You Can Brighten a Party With Some Napkin Folderol

Times Staff Writer

Did you ever find, at your dinner plate, a napkin folded into a fanciful shape and wonder how it's done?

So why should the waiters have all the fun?

Anyone can fold napkins to create an unusual and dramatic table setting--or transform a drab table into a celebration.

Le Jacquard Francais, fabric manufacturers in France, offer the following information on napkins.

Several hundred years ago, it was customary for dinner guests in France to wipe hands and mouth on the edge of the tablecloth. Hence the word napkin, from the French word nappe, meaning tablecloth.

Later on, the upper classes began to provide linen squares for guests at dinner. The custom prevailed and napkin-folding was elevated to an art form.

By the 18th Century, napkin-folding reached its height of pretention and fantasy, with tables appearing to be visited by winged angels.

Some 19th-Century gastronomes, such as Prosper Montagne, author of Larousse Gastronomique, the French encyclopedia of food, wine and cookery, brought napkin-folderol down to earth by stating: "Table napkins should be folded simply and should not present the fanciful and pretentious shapes that they used to be given."

Compared to 19th-Century fanfare, today's napkin-folding is just that--simple.

First of all, damask (fabric that came from the city of Damascus) is an ideal cloth for folding napkins because of its crisp, "stand-up" texture and reversible pattern. "Fabric with a pattern on both sides complements the beauty of the folds," said Primrose Bordier, the designer for Le Jacquard Francais.

However, any fabric, provided it is of firm texture, such as linen or heavy cotton, will do. Polyester-blend fabrics generally are too pliable to do the job properly, unless pliability is a factor in the design.

It is also important that the napkin be square, preferably 24 inches square, and lightly starched for best results. Iron out any creases before you begin. Wash your hands and work on a clean, hard surface.

Try using floral, stripe or bold plaid as well as plain napkins. For a change of pace, you may want to vary the place setting with place mats and coordinated napkins, rather than a formal tablecloth. Also, experiment on all kinds of napkin rings.

Consider varying the napkin folds to suit the nature of the meal. "A table setting for a holiday dinner should look different from a business luncheon," said Bordier.

"The fan" is a dramatic shape set on the center of a dinner plate. To make the fan, fold a starched napkin in half. Starting from the folded side, fold the napkin accordion-like into 1 1/2-inch folds, then press. Place flat end on the plate and lift all but the first fold off the plate to form a fan.

The "Palm Frond" is an easy fold to place in a tall wine glass and perfect for brunches, luncheons or informal dinners. Pinch a 24-inch square napkin in the center and shake it out to form a tulip shape. Twist the narrow end and fold into the glass. Form petals with pointed ends.

Another simple and versatile fold is called the "Algonquin." Once made, it can be set on the table as is, or it may become a foil for a place card, party favor, small roll, flower blossom or silverware. This fold works on a buffet table as well as at black-tie affairs, according to Bordier.

To make the Algonquin, fold a 24-inch-square napkin in half. Fold opposite ends of one half of the napkin into triangles, as if making a pointed hat. Then make a vertical fold at the open seam, bringing the unfolded sides of the napkin together. Finally, make one more vertical fold in half. You will have a pocket on both sides for inserting a flower blossom, silverware or a small roll.

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