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Why we’re swapping from paper to cloth napkins – and why you should too

Be sustainable and stylish by swapping from paper to cloth napkins. Expert vintage collector Fiona Ralph shows us how to choose from linen and cotton combos

Why we’re swapping from paper to cloth napkins – and why you should too

As single-use items fall out of favour, there’s one sustainable switch that we’re finding easy to make. Swapping paper napkins for linen or cotton ones makes sense on a visual and tactile level. While there will be extra washing to be done, there is a feeling of luxury provided by a fabric napkin which can’t be matched in paper.

Napkins haven’t always been de rigueur, of course. The ancient Greeks were said to have used small pieces of dough to wipe their hands. Large communal cloths were also common in ancient times.

It was Louis XV of France who introduced individual table napkins at the Palace of Versailles. However, they were a lot larger than today’s incarnations.

Foodreference.com states that in 1774 a French treatise declared, “the napkin covered the front of the body down to the knees, starting from below the collar and not tucked into said collar.”

Paper napkins, known as chih pha, have long been used in China for the serving of tea. When paper napkins became available in other parts of the world in the late 19th century, initially people were hesitant to adopt the trend. However, the humble paper serviette – and even paper towel – has now virtually replaced fabric napkins.

While complicated rules involving napkin size and style are still customary for formal events, these don’t need to apply in day-to-day life. Any piece of cloth which can be used to protect clothing and wipe your hands will work. You could even make your own napkins from secondhand fabric.

There are also many gorgeous vintage options which can be bought as sets or mixed and matched for a modern look. Hunt for on-trend colourways and napkins with cute details such as embroidery, cut-outs or unique trims.

Here, we’ve combined three vintage napkins with a mix of secondhand tableware in yellow and gold tones. Everything was collected from op-shops, Trade Me, vintage stores and markets, with a few pieces inherited from family.

You don’t need to worry about ironing for the effect we have created here. You can also skip elaborate folding or rolling techniques. To achieve this loose, effortless look, pinch a piece of fabric from the middle of the napkin and pull it loosely through a napkin ring. Fan out the edges to create a slightly more structured look. It could take a couple of tries before achieving the right effect.

Words by: Fiona Ralph.

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