Introduction: Folding Cloth Table Napkins

Spruce up the Christmas dinner table so Grandma will pinch your cheek, impress the cute waitress at Olive Garden, or make the school cafeteria feel a little less like a prison mess hall with some of these napkin folds. Napkin art is a type of origami, but the medium is a lot more forgiving than paper and these folds are much easier then a Kawasaki rose.

I'll say 'fold diagonally' if I mean it; otherwise 'fold in half' means orthogonally. Since cloth napkins are usually square, or close to it, we won't have to discuss folding 'the long way' or 'the short way' or 'the hamburger way'.

If I were writing a book, I'd go into depth on the different types of material (cotton is better than a cotton/polyester blend), how much starch to use (just enough, but not more), and how the napkins should be ironed and stored to avoid unsightly wrinkles and creases. Since you'll mostly practice this in a restaurant where you don't control any of that anyway, I won't. I will note that the fanciest restaurants always seem to have the worst napkins for folding, and the restaurants that are just one step away from having a paper napkin dispenser on the table tend to use napkins that accept folds very well.

If you're from over the pond and giggle helplessly every time I say 'napkin', you may search/replace 'napkin' with 'serviette'.

Step 1: The Fan

Classic elegance. Adding some starch when washing or ironing the napkin gives crisper pleats.

Fold the napkin in half.

Starting at one end, fold over a pleat about one inch wide. Turn the napkin over and repeat with the same end. Turn and repeat. Stop about one fold after you make the remaining bit square.

Turn the napkin over so the stack of pleats is on the bottom. Fold the napkin in half the same direction as before, so the pleats are doubled on themselves.

Arrange the napkin so the original folded edge is on the top. Fold the remaining end down diagonally. About one inch will hang past the bottom. Fold this end under.

Hold the pleats together and set the napkin upright, so that very last folded edge is on the bottom. Release the pleats, which will fall to either side and create the fan. Do this with a flourish and a 'TA-DA!' if in front of friends. Try to remain calm and gracious during the thundering applause and shower of roses that will undoubtedly ensue.

Step 2: The Candle

You could dip the 'flame' in rubbing alcohol diluted to 50% with water and actually ignite it without destroying the napkin. Try it with your mother's best table linens!

Fold the napkin in half diagonally.

Fold the point of the triangle down to meet the long edge in the center. Fold the same direction again, so the edge you just created covers the point.

Fold up one end at an angle, so the corner of the napkin protrudes an inch or so above the top edge. This corner is the flame.

Starting at the flame end, roll up the napkin to form the body of the candle.

When nearly at the end of the roll, fold the remaining edge down along the body the same way as you did the flame (but in the opposite direction). Tuck the corner into the bottom of the candle neatly so that it will stand up.

Step 3: The Ship

I always make this one in Chinese restaurants, because it reminds me of a traditional junk (the sailing ship, not the stuff in the dumpster out back). Works best with a heavily starched napkin. By heavily starched I mean you should hear it crack when you bend it.

Fold the napkin in half. Fold it in half again the other way, so all four corners are stacked on each other.

Arrange the napkin to look like a diamond, with the four corners of the cloth at the bottom.

Fold the napkin diagonally, so the four corners are at the top of the triangle.

Take one of the bottom points of the triangle and bring it down, so that the edge it made with the top point runs vertically down the center of the napkin. Repeat with the other side.

You have two choices here, which depend on the amount of starch in the napkin, and if you have a fork handy.

If the napkin accepts creases well and tends to stay where you put it, fold the little bits that hang over the bottom edge under. If the napkin is very springy or very limp, leave these sticking out, and steal a clean fork from the next table if you've already used yours.

Fold the napkin in half backwards. If you folded the extra bits under in the previous step, this will trap them together on the inside of the ship. If you left them sticking out, run them between the tines of the fork to hold the thing together.

Pull up the napkin's corners one at a time to form sails.

Step 4: The Boat

Let your country club friends marvel at your new yacht.

Fold the napkin in half diagonally.

Start at the longest edge of the triangle and roll up towards the point. Stop when you have enough left to form the sail - exactly where is a matter of taste, and of how floppy the napkin is.

Turn the napkin over and fold in half, so the roll is on the outside and the sail protrudes from the inside. Stand the boat up.

Step 5: The Elven Shoe

A great way to keep your WoW friends wowed after a LAN party in formal attire, this cute little elf shoe would also be appropriate for any Christmas movie party, or if you're catering a cobbler's convention.

Fold the napkin in half. Fold in half again in the same direction, so you have a long, thin rectangle.

Fold the top corners down past the bottom edge, so the original top edge runs vertically down the center.

Fold the newly created edge down the same vertical line. If people ask if you're making a paper airplane, you're doing it right.

Fold one side over on the other. The top point is the toe of the shoe.

Take one of the long tails and twist it up and roll it up to form the top of the shoe or the sock.

Take the other long tail, fold it in on itself to make a point, wrap it around to form the back of the shoe, and stuff it into the side.

Fold the 'sock' part down to make a cuff.

Roll the toe back on itself to curl it up a bit. If there's a lull in the conversation, wonder aloud what shape feet elves must have to accommodate that curl.

Step 6: The Tent

Add some class and style to your next camping trip.

Fold the napkin diagonally.

Bring the lower corners up to meet the point.

Turn the napkin over and fold diagonally across the 'seam' created. Fold one side over the other along the 'seam'.

Stand up on edge, with the 'seam' to the rear and the tent opening facing you.

Step 7: The Flower

Works best if you have a very large plate to set it on, or as a centerpiece with the sugar bowl placed in the middle.

Fold each corner to the center of the napkin.

Fold each new corner to the center of the napkin.

Turn the napkin over.

Fold each new corner to the center of the napkin.

Reach under each corner and pull out the petals (these are the new corners you created with the first step).

Reach under each edge and pull out the leaves (these are the original corners of the napkin).

Some napkins require that you set a glass or the pepper shaker in the middle to keep the whole thing from falling apart.

Step 8: The Silverware Sleeve

Good for picnics and any time you don't want to set the flatware straight on a grubby table.

Fold the napkin in half. Fold in half again the other way, so the four corners are stacked up on each other.

Roll the corner of the top layer only halfway down the napkin.

Turn the napkin over and fold the two side points to the middle. Adjust to the width you like. Try to keep it symmetrical.

Turn the napkin over. Slide the cutlery into the pocket.