life in a tiny apartment.

October 15, 2014

cloth napkinsTip #113: Get cloth napkins you’ll love over more practical ones.

My friend Rachel is getting married. She wants to put white napkins on her wedding registry. Practicality and a mother’s loving opinion say get colored ones instead. And she’s worried about her own messiness. 
She writes, “I can picture myself with a Tide Stain Stick in hand as I pour wine for a guest and then standing at attention ready to Tide-away all the spills and splashes. Now that you have a baby who will likely start eating foods that are not so conveniently white as breast milk, I imagine that you’ve thought about this and I wanted to hear your advice.”
I say practicality be damned. If you have the space for just one set of napkins, get the ones you love.
Because nothing lasts forever. To clarify: nothing that gets used lasts forever. A set of napkins tucked into a drawer with a sweetly scented sachet and no intention of seeing the light of day? Those will last. They’ll last and last until the silverfish or the moths get to them and then they will get tiny holes, but they’ll still be kicking around a hundred years from now—a little yellower, a little stiffer, a little thinner—but still here. Trust me on this one. 
But napkins that get used? These will last for awhile and then one of two things will happen: they will get replaced or they will go on being used, stains and tears, and rumply seams to show the years.
White napkins will definitely get stained. Turmeric and tomatoes and those few precious strands of saffron will leave their mark. But the rust colored napkins? The ones that seem more practical? They’ll get stained too. They’ll fade in the wash upon wash that all of your raucous dinner parties will require. You’ll make a big bowl of popcorn to watch with your favorite movie and the grease will leave oily amoeba-shaped spots. Your brand new husband will grab a napkin instead of a rag and use it to fix a squeaky bicycle chain and you’ll be one man down (maybe two). One of you will wipe your one-day-baby’s spit up with a light blue napkin and realize with a start that breast milk does stain. Who knew? These are the things that happen in tiny apartments and big ones. And thank goodness. Because drawers full of unused napkins are a sadder sight to behold than stained ones.
Sentimentality for messy dinner parties aside, I will share what we love for everyday: a set of ten striped linen napkins in grey and white. They were wedding gifts and they hide dribbles and wine dots beautifully. Because napkins and weddings go together, I also have a set of four white linen napkins from Ireland, a set of four goldenrod yellow napkins from France, a gauzy white and gold set of napkins and placemats from India, and a set of tiny vintage cloth cocktail napkins with embroidered peaches and more. We can only hope they all end up stained and spotted.

PS. If it comes down to it: here’s a swap for that Tide stick.

PPS: As you can see, napkins in our house are a mostly wrinkled item. I don’t lose sleep over it.

More on dinner parties, HERE and HERE.

Tiny apartment survival tip #1 – 111, right HERE.

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  • Reply Maja October 15, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    This post warms my heart.

  • Reply Kate Harvey October 15, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    I just love your posts. 🙂 I've been coming to the conclusion that things, even our nicest things, should be used. So we've started to sub in our vintage silverware for our normal forks and knives, and I serve tea (even when by myself) in a real teacup with a saucer. Such small little things but why not? It feels decadent and there's no reason to shut these things up in a china cabinet forever!

  • Reply JAG October 15, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    I am definitely pro white napkin. I pick them up whenever I find them at yard/estate sales or the op shop. With older white napkins often any patterns are a subtle damask, which can be mixed and matched at will with no one the wiser. I use them instead of paper plates at my daughter's birthday parties and while many of the other toddler mothers are horrified that I'm using the "good napkins" they don't understand that I find them easier to launder than the more casual patterned cotton ones.

    The worse stains I find are tea and chocolate. Turmeric, wine, blueberries, beets–they will stain at first but they are actually quite fugitive (I work with museum textiles so I speak from a quite long term point of view). The nice thing about white napkins is they can be bleached. If you're uncomfortable with chemical bleach then you can sun bleach them with no worries over designs fading. We've found on some stains sun bleaching is better than chemical bleaching.

    • Reply Anonymous October 16, 2014 at 5:26 am

      That is exactly what my grandma always says. She still uses napkins she got from her mother as a wedding gift 60 years ago. The point is to buy some that stand a lot of heat so you can cook them out.
      for red wine stains give some salt on it and wait, then wash really hot. It will be gone 🙂

  • Reply Katya October 15, 2014 at 1:42 pm

    What an uplifting post! I can only add pretty tablecloths to the list. I have a favorite linen one that saw many dinners and was turned and flipped multiple times to hide the spots. At the end, plates and dishes covered the stains pretty well and nobody ever complained 🙂

  • Reply Jana | One Drawing A Day October 15, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    We have dark grey chambray napkins- and we love them and use them. Makes every day fell special. I keep a trash can in the garage and we just toss them in there and launder them all together. I haven't lost one yet!

  • Reply Jacquelyn | lark&linen October 15, 2014 at 3:42 pm

    This! Just. This. You and words are simply magical. I can't get enough!

  • Reply Eleanor October 15, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    This post just made my day.

  • Reply Cynthia October 15, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    You are so right. I only use cloth napkins and when they get too stained for the napkin drawer, they move to the camping supplies and finally to the cleaning rags. Out of the dozens and dozens of napkins that have passed through this home, only the pure white linen ones remain unscathed. I have used them for outdoor BBQ parties and they come in looking like they're goners for sure. But a little pre-soak and a good hot wash and line drying does the trick every time. Gorgeous, white.

  • Reply Rachel October 15, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    I really enjoyed this post. I'm still on the fence about white napkins but I love the striped ones pictured!


  • Reply Carrie October 15, 2014 at 5:13 pm

    I found your blog a couple weeks ago and I love it. This post is fun and lovely and about napkins! Very impressive <3

  • Reply Katherine October 15, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    We got some patterned mismatched cloth napkins at Pottery Barn when we got married, 9 years ago. They still make me happy. I quit worrying about preserving them several years ago and somehow they still endure. If you love white- get white!

  • Reply Jill October 15, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    I like white for napkins and bedding. So much easier to just bleach and be done!

  • Reply Anna October 15, 2014 at 11:45 pm

    We didn't receive any napkins as gifts when we got married, probably because I made a cloth napkin for each of our wedding guests to use at the wedding dinner and take home and use again. So we have an assortment of colored and patterned napkins. I heartily agree that there is no reason to save things for later — enjoy it now!

  • Reply Archana October 16, 2014 at 2:58 am

    what about kitchen towels??? would you pick the ones you love or the more practical ones?

    I have white bedding. Looks beautiful. But i seem to wash them more often. More wear and tear would result from it. I can see myself replacing them sooner.

  • Reply Caroline October 16, 2014 at 7:42 am

    We bought more than 100 thin dishtowels from ikea to use as napkins at our wedding and we continue to use them as napkins at home. They also make the best and simplest bibs. In addition, I've used them as fabric to make a dish drying mat and other things around the house.

  • Reply Mahallia October 16, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Your reminder that nothing that gets used lasts forever definitely resonates with me. Yesterday I broke my very favorite mug 🙁 It was little and blue, painted with a tiny scene of a Japanese fish market, a gift form a close friend. It was a beautiful mug, but what I loved most about it was that it reminded me of my friend. So thankfully even beautiful stuff is just stuff. The more use and love friendships get, the stronger and brighter they become 🙂

    Love your blog Erin, and the close attention you pay to the little details of life.

  • Reply Julie October 17, 2014 at 3:52 am

    I have white napkins and they are used by children. Yes they get dirty, and sometimes stained (think tomato sauce), but that is what bleach is for.

  • Reply Isabelle Dervaux October 18, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    Love this discussion! For me anything white is forbidden in my kitchen. Too much upkeep and upset if stained.

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