The Lister List

Napkin Folding

16th Century and Later Napkin Folding

Although both "Paperfolding" and "Origami" literally mean the folding of actual paper, the concepts of folding have for long been applied to other materials such as leather, foil, metal net and cloth. did someone say something about icing sugar? Any exclusion of any kind of foldable material is arbitrary and, myself, I accept the folding of all pliable flat materials within the concept of origami.

Folding napkins certainly existed as early as the 16th Century and may be considered to have amounted to a craze. Matthias Gieger's book, "Li Tre Trattati" (in Italian) is the earliest authority. But most of this folding was hardly the kind of napkin folding we know today. Napkins were pleated and cross pleated to make a sculpt able material which was used to mould animals, birds, ships and other decorations fit for princely tables. Several napkins were stitched together for the purpose, for some reason using red thread.

There were also, however, much simpler folds for individual napkins as we have today, but they seem to have been of only subsidiary interest. and to what extent individual napkins were folded into decorative shapes is difficult to discover. Napkins came into use as society became more refined because at that time, although diners had their own knives, they did not use forks.

Gieger's book was translated and adapted into German by George Philipp Harssdorfer as " Vollstandiges Vermehrtes Trincir-Buch" which was published in Nuremberg in 1665 and it contains most if not all of the same folds and probably additional ones. I have photocopies of the line illustrations. They include some of the basic origami folds and among them is the waterbomb base, although just how it was used is stated. The blintz is also shown, but it is not immediately obvious. The example given has been "book-folded" back along the centre line, either after or before blintzing. It is not clear what it was used for, but the triangular flaps seem to have been pleated to create some more elaborate creation which is not shown. Altogether, however, the emphasis in this book is on the major pleated masterpieces. The method of folding one interesting fold shown is not entirely clear, but I work it out to be a windmill base with each of the sails squashed to make a square. This results in two triangular flaps on each side of the diagonal of each of the four corners. In the picture, it appears that one alternate flap on each of the four squares has been rolled, giving a picture of a sort of windmill.

I have not been able to find out much about the folding of individual napkins between the 16th and the 19th Centuries. Mrs. Beeton's monumental cookery book "Household Management" is often cited as a source, but in fact, she herself didn't write anything about napkins. The elaborate napkin folding attributed to her was, in fact, compiled by the Swiss chef who rewrote a revised and much enlarged edition of "Household Management" at the beginning of the 20th Century. (My edition is not dated). By then, Mrs. Beeton, who died as a young woman, had long been dead by then. A whole series of "Mrs Beeton's cookery books" of varying degrees of complexity were also issued.

Some of them contained napkin folding, but others did not. Eventually, some twenty years ago, a facsimile of Mrs. Beeton's own "Household Management" was republished, still, of course, without any napkin folding.

With the decline in the huge number of household servants following the First World War napkin folding suffered and eclipse and simple neat ways of arranging napkins came to be preferred. For the most part this trend has continued. However, after the Second World War, with a new development of household crafts the folding of napkins again came into vogue as a specialist activity. Household magazines, in particular, loved to write features about it. From the 1960s, the Origami movement has taken napkin folding under its wing and countless books of napkin folding have been published. Some of them have been written by catering, decoration and entertainment specialists and some by paper folders. There are also books on the related topic of handkerchief folding.

To get to know more about designs for napkins, a copy of the napkin folding section of George Philipp Haarsdorfer's book "Vollstandiges Vermehrtes Trincir-Buch" of 1665 should be sought for. Some of the larger libraries have copies. Then obtain a second-hand copy of the revised edition of "Household Management".(It will come in useful as a door stop, when you're not using it for cookery or folding napkins.) After that it's just a matter of keeping your eyes open for modern books on napkin folding. Even Lillian Oppenheimer wrote two books on the subject with Natalie Epstein. Even a retired British army cook wrote one and, in a country that then didn't have napkins, Isao Honda contributed to the subject. There are so many books on napkin folding that it is impossible to mention them all. But, to mention two greatly differing books, Gay Merrill Gross has a very attractive book on the subject and John Cunliffe of Envelope and Letter Folding fame edited a comprehensive booklet of Napkin Folding, which is no. 8 in the series of British Origami Society booklets (although the section on the History of Napkin Folding was written by someone else).

David Lister.

Grimsby, England.

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