I don’t know about you, but for me, one of the hardest things to place into my compositions is a napkin. I fiddle with it over and over, and it can get so frustrating. I’ll lay a napkin into the set, and literally take about 15 pics of it in various places till I get it right, or feel it’s just OK.
I think one of the reasons this seems to be so hard is that usually napkins are made of a thicker material, like a nice linen for example.
It’s really hard to get that linen to flow and lay in a soft, pleasing arrangement when you don’t want to show it folded.
I always have better luck with softer fabrics, but have such a hard time finding the perfect colors for my shots.
So, I decided to make my own napkins that are super easy to style in my pics, and to make them perfect for food photography.
And the best part – new sewing at all!
Here is how to make, and dye your own napkins. After you get your materials, this takes about 3 or 4 hours to complete.
#1 Get you fabric dye
I use Rit all purpose dyes – not the DyeMore ones. They have a great color chart to help you make your colors, and it’s pretty accurate. You have to tell them you are using Rit All Purpose dyes, and then tell them you are dying Small items – actually pick the “socks” selection.
If you tell the form that you are doing napkins, it thinks you are dying a bunch of napkins at one time, and we are only dying one of each color here. I got the dye at JoAnn fabrics, but Amazon also has the dyes for the same price.
These are my Amazon Affiliate links. Should you buy any item, I will receive a small commission at not cost to you.
#2 Get your fabric
Here’s the trick – I find that white cotton gauze is really easy to style in my food photos. Cheese cloth is similar, though it’s not as thick and very see through. There is also something called Tobacco Cloth that has a more course, open thread.
It’s very inexpensive. I ordered mine from a local fabric store in LA. Here are some I found on Amazon (click on the image to see this on Amazon):
What’s nice is the texture of the fabric. Instead of it being perfectly flat, it has an even ripple throughout the surface. This shoots very nicely.
Make sure it’s 100% cotton – it takes the dye better. If your’s has polyester in it, you will need dye for synthetics – rit makes that, but it’s a little more expensive and it takes longer to dye.
I made two different sizes of fabric squares, one for napkin sizes (14 inches square-ish), and the other (24 inches square), just to have some larger pieces to drape through a scene.
I used tools for quilting to help me keep the pieces as square as I could. The gauze is very stretchy, so your squares will not be perfect, and that’s totally fine. You can just use a ruler and scissors if that’s all you have.
Here’s what’s awesome about using this gauze – you don’t have to hem it! The raw seems looks really nice in photos, so this is a major time saver, and why I picked this fabric.
#3 Wash and dry your cut pieces of fabric
All fabric has stabilizers in them and brighteners. This doesn’t work that great with the dye so you need to wash that out.
Put them in the dryer after washing. You don’t want to put your cut pieces of fabric in with clothes as you’ll get little white pieces of thread all over your clothes (yep, speaking from experience here).
What I love about the gauze, is the edge of the fabric will have a nice fray on them. No hard cuts, and that’s the goal.
You don’t need to finish the edges! I just keep them natural.
#4 Make your color bathes and start dying!
I chose to make a lot of colors at one time. I plan on doing another batch soon, as these look so nice.
The instructions on the bottles are for larger pieces of clothing, and that’s not what we are doing here, so you can use much less. Use the link above to find their color charts. You’re going to fall in love with all the colors.
What I did was take one or two tablespoons (depending on color intensity I wanted) of the dye, to 3 cups of water for the small pieces of fabric when I wasn’t making a mixed color – just the color from the bottle. I also added a couple tablespoons of salt to help fix the dye. For the larger pieces, I doubled that.
The water must be almost boiling, and really make sure to shake up the dyes well before mixing them. One of my colors has chunks of dye that wasn’t broken up into the water and that ended up spotting one of my napkins.
You can test your color first by dipping a white paper towel into the dye for a few seconds. If you like that color, then you’re good to go.
You are supposed to keep the fabric moving at all times in order for it to be very even. I didn’t do that. I’m lazy, plus I was dying several colors at one time. My colors ended up being a really beautiful mottled variation of the color.
I set my timers for 20 minutes for each color. I wore gloves, and I swished the fabrics in large bowls occasionally. The dye takes right away, so just let it soak till you like the intensity of the color.
#5 – Rinse then put your wet, dyed, napkins in a fixer bath
After you get the color you like, rinse out your napkin in running water. It will never run clear, just get as much dye out as you can.
Rit says to rinse them using the washer but we’re not wearing these so I didn’t care about not getting all the dye out 100% and I didn’t want to waste all that water to wash one napkin.
Rit makes a fixer that actually worked really well. The fixer is being warmed on the stove as you are dying your napkins. Just follow instructions on the bottle.
Put your rinsed napkin into the fixer. If you are doing several different colors – make different fixers for each color family or you’ll get the wrong dye on your napkin.
Rinse out the fixer. You’ll see right away that the water runs totally clear, no more dye washing out.
#6 – Hang up to dry
Now just hang your napkins up to dry.
Here’s a pic of a flat lay I did using one of the green napkins. It’s a subtle thing, but I just love adding some softness and color to a shot.
Let me know if you have any questions below in the comments.
If you would like some food photography tips and tricks, check out my ebook:
Join the conversation