oversized ripped linen napkins
photo: sally schneider

Years ago, we used to scour flea markets for oversize damask napkins that were once a mainstay of early 20th century tables. They’d range anywhere from 20-to-36-inches square. Putting one across your lap at table felt incredibly luxurious: like being tucked into bed while sitting at a wonderful feast.

Over the years, the look of table linens has become seriously deconstructed: we’ve woken up to the beauty of unironed linen, and linens with unfinished hems, because few fabrics look better in their natural state than linen. Now we like to make our own oversized napkins by ripping or cutting big swaths of heavy linen (often bought on sale). The method is simple:

oversized ripped linen napkin

-wash and dry the linen  to shrink it before cutting
-figure out how many  napkins you can get out of the fabric so there are no leftovers, for example, from a 60″ wide piece you might get two 28″-30″ squares, or three 20″ squares
-with a scissors, make cuts in the fabric where you want to rip the fabric; hold each side firmly to rip (if it doesn’t rip easily, just cut it all the way)
-pull off hanging threads so that the edges of the napkins are slightly frayed

oversized ripped linen napkin

An inexpensive — though not nearly as luxurious —  alternative to linen is muslin. Since it usually comes in a murky beige color, we like to bleach it white by throwing it in the washing machine with about 1 1/2 cups of bleach; rinse twice to remove the chlorine smell, then dry  in a dryer. Smooth out and rip napkins as directed above.

Related posts: kraft paper table “cloths” and place settings
chic’d-up paper towel napkins in a fab minimalist setting
unhemmed (ripped) linen with yarn stitching
dishtowel as….
the joys of unorthodox tableclothes

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16 replies on “diy: oversized ripped linen napkins

  1. Hi Sally: I have several yards of linen sitting in my closet just waiting for the time when I can source a sewing machine to sew them into napkins. (Do I need to mention that its been sitting there for several years?) So I LOVE this solution but wonder how well the unhemmed napkins hold up in the washer. Do they continue to fray and shed threads? Do you avoid the drier?

  2. Hi Dana, Well, I did these experiments because I too have years of linen sitting in my closet waiting to sew. I find the unhemmed napkins hold up fine in the washer (but I do recommend washing the swath of linen first, because you won’t know how it will shrink until you’ve washed it. I do this for any sewing fabric project where I want to be able to wash the items repeatedly — essential with slipcovers). Occasionally some threads will come loose but I just pull them off. I put the linen in a medium hot dryer and then smooth them out as they come out. Then fold them. Easy peasy.

  3. Thank you Sally! I’m going to do this for sure.

  4. Many years ago my sister-in-law Kathleen taught me to press cotton & linen. I’d always thought pressing was synonymous with ironing. Not so. I take napkins from the washer and tumble them in the dryer no more than 10-12 min. Kathleen says this “relaxes” the cloth. They should still be uniformly damp. As I fold them, with my hands I press down and smooth the fabric. They dry looking as though they’ve been ironed! It’s a small miracle every time. (I press on the top of my dryer; the smooth metal enhances that freshly ironed look.)

  5. Wow, I had no idea. What a GREAT simple technique: literally pressing and smoothing them while their still damp. Thanks a million!

  6. Oh, and the best part it works beautifully for tablecloths too.

  7. I learned from my weaving teacher to rinse anything that has been bleached in a solution of white vinegar and water. It takes away the smell, but the reason for that (and the more important reason to use the rinse) is that it stops the reaction. Bleach that isn’t “stopped” will keep eating away at fibers and weaken them, even when you think it has all been rinsed away.

  8. I use the “press” method for pillowcases, too. Also fabric place mats … and flat sheets.

  9. those are beautiful napkins. I have some of this gigantic damask napkins – still find them at secondhand stores.

    I like the pressing while damp technique – I’m going to try that. I rarely use my dryer because I like to line-dry things, but I could see using it in this manner.

  10. I inherited over four dozen linen napkins from my grandmother. I used them while my children were growing up and now I use them with my grandchildren almost every day. They still look beautiful. And while I fold them damp during the winter, once I bring my summer linens out, my iron comes out as well, When I have a free morning I set my dining room up in a “French Laundry”. I fill my spray bottle up with water and five drops of lavender oil and spray as I iron my shirts, capris, pillow cases, napkins and top sheets (after the sheets have been folded). The entire house smells like lavender. Sometimes I will take my two six year old granddaughter’s fancy cotton dresses into my French laundry. It’s amazing how relaxing it is. Pour a cup of tea and put on some quiet music and it becomes meditative. Thank you to your generation for continuing to live with, and enjoy cotton.

  11. GORGEOUS! As things wear out in my house I’ve been trying to replace them with linen- napkins, pillow covers, tablecloths… it’s such a wonderful fabric! I would love to link to your tutorial if you didn’t mind.

  12. You can also repurpose linen sheets, tableclothes, etc that may have a rip or permanent stain. Rip em into napkins!

  13. Thank you so much for this little titorial. I have just purchased 26 metres (Australia) of linen cotton blend to make napkins and table runners for my daughters wedding. So hope it works out and linen cotton blend works ok. The pure linen was too expensive.

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