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Did you know the paper napkin made its debut in 1887? While that’s quite historically interesting, we still prefer the cloth napkin. This pretty floating rick rack technique allows you to fancy-up a standard cloth napkin for a gift, a party – or just for everyday. It’s fun and easy, and you may already have everything you need on hand to whip up a stack in no time. 

You may have seen this floating rick rack done with a blind hem stitch or a tacking stitch, however, we were not happy with either of these options for our napkins. The tacking option has a set length in most machines (usually about 1cm), which we thought was just too big and clunky. The blind stitch hem stitch is difficult to set to insure you get a uniformly tiny tack at the base of each rick rack wave. Instead, we chose a zig zag, changing the length and width to create a perfect mini tack. As with all techniques like this, practice makes perfect. Start on scraps to insure you get the look you want.

Since napkins are laundered regularly, you’ll want to pre-wash both your fabric as well as your rick rack. We like to put rick rack (and other ribbons and trims) into a zip-up mesh bag prior to laundering so they don’t tangle. For more tips on pre-washing, check out our full tutorial.

These pretty linens would make a great gift either as a coordinated set or a mix-and-match group where each person at the table gets his or her unique napkin. It can be especially fun for kids who can get the “special napkin” as a reward… maybe for good manners, which means not hitting your brother with a spoonful of mashed potatoes.

Because we decided to work with fat quarters for our napkin samples, our finished size of 16” x 16” is a bit non-traditional in the world of proper napkin-ing… yes – there is a World of Napkin-ing. You can, of course, make your napkins smaller or larger based on the fabric you choose. Instructions are shown below in the Getting Started section. If you want to visit the World of Napkin-ing, here are the proper sizes: Buffet is 27” x 27”, Dinner can be either 24” x 24” or 22” x 22”, Lunch can be either 20” x 20” or 18” x 18”, Hors d’Oeuvres is 13” x 13”, and cocktail is 6” x 6”.

We used and recommend a ½” double fold narrow hem with clean corners for the napkin’s hem. This is one of our favorite hems for napkins, placemats, skirt bottoms, scarves, and more. It is perfect at either a ¼” or ½” finished width. For these napkins with their pretty floating rick rack, we chose a ½” width for the best stability.

As mentioned above, our napkins finish at approximately 16” square, excluding the rick rack.

Sewing Tools You Need

Fabric and Other Supplies

NOTE: Quantities show are for ONE napkin.

  • Scrap, Fat Quarter or ½ yard of 44″+ wide quilting weight cotton; we used Fat Quarters from our Sew4Home stash
  • ½ yard of medium rick rack in a coordinating color to the napkin fabric; we used standard packaged rick rack by Wrights, which is traditionally ½” wide
  • All purpose thread to match fabric and rick rack
  • Iron and ironing board
  • See-through ruler
  • Fabric pen or pencil
  • Seam gauge
  • Seam ripper
  • Scissors
  • Rotary cutter and mat
  • Iron and ironing board
  • Straight pins
  • Seam sealant

Getting Started 

  1. From the fabric for each napkin, cut ONE 18” x 18” square.
    NOTE: Take the time to fussy cut your square so the corners are square and the motif is straight. As mentioned above, you can adjust your napkin size if you’d like. Your starting square should be 2” larger than your finished square.
  2. From the rick rack, for each napkin, cut ONE 18” length.
    NOTE: As mentioned above, you can adjust your napkin size if you’d like. Your length of rick rack should be 2” longer than one side of your finished square.

At Your Sewing Machine & Ironing Board

Hem the napkin

  1. We used and recommend a standard ½” double fold narrow hem with clean corners. If you are brand new to this technique, we have a full, step-by-step tutorial you can review prior to this project.
  2. Along each edge, fold back the raw edge ½” and press well.
  3. Fold back another ½” all around, concealing the raw edge between the folds. Press well.
  4. For both folds, you need to press firmly enough to set visible crease lines. This is especially important at the corners.
  5. Unfold both folds at each corner. You should be able to see both sets of crease lines.
  6. Fold in the corner at a 45˚ angle so the point of the corner lines up with the intersection of the inner set of crease lines. Press.
  7. Fold in the corner a second time, at ½” and again at a 45˚ angle. The outer diagonal raw edges of this second fold should fit within your crease lines. Press.
  8. Refold along the original crease lines and press – first one fold then the second fold. If you’ve been careful with your measurements and pressing, this re-fold will create a diagonal line where your two finished edged meet, making a neat split corner.
  9. Repeat at each corner.
  10. Thread the machine with thread to best match the fabric in the top and bobbin. Slightly lengthen the stitch.
  11. Stitch around all four sides staying close to the inner fold.
  12. Remember to stitch all the way into each corner, stopping at the diagonal, and make a sharp pivot.

Attach the rick rack

  1. Find your length of rick rack, which should be about 2” longer then one side of your hemmed square so it can extend about 1” to either end. If your fabric has a directional motif, we recommend the floating rick rack be attached along the right side edge of the napkin square. If you are making more than one napkin, make sure you are attaching the rick rack to the same side on each napkin.
  2. Fold back each end of the rick rack, being careful to precisely align the “waves.” You want your fold-back to continue for one and a half waves for the best look and the best security. This will allow the fold back to be secured with two tacks. Trim as needed to get a perfect fit.
  3. Pin the rick rack in place at each corner first.
  4. It is important that your corner points are exact.
  5. Once the corners are set, pin through the center. The rick rack is just barely sitting against the hem of the napkin – about ⅛”. Make sure it is even along its entire length.
  6. As mentioned above, we felt a condensed zig zag stitch gave us the very best, most controlled option for the tacking.
  7. Re-thread the machine with thread to best match the rick rack in the top and bobbin.
  8. Re-set the machine for a very tight zag zag. We used 3.8mm in width and .10 in length.
  9. Test your own settings and practice the technique on scraps prior to moving to your final napkin. Your settings might be slightly different from ours depending on the width of your rick rack and the look you prefer.
  10. Drop your needle at the center of each bottom wave of the rick rack and stitch one sequence.
  11. What the heck is “one sequence”? We stitched one zig and one zag, then used the locking stitch function on our Janome Skyline S7 for a consistent finish. If you can’t do this, simply count your stitches – 3 to 4 back-and-forth stitches is a good option, but the look is really up to you, which is why the “testing” above is so important. Whatever you choose, make sure it is exactly the same wave to wave. And make sure you lock each tack.
  12. When one tack is completed, do not cut your thread. Instead, simply raise the needle and move to the next wave. When complete, you will have “jump threads” along the hem.
  13. Because you locked each tack, you can carefully cut these jump threads.
  14. And you have a clean “float” both front and back.
  15. That said, we did also choose to add a dot of seam sealant at the back of each tack … just because we like to be super safe. You could also add a dab of sealant along the cut edge of the folded back rick rack at each end.


Project Design: Alicia Thommas
Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Leah Wand

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5 years ago

I just bought some rick rack

I just bought some rick rack to make the “teeth” in a tooth shape’s mouth.  It’s going to be a tooth fairy pillow applique that will hold the tooth and the reward.  After seeing all the pretty colors now available, I think some other projects could use that cute trim!  (My mother had earrings made from rick rack back in the early-mid 50s, LOL!)  I think I will stock up on some for the doll clothes that are going to be sewn soon, too.  But I sure do like those napkins!  

Jane Coombs
Jane Coombs
5 years ago

Having just sewed six fabric

Having just sewed six fabric bowl covers decorated with the rick rack, it got me wondering how is rick rack made? It is a little marvel and some of it has glitter. Timely post.

3 years ago
Reply to  Jane Coombs

my hsb and i saw one of those shows that demonstrate items are created and the person who invented those machines was quite detail oriented. and the machines have remained the same after all these years. hope you will be fortunate to see it some time.

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