1,000 folds on the road to compulsion

Times Staff Writer

Filling the pepper grinder, polishing the wine glasses, lighting the candles. Oh, the thousand thoughtful steps behind a well-laid table! Or the eleven-hundred if you fall under the influence of the new book “Simply Elegant Napkin Folding” (Sterling Publishing Co., $14.95).

You might. Don’t scoff. Italians set children at a kitchen table and keep their little fingers out of trouble by having them roll pasta dough into fanciful shapes, into little ears and bows and twirls. A festive, make that hilarious, alternative for adults, particularly an adult with a freshly poured glass of wine, could easily involve cloth.

Name an occasion, and this book has a napkin shape for it. There are horns of plenty, fortune cookies, tulips, envelopes, boats, fans, bows, bunnies. There is even, if the vicar comes to tea, a bishop’s hat. The constructions are often silly, occasionally delightful, always there to briefly enchant or amuse us before we shake them out.


But a warning. “Simply Elegant” does not mean simple. This is a distinctly methodical pursuit of whimsy. Granted, it all starts simply enough, with an introduction showing basic techniques, including shapes called “quarterfold” and “centerpoint,” along with rectangles, triangles and pleats. All the fancier napkin shapes are then derived from these basic folds, explains author Chris Jordan.

Chapter after chapter, we are instructed in the art of making these advanced shapes. Triangle tucks, candelabras, obelisks. But beware of becoming cocky after early successes. Reviewing this book involved turning my hand to a dozen or so formations. I was not even through Chapter 2’s “basic folds from squares” before failing to achieve the “lotus blossom” position.

“Lay the napkin on the table with the wrong side facing you and fold it into a centerpoint square,” read Step 1.

“Wrong side?” I growled. “Pray tell what’s the ‘right side’ of a napkin?” I folded and fumbled enough to deduce that the “wrong side” was the back of the cloth, the one where the hem is tucked, only to falter again at Step 4. “Fold the center point down firmly with one hand, reach underneath and gently pull a corner of the underneath layer out until it sits up and frames the corner of the top layer.”


The lotus blossom proved my napkin-folding Waterloo. I was taking it out on the test napkins when the food section designer wandered through the test kitchen, nimbly pulled out some cotton and popped it out like a shirt collar. Hey, presto, there it was. Lotus blossom. Just like in the book.

“I did origami as a kid,” she explained diffidently.

More than decoration

Reader, take it from me: Napkin folding is not unlike tennis. It’s a psychological sport. “You did most of it,” she added, worried, perhaps, that she had shown me up too easily. I placate easily. I decided that yes, I did. In fact, it was almost mine and I proudly paraded lotus blossom around. Doing this, I realized that it would be a good napkin shape for a kid. If you can get around unfolding it, its tufting pockets are ideal for hiding bits of food that you can pretend you’ve swallowed.


The book closes with the reminder that napkins are not just decoration. We wipe our mouths with them. I, myself, already knew this. Napkins and sleeves: both for wiping mouths. But maybe it is not so obvious. Our love of the bright linens displayed so enticingly in kitchenware shops is such that it’s not so silly to balk at actually using them. My own solution was to become accepting of stains. I had to. For as long as I can remember, I have only used cloth napkins, which I launder every fortnight and usually iron. The odd blotch is just part of the territory, particularly given my preference for right-on, stain-friendly, bio-degradable detergents.

But the author is more fastidious. There are 15 stain removal tips, each stain requiring a different protocol, for everything from berries to egg to lipstick to gravy to wine. Then there are the tips about how to store these now immaculate linens: in suitcases under the bed.

Oh dear. Not my cup of compulsion. And I wonder if it doesn’t somehow undermine the crowning beauty of napkin folding? Nothing conceals the odd stain better than a quick triangle tuck.


From cloth to cornucopia, step by step