Sunday, December 21, 2008

Subtle Distinctions in the Linen Drawer

One of my favorite magazine photos of this holiday season is a shot in Domino, December '08 of many and varied cocktail napkins laying about on a silver tray ready for guests to grab one as they leave the bar to mingle. They are in different shades of white or ecru with a number of trims, embroideries, and monograms. All were neatly pressed and thoughtfully arranged.

This reminds a host that they need not become too focused on a matchy-matchy presentation: Each napkin is lovely on its own merits, well cared for, and clearly precious to a long time linen collector. Who would ever miss a stack of a hundred identical hemstitch squares when all those little beauties have been offered as both a practical coaster and a small pieces of handworked mastery to admire?

A cocktail napkin refers to a single layer of fabric, normally a 5x5" square or circle or close, and not a quad-folded small napkin: That animal is in fact a luncheon or dessert napkin. These are used interchangeably, though technically not accurately, all over in these times. In fact, I note both Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn calling their dessert item a "cocktail napkin." No, indeed. There are two practical reasons not to be bothered with dessert napkins for cocktails:

1. Dessert napkins are a good deal larger than cocktail napkins and require pressing, starching, ironing, and folding on three turns to arrive at a pressed quad-fold. Cocktail napkins, by comparison, take only quick swipe or two of pressing and often do not require starch. Do save yourself some time and work and see below for a comparison.

2. Secondly, a quad-folded napkin puts four layers of fabric beneath a glass and in some cases, the embellishment as well. As attractive as this looks, it is an unstable landing pad especially for long stemmed glasses which are top heavy on their own. To create balance under glasses and prevent wobbly stemware from toppling at the first hearty laugh, use a true cocktail napkin wide enough inside the hems for the bases of all your glassware patterns.

Below are a number of fine options available on the internet with a quick search. However, the best linen napkins I have found, of every variety, have been at antique fairs (I am partial to Charleston and Brimfield) and thrift stores everywhere. You have to be willing to go through piles of old linens but it will be time well spent: There is always something to see, learn, or appreciate in a stack of age old handwork, even if none of it is a taker for your taste
or need. And like anything vintage, if you find something you like, don't worry about the monogram: Often, that work is the beauty of thing, and everyone knows as many monograms converge as generations and offspring in a family tree; no one cares about that at all.

Whether you buy new or vintage, buy the ones you adore when you can. Don't wait for a moment to need them. Fates willing, a day will never come when you cannot find a use for a napkin and they are certain to be impossible to find the moment you need them.

Oval Single Monogrammed Cocktail Napkin, $60 set of 12, Gracious Style Fine Linens. From a new perspective, these are lovely.

Sferra Hemstitch Cocktail Napkins come in 16 color choices, $16 set of 6, Bergdorf Goodman sure to please everyone who wants matching, straight forward things and a great hostess gift.

Hemstitch Cocktail Napkins in white, $15 set of 12, Bumble Bee Linens. A reasonable price for new and another greaet gift. Easy peasy to care for and iron.

Dot cocktail napkins, $15 for 12, Bumble Bee Linens. Just as easy with a bit of non-glass tumbling embellishment.

The napkins below are luncheon or dessert napkins (if dessert is served in a location other than the dinner table, in which case, the diner keeps their dinner napkin). advertised as cocktail napkins, look carefully at all the pictures you can before buying on the internet.

Vintage luncheon napkins (advertised as "luncheon/cocktail/ dessert"), $20 for 10, Ruby Lane

11 vintage "cocktail" napkins, Trocadero/ European Market, $75

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