Like most things that begin with "the art of," the art of napkin folding is lost on even the most gracious modern hostesses.
"But if you think napkin folds are only for cruise ships, consider this: adding artfully folded cloth napkins to your tabletop will delight your guests, cost you nothing extra and eliminate disposable paper napkins from your repertoire, greening your entertaining style. How's that for modern?" writes Denise Vivaldo, a caterer who has worked the Academy Awards' Governors Ball and trots out her "Top 100 Step-by-Step Napkin Folds" in book form (Robert Rose).
A couple of crisp points or languorous waves can set the tone for the occasion. Square dinner napkins (typically 20 to 24 inches) are the most versatile. Pressing with an iron (or via the dry cleaner) is essential. Spray starch may assist some.
Napkin rings are used in some of the book's methods. A bit of trivia on those: Originally, monogrammed silver napkin rings identified the napkin of each household member so that it could be reused — another tradition that may have eco-appeal. One twist is to buy wooden napkin rings from a craft store, then personalize them with paint. Or buy mismatched rings or napkins.
Now for a fold from Vivaldo:
Level of difficulty: Easy. If you've ever wielded an iron, made a paper airplane or danced the Macarena, you can do this.
Materials needed: 20- to 24-inch square napkins, crisply ironed.
The airplane technique is No. 1 in the book and can read whimsical or sophisticated depending on the napkin.
1. Place the napkin with the finished edges facing down and seam edges facing up.
2. Fold the upper edges to the lower edges, forming a horizontal rectangle.
3. Holding the center of the upper edge in place with your right hand, use your left hand to fold the upper left corner down to the vertical centerline of the rectangle. Repeat on the right side, forming a triangle.
4. Starting at the vertical center line in the middle, fold the center left edge back up to align with the upper left edge, forming another small triangle. Repeat on right side.
5. Grasping the bottom tip of the large triangle with one hand, use the other hand to gently lift the center of the upper edge so that the smaller triangles at the left and right come in to meet at the vertical centerline.
6. Flatten the lifted fabric into a narrow center triangle that overlaps the small triangles at either side, forming a "paper airplane" shape.