How To Sew Napkins and a Table Runner

updated May 2, 2019
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

I’m trying to learn to sew. It isn’t easy. Even sewing something as seemingly simple as some square napkins and a rectangular table runner challenges my patience, but a few weeks ago, as I watched my mother whip up these napkins and runner on my mother-in-law’s old Singer, I thought, hey, I can do that!

Well, sort of.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)
I love the wavy design of this fabric. See below for resources… and hold your comments about how I don’t iron!

This is about the most simple sewing project there is, essentially sewing four hemmed sides on a piece of fabric. It works as napkins, runners, and tablecloths as well. I don’t trust myself enough yet to buy the amount of fabric required for a tablecloth, so I’m starting with napkins.

Mom wrote out her customized instructions for napkins with mitered corners and did a series of photographs. The photographs don’t necessarily line up exactly with the steps in the instructions, so I’ve indicated in the instructions, which photo coordinates.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

With my materials collected, I washed and ironed the fabric and casually attempted to cut it into even squares. I think the geometric pattern and funky aged measuring tape misled me because I have already hit major bumps in the road. Taking deep breaths… it’s just a napkin.

Just like in the kitchen, with sewing, it really helps to have the right tools, so I’ve ordered myself a few things to help next time like some sewing shears, a rotary cutter, a cutting mat and a quilters’ ruler.

So are you in or are you out? This is a great weekend project and if you start planning now, we can do this together. Ready. Set. Go.

In terms of size, napkins can range from 12-inch squares for luncheon napkins to 18-inch squares for luxurious dinner napkins. I’m making luncheon size, but not on purpose. Ooops.

This brings up how much fabric to get. Let’s say you’re making 15-inch napkins. You’ll need about 16.5-inches square for each napkin. Most lighter-weight fabrics like cotton are 44- or 45-inches wide, which would only accommodate two rows of napkins. If you were making 12-inch napkins you could get three rows. Of course the length of the fabric (usually sold by the yard) should also be carefully calculated. When in doubt, buy more. You can always find things to do with scraps (like in my case, practice sewing!)

What You Need

Light-weight cotton or linen fabric (washed, dried and pressed)

Measuring tape
Sewing machine. (If you don’t have a machine, the hem can be hand sewn using a back- or hem-stitch.)

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)


1. Cut fabric into squares about 1 1/2-inches larger than desired finished size, i.e., for a 16-inch square napkin, cut a 17 1/2-inch square of fabric. For a table runner, cut desired width (plus 1 1/2-inches) depending on table size, then cut length to fit table plus enough allowance for at least 10 inches of overhang on both ends.

2. Press under all edges 1/4-inch. (photos 1, 2)

3. Press those edges under another 1/2-inch, then unfold. (photos 3, 4)

4. Using the pressing lines as a guide, trim off a triangle from each corner (photos 5, 6)

5. Press the new cut edge down to the inner most press line. (photo 7)

6. Press the first edges under again making them meet diagonally in center of each corner to create miter. (photo 8)

7. Pin hem in place. (photo 9)

8. With folded sides facing down, stitch very close to the inner edge of the hem on one side, stopping at each
corner, with the machine needle in the down position, and turn the napkin 90° and stitch next side. (photo 10)

9. Tie off thread ends.

10. If desired, top stitch very close to outer edge for a professionally finished look. (photo 11)

Dust off that old machine, let’s make napkins. We can do it! Good luck! I know I’ll need it…


The fabric of the table runner in the first two images is from Free Spirit and the collection is called Sugar Snap by Melissa Averinos. The napkins are made from coordinating solid fabrics. The cut fabric in the photo of materials for the napkin project is also from Free Spirit/Melissa Averinos and the collection is Candy Dots, all purchased from Purl Patchwork in NYC.

Two other resources for table-top worthy fabrics with online shopping are Runner Girl Fabric in California and Sew Mama Sew in Oregon.

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Post originally published August 12, 2009

(Images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan, except for step-by-step project images, by Karen Gillingham)