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The Etiquette Scholar blog answering you dining etiquette questions.

etiquette scholar / dining etiquette / table setting / table linens / napkins


The Spartans were the first to use napkins. They wiped their hands with a lump of dough called apomagdalie. This practice later evolved with dinners using a sliced bread "napkin" to wipe their hands. Thankfully, in the US today, a cloth napkin is used. It is normally found to the left of the place setting. Europeans generally place napkins to the right of the spoon.

napkin use and etiquette

The basic function of the napkin is to wipe your fingers and blot your mouth.

  • After sitting, unfold your napkin and place it in your lap (don't tuck it in your collar) after the host or hostess has placed his or her napkin in their lap.
  • Small napkins are used an informal meals. They are completely unfolded.
  • Use the napkin to blot your lips as needed and before taking a drink.
  • Place your napkin in your chair if leaving the table during the meal.
  • When the meal is completed, the napkin is folded loosely and placed to the left of your plate (or in the center of your place setting if your plate has been cleared).

napkin shapes and sizes

Event formality dictates the shape and size of napkins used.

Napkins are usually square. The following list shows what sized napkins are used for various occassions:

  • Formal, Multiple Course, Meals - large napkins (22 - 26 inches square);
  • Buffet Service - medium to large napkins (18 to 24 inches square or 12 x 22 inches);
  • Informal Dinners - medium napkins (18 to 20 inches square);
  • Luncheons - smaller napkins (14 to 16 inches square);
  • Tea - small napkins (12 inches square); and
  • Cocktails - very small napkins (9 inches square, 4 x 6 inches, or 6 x 8 inches).

napkin color and design

Napkins at a formal meal should match the color of the tablecloth (generally ivoy or white). They should have a simple boarder and weave. Napkins of different color with patterns can be used to add interest ot the table setting. Keep design scale consistent throughout the table setting for continuity.

napkin texture

Napkins should have a texture to allow it to absorb moisture. For continuity, napkin texture should be compatible with that of the other linens at the table and tableware finish. Fine textures work best for formal occassions, while unique textures can be used at informal meals to add interest to the table setting.

napkin placement

Napkins are placed in the center of the service plate to save space at a formal event. Informal meals allow the host to place the napkin whereever they choose.

napkin rings

Before washing machines, when families did laundry by hand, napkins were kept in individual rings so that they could be reused without washing. Today they are used as decoration.

  • Napkins in napkin rings are placed on the table with the tip of the napkin point toward dinner guests.
  • Guests should place the napkin ring to the top-left of the setting after the napkin is removed.
  • When the meal is finished, the napkin should be grabbed in the center and pulled through the ring - then placed on the table with the point facing the table's center.

extra napkins

  • Keep a few extra napkins on hand for those that drop them or to use in a bread basket, to place under wine bottles, or as hotpads.

- , Editor, Etiquette Scholar

If you find any typographical errors, inaccuracies, or inconsistencies, or if you just have something to add, please email us.