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  • Writer's pictureFreya Ingva

Tea etiquette: A lesson in table napkins

This seemingly modest piece of cloth can speak volumes about you as soon as you sit at the table.

We will explore together how a British afternoon tea table napkin should be and how you should use it appropriately. Sit comfortably, with good posture and a straight back, hands on the lap, ready to learn.

The English word napkin originates from the Latin mappa, who turned into nappe, or tablecloth in old French, with the added suffix kin, a diminutive used in late Middle English.

The napkin uses and sizes have changed enormously through time, from a huge roll to clean the mouth, teeth and face in ancient times to a wrapping cloth for delicacies to be taken away. Its history is long and frankly astonishing, but here I set out only to give you some practical guidance for your quintessentially British afternoon tea.

Afternoon tea napkins are perfect cloth squares, sized between 12 to 15 inches (30.5cm to 38 cm). 

The clean and crisp square is usually made of cotton, linen or mixed fibre.

Traditionally, they are light in colour. However, depending on the occasion or the decor stronger colours may be used, particularly for a themed afternoon tea or a special celebration where hues could be significant.

A table napkin should be placed on your lap, folded in half with the hem inside, and with the crease folded towards you if you are a gentleman.

However, if you are lady, you want to place your folded napkin with the crease away from you. 

The benefit of the different placement will become apparent in a second. 

Dab your mouth with the napkin, never wipe, bringing the napkin to your mouth. Do not bend down to meet the table napkin, sit comfortably and upright.

The gentleman can gently dab using the inconspicuous side by the crease.

The lady can simply reach for the nearest corner, open it slightly, dabbing with the inside of the napkin. She then closes the napkin again and places it back on her lap. The napkin still looks pristine as the stains are inside.

If you need to take a break, excuse yourself from the table, and leave your napkin on your chair. This signals that you are coming back. Depending on the setting, gently push the chair under the table. 

When you sit down again, place your napkin on your lap as before.

The end of the afternoon tea will be prompted by the host/ess picking their napkin and placing it on the table to their left.

As soon as you are ready, pinch the napkin in the middle and place it on the table to your left too, with the seams toward you. 

The napkin is crumpled but in a somewhat neat way. Note that it touches the table only at the end of the afternoon tea.

I very much work in the traditional British way and proudly host afternoon teas with tea leaf reading. I enjoy it tremendously.

Get in touch to book your full afternoon tea experience!

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