Grandbaby Projects from Tea Napkins

Once again I am offering a re-run, an article written for Creative Needle magazine some time ago.  As I was thumbing through my old issues, this jumped out at me as I thought about modern projects for old fashioned Nanas.  This is quick and easy handwork at its best.

The 2 year series was entitled Antique Textiles: Loving, Collecting and Using.  I certainly love antique textiles and collected enough for several sewing lifetimes.  I’m still working on using.

Loving:      In a more leisurely era, ladies visited their friends on a regular afternoon calling schedule. While gossip and pleasantries were exchanged, many guests surreptitiously evaluated the hostess’ presentation —the tea, treats, china and, certainly, the finely embroidered tea napkins. Like miniature roses, all tea napkins are all small and wondrous. They vary in color and style from long stemmed-elegant to ramblin’ rose-casual and were selected to suit the degree of formality or gaiety considered appropriate by the hostess.

Embellished with embroidery, drawn thread work, applique, crochet inserts, cutwork or cross stitch, these dainty delights were stitched in designs which ranged from formal to whimsical. Geometrics, classical bouquets, baskets and butterflies were most often done white on white or blue on white. Playful burros pulling wagons, serene oriental scenes and exotic camel drivers with their heavy-laden beasts were stitched with colorful charm.

Though accomplishment in the field of needlework was expected and valued by society, creativity and expertise were celebrated and appreciated by like-minded friends on these calling occasions. Tea napkins are an artifact of feminine history, a remembrancer of a period in time during which women nurtured strong sentiments of friendship and community while fulfilling social responsibilities, while bearing shared and private burdens, while functioning within the tight societal constraints of the day. Holding a veteran hand stitched napkin is likely to provoke speculation as to the confidences, sorrows and joys shared over afternoon tea.

Collecting:     The availability, variety, quantity and quality of tea napkins available in the marketplace is very encouraging. Antique shops, estate and church rummage sales frequently offer splendid examples of needlework techniques. While an impressive cutwork tablecloth might be too pricey, a single napkin with outstanding workmanship is within the the reach of a modest budget.

Complete sets of 6 or 8 or even 12 are not uncommon and are best preserved for their original purpose. Certainly, if a family of napkins has remained intact for 50-100 years, separating siblings would require serious justification. Because few shoppers can fathom a use for odd napkins, the supply of single orphans or twins is plentiful; renewing usefulness to one or two of a kind is both challenging and creatively stimulating.

Using:    There is a plethora of uses for odd napkins. Lined up on a single shelf with their pretty corners presenting south like pedigreed prairie points, they generate a mood of elegance and femininity. Or for a country look, their color and texture create a cozy, casual atmosphere when displayed on the enameled surface of an old Hoosier cabinet.

However, most of today’s needleworkers have greater need for a ready supply of hand embroidery for sewing projects than for tea tidies for afternoon callers. Clearly, incorporating well-executed handwork into a machine made garment can elevate the project to a higher level of artistry. By using the stitching from another era, even the most uncompromising anti-handwork protester can relent to embellishments rendered from a long dormant needle with thread.

Tea napkins are easily converted into collars. Following directions given by Elizabeth Travis Johnson in her invaluable book, Sewing for Children,  a number of collar styles can be drafted for any garment. Careful arrangement of pattern pieces showcase the fine workmanship and save the busy stitcher hours of handwork.

Pockets, cuffs and sleeve ruffles are other suitable sites for the fine detail found on the diminutive serviettes.

Challenges:   Most vintage linens have matured to an aged ivory color. In order to capitalize on this mellow look, one must make careful selection of a companion fabric. Liberty of London prints, with their soft white backgrounds, blend beautifully. When a monotone look is preferred, other old linens can provide the yardage for the basic garment.

When the opportunity arises, a wise shopper purchases well-priced, flawed cloths with quality yardage to stockpile for later use. After regular perusal of antique pieces, a collector will recognize fabrics of similar texture, weave and vintage. With a supply of aged napkins and fabric, a fresh antique garment can be created.


The A-line daygown (see CN July/August 1987, Patsy Wright’s Boy Daygown pattern in centerfold) is made of fine linen from a damaged tablecloth and a lone napkin. Three corners of a blue and white 11 1/2″ tea napkin were used for the collar, while the cutwork from the napkin sides were used for the sleeve cuff. A hand embroidered feather stitch sealed the raw edges much like a French seam.

Sarah Howard Stone’s Basic Yoke Dress provided the pattern for the collar. The two center sections of the 8-spokes were combined to form one wider, center spoke to accommodate the width of the embroidery on the tea napkin. Two napkins were required for the 7 spokes, leaving one embroidered corner for another project. Leftover sections of cutwork between the napkins’ corners were pin stitched to the raw edge of the back spokes. The back is closed with an antique button from Capitol Imports.

The cheerful little bib is simply a 10 1/4″ floral appliqued napkin stitched to a stained 11 1/4″ hemstitched linen napkin. One napkin would have been adequate, but the second provided additional absorbancy, rendering this baby accessory more serviceable. They were joined by a tiny zig zag from the cross stitched edge into the holes of the hemstitching. Echoing the red stitching on the edge of the top napkin, the ribbon ties were embellished with a cross stitch from the Elna Diva. A bias bound neckline completes this speedy little machine project replete with handwork.

Other Applications:   Looking at time-worn embroideries as a raw material to be integrated into a garment or project gives new perspective to acquisition. In sleeve design, yoke detail, collar shape or home decorating projects such as pillows, quilts, curtains or accessories, the petite serviettes are rife with creative possibilities. Examination of Edna Power’s book, Affordable Heirlooms from Grannie’s Heartstrings will reward the reader with a wealth of ideas for using old or new linens for baby items.

Even items of mediocre stitch quality have merit and can be useful for inexpensive bazaar projects or more common purposes. Though all tea napkins are small and wondrous, some are more so than others. But each can be a stimulus to innovation and creativity.

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