across and then cutting them apart on Gigi’s blog (Lisa Blank had linked to it).

    Sabine: I’m going to try that!

  8. JustGail says:

    Thanks for the linen source link.

    I’ve only attempted the hemmer a couple of times, enough to know I need more practice before attempting corners. As far as starting the fabric, I’ve seen a tip somewhere to add some thread tails to the fabric, and use those to give a tug from behind if needed to even up the fabric before sewing.

    I have a stack of bandanas for napkins, but they are a bit thin. Yours are much classier!

  9. kay says:

    Kathleen, there’s an old embroiderer’s trick for your hands if they’re as crispy as I think they are: take a teaspoonful of granulated sugar and put it in the palm of your hand; add about a teaspoon of oil and scrub the flaky skin bits off with the sugar and oil. Rinse your hands under running water and pat dry.

    Any sort of granular sugar will do; any sort of oil, including sewing machine oil. You can substitute salt for the sugar, but it stings.

    I’m in the handrolled hem camp… gives ya something to do when you need an anti-fidget device. .

  10. I mitred the corners when I did mine, with the hem a good inch deep. Attractive and neat, but the napkin then feels substantial at the edges but flimsy in the middle which is where you use it.

    (Kind of like folding a flannelette diaper into an ice-cream-cone shape. Pins nicely, absorbent in the front (nice for a boy) but the bum is barely protected.)

  11. I don’t expect to be making these, but we do use them every day, so I can talk about ironing! The every-day ones don’t really need to be ironed (ours are cotton), just folded out of the drier. I have vintage ones like Kathleen mentioned, white, that I pull out whenever there’s company. I have to say there is something very satisfying about ironing them and putting them in a neat stack ready for company again. Also, when they are ironed and creased, they somehow look presentable even though there are stains from such dinners as lasagne!

    I just looked at one very tattered napkin my mother made about 50 years ago and I think she must have done what Sabine did. Perhaps I SHOULD make some to pass on as I will never throw this one away no matter how tattered, and my 11 year old son cherishes it as well.


  12. Donna says:

    I have been shopping fabric-store.com for awhile but I would not call their product quality linen. If you have ever seen really tightly woven good linen you know what I mean. That said I still buy from fabric-store because of price and selection. I wash all my linen from them several times before even attempting to sew it. There is a tremendous amount of lint the first few washings and a bit of shrinkage also. It is great for summer garments. I take my pants out of the dryer slightly damp, shake them out and hang to finish drying.
    I use small terry cloth finger towels for napkins.

  13. Dia in MA says:

    Corners are definitely tricky. The machine sewing problem is that as you approach the corners the fabric tends to shift in the hemmer. Just enough to cause a slight bias so the corner is not square. The trick on the regular corners is to turn the fabric just a bit early and fold the new edge into the hemmer. (You may need to back stitch a stitch or two after doing this.) The final corner is the trickiest. I find having a thread temporarily sewn into the fabric as a holding cord to keep it in place as I stitch helps to hold that final corner reasonably square. It works but hand sewing still gives a better result. I’ve done this on cotton lawn using the narrow hemmer. Not sure how well it’d work with thicker fabric.

  14. Chris says:

    Hi Kathleen – I have no experience of using hemmers, so I dont know if this would work with those machines. But this link shows how to do very tidy corners, which I had planned to use one of these days to make some table linen http://buzzybeesworld.blogspot.com/2010/03/tricks-of-trade-mitre-folded-hem.html . Not this year though! – my Christmas table has just been dressed in the usual last-minute scramble to find some christmas fabrics big enough to cover the dining table! Merry Christmas everyone

  15. Kate Rawlinson says:

    Interesting… I bought some printed calendar linen tea towel fabric from Spoonflower recently, but have been avoiding making it up for fear of what to do at the corners, etc. So this is timely, thanks!

  16. I am using the napkins of my and DHs grandmothers and those were either worked with larges hems and mitered corners or, as Leslie described, first hemmed on the long side and then cut and hemmed again, so no corners to do.
    I also have some that are only hemmed on two or three sides, the other one or two sides are the selvedge. The fabric has a pattern and was evidently woven to make napkins or tablecloth.

    I made some napkins and tablecloth myself, but only rarely. Then I can do mitered corners, I like that most.

    The old ones are in use with me for more than 10 years (we also use them every day) and have been used before (given the wedding dates of the grandmothers they were made in the 1930s to 1940s) but they are far from being worn out. (They are white, so no colors that can fade, of course.) I am very happy about that because I have never seen the same dense fabric quality in linen in the last 25 years or so.
    (But those have to be ironed. The hard way, like in spray first, then iron with steam and move slowly, than iron again without steam, also moving the iron slowly…. and so on. :-/ )

  17. Dennis says:

    I usually use paper toweling for a napkin. Did see a Threads article a while ago on hemming. It said to sew a thread at the beginning, don’t remember if at the corner or a little ways, to help pull the fabric through the hemmer to get it started. Tried doing it a month ago without success; should try to find the issue and reread it again to find the trick, if any.

  18. Marie-Christine says:

    Not everything has to be production grade.. Last time I did some of these I did mitered corners like this http://stonegable.blogspot.com/2010/02/making-napkins-with-mitered-corners-sew.html more pressing than sewing, but impeccable results. Especially for an amateur. They’ll outlive me, which is all the production I need. And you can slip another fabric in there and either hide an unfortunate wrong side or frame a scant but beautiful fabric.

  19. sahara says:

    Hi Kathleen!

    I spin linen to either knit or weave into napkins. When I first started, I spun dry fiber and had ridges in my thumb and index finger. This is why linen spinners a century ago had flabby, long, bottom lips; they always had to wet their thumbs on them to spin the fibers.
    I use a spray bottle to dampen the fibers for spinning, so I don’t wind up looking like I’m pouting all the time. And as I haven’t used a hemmer in many years, I generally hand roll my napkin hems. It’s one of the few tasks I can do while listening to an audio book.

  20. Sandy Peterson says:

    I have made napkins before by folding the edges twice and then straight stitching. They looked nice but I always thought about trying to do it with a hemmer.

    I have used a rolled hem on a few, but I didn’t like that finish. It didn’t have much substance to the edges and I thought they looked “cheap”. Although, maybe they would look better if I used a heavier fabric. I used a woven cotton. My next ones will be linen, though.

    I love the idea of cloth napkins and you have inspired me to make some more. My next ones will be linen. Only wish there was a faster way!! How long do you think it will take me to make enough napkins (a couple day supply) for a family of twelve?!?!?!

    Happy New Year to all of you!!

  21. Kathleen says:

    Fyi, we don’t change napkins by meal or even by day (depending) so you might not need as many as you think. Your mileage may vary of course but I can explain how we do it.

    First, we have cats (6) and the little dears get up on the table when we’re not there. [Colita in particular -being a vegan cat, seriously- thinks the bouquet of flowers on the dining room table is a salad buffet so she eats the little purple flowers, baby’s breath and tastes everything else.] Anyway, since the idea of cat butt on the table grosses me out, we always use table cloths which I can shake out, turn over, rotate etc. We put our folded napkins at our place alongside the table edge and then fold the tablecloth edge over to cover the the napkins between meals. We don’t need to change napkins every single day because we don’t eat particularly messy or greasy (meat) foods. I usually change them out every other day.

    As to how long it would take you to make 3 or 4 dozen napkins, I can’t say. Esther recommended a merrow edge (if your machine could do that) so that would be very fast. But again, fast is relative and I don’t know how much space you have to work in or the kind of machine etc.

  22. Silvia says:

    I didn’t even know this foot existed…does that excuse me for not making perfectly straight hems? I have recently failed at making straight hems on my curtains despite having taken measurements and all.

  23. Lisa Blank says:

    I wound up cutting mine four across for slightly smaller napkins. I got a total of 20 out of a 2-yard cut. I tried the various methods shared here but eventually made 1/2-inch mitered corners using Sherry’s method (Chris linked to it) and then stitched down the sides using something like Sabine’s method. I didn’t shoot for perfection as there is no one who will inspect them, but they look pretty good nonetheless.

    I still have two more colors of linen designated for napkins but have discovered that 20 napkins for 2 people last an awfully long time. I don’t know WHAT I’ll do with 60 napkins, so I’ve lost motivation for sewing up the rest.

  24. Dara says:

    Kathleen, random info I thought was common knowledge. Worked in a linens factory once, they used to be merrowed or this other hemming process which none of you have mentioned and I’m not sure how to describe. Now however, the process for this is completely automated and 1 of 2 machines does it without human intervention. It looks like an….industrial pocket machine sort of if it were in a box and did hundreds of pockets in an hour. I’m not describing it well and I don’t see an example of it anywhere on youtube. All I can find is the ones that make a jelly roll and that’s not what I mean.

  25. Kathleen says:

    It could be that merrowing wasn’t discussed out here (it was in the forum) because I specifically asked about hemming, not edge finishing. I don’t like the look, just my personal taste. Merrowing is certainly easier and less expensive but not what I was looking for.

    In the forum post where we discussed fine hemming (linked to above) there is a link to a video showing a machine that hems napkins. It only did two sides at once and wasn’t similar to what you describe but the one you mention would be neat to see. Maybe that will be something to ask about at the upcoming tradeshow.

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