Deciphering Monograms

Man, is there ever a flurry of disagreement about monograms. And since you can monogram most anything these days, there’s about as many vehement opinions as there are things to monogram. Silver, linens, stationery, clothing, accessories, right down to coffee mugs – you name it, someone, somewhere, can put a monogram on it. Hell, after Uppercase Living came on the scene, you can monogram the family dog or the microwave if you so desire.

Not that I would recommend it.

“The monogram is dead!” some will insist in voices worthy of a 50 pt newspaper headline declaring “Dewey Beats Truman!” Others will plead that the monogram is “absolutely integral” to the creation of a household or a even the coming of adulthood. Some people think it’s stoic and pretentious; others have longed for the age at which they can design their own.

And some people totally don’t care at all, but once again, if you’re here in the first place, it’s probably because you care.

So where to start?

A Brief History Lesson

Monograms used to be a quick way to denote a household or even an entire city at a glance, much like ranchers use individual brands to mark which cattle are theirs upon sight. Since things couldn’t be easily mass produced, it was a relatively safe deterrent to forgery or fraud. Cities and governments monogrammed their coins, the rising monarchies used a common family monogram across everything from police badges to government buildings to the fine silver in their homes.

What is (and what is not) a monogram?

A monogram can be part of a fancy piece of artwork (a huge swooping phoenix rising out of ash, letters against the backdrop of stately buildings, anything you can imagine), or simple group of interlocking serif letters. Technically, if you want to be particularly archaic, a monogram’s letters must be woven together – simply putting them side-by-side is more of a cypher, since they are uncombined.

Know this, and then as long as you know it, you can choose to ignore it, using “monogram” for anything that is a static representation of your initials.

Something you can’t ignore – and will make you look like a fool if you try – is the fact that a monogram is not a seal or a coat of arms. While a monogram may be included in an official seal or a coat of arms, the three are completely separate and distinct things.

Traditional Monograms

A traditional monogram for an individual is all three initials, with the surname being centered and larger. Lily Beth Tempest becomes:

For a married couples, monogramming gets tricky. The quick and dirty rule is that the first initials of your names go on either side, with the surname in the middle. Thus, Lily Beth and Jack Tempest shifts to:

Married or engaged couples can also opt to use a two-letter monogram combining only the initials of their first name, such as:

(Remember that etiquette states that a couple does not combine their monogram until after they’re married – thus Skip Fitzpatrick and Marion Allen can only resort to the two-letter SM monogram while engaged, because they don’t share the same last name yet. Once married, they can combine to use the SFM monogram if they prefer. Of course, if the lady is keeping her own last name, that largely renders the point moot.

“But why, Lily Beth,” you ask, “since you dispense with all the other rules of etiquette, can’t we chunk this one out the window too? I want to be Mr. Louis Huffington IV already!”

Well the answer is simple and straightforward – because it confuses people. When you put a monogram out there that suggests you already share the same last name, people begin to question whether or not they missed your actual marriage – did you already get married? Is your “wedding” just a big party to celebrate having gotten married? Have they received a wedding invitation or just an announcement that wedding did happen? All the more reason to just suck it up and stick with a two-letter monogram pre-wedding.)

The arrangement of initials also depends upon what, exactly, you’re having monogrammed. If you’re being a staunch traditionalist, you have to examine who’s “domain,” so to speak, the article falls under. Typically linens are the “woman’s domain” (a phrase that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up), and therefore would be monogrammed with the lady’s initial on the left and the gentleman’s on the right. Glassware is considered the man’s business, and therefore the man’s initial goes on the left and the woman’s on the right.

To this, I, personally, say pish-posh. I’m the one who has things monogrammed in our household; thus, my initial always goes first. Period. It’s your monogram – do with it what you like.

Contemporary Monograms

Contemporary refers to the style, not the potential pitfalls (see below) that you might encounter in contemporary society. A contemporary monogram can be script, serif, or san-serif, but regardless of the style, tends to be more simple and straightforward; the letters are typically all one size, and not interwoven with one another.

Remember: when letters are all one size, the initials go in a regular order, so while a traditional monogram for Lily Beth Tempest might read “LTB”, a contemporary monogram will usually read “LBT,” all the same size.

Contemporary monograms can even be a combination of your names as well as your initials. Some examples exit below:

Contemporary Monogram: Lily & Jack

The Potential Pitfalls

Let me share a secret with you: Lily Beth Tempest is not my real name. (Oh, you guessed that already?) In fact, I don’t even share the same last name as Jack – we have complete separate last names. I have, in fact, been guilty of returning mail addressed to “Mrs. Jack Tempest” with “No such person at this address” scrawled across the front, and then my signature beneath.

This was a choice I made, to keep my own name, because 1. my own name was particularly pretty and my husband’s was not, 2. because I’m a writer, and I have work published under my own name, 3. because my name, where I come from, carries weight and significance, and 4. it’s my bloody name.

It’s a choice; to each woman her own. But there are certain pitfalls in our society, of keeping your own name. I haven’t found anything too large to negotiate yet, but I have found some real son-of-a-bitch problems, like when I attempted to get health insurance and was told over and over again, “Honey, if you’re not really married, we can’t give you a family plan.”

I hung up on a lot of insurance salesmen (and women) before I found one I could tolerate.

And of course, it makes monogramming a bit of a bitch. We have to bend (and just demolish) a lot of the traditional rules.

Whether you’re a woman who kept her own name or a gay couple, there are multiple alternative avenues to the traditional monogram.

Remember – at the end of the day, your monogram is a symbol of you. Design it however you want, and like Daddy says, “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.”

For perfectly acceptable alternatives for couples with different names, let’s use my brother-and-sister-in-law (James Tempest and Maria Rodriguez) as an example.

You can use both initials, all same size, and keep things simple – thus Jimmy and Mere’s monogram becomes a simply JT • MR.You can opt for using a two-letter monogram with both your surnames; Jimmy and Mere’s monogram becomes a nice, clean TR for Tempest/Rodriguez.

On return envelopes, you can easily list your full names with a bullet separating the two. In this case, Jimmy and Mere’s return address looks like:

Tempest • Rodriguez
1616 Ocean Boulevard
Aurora, CA 12345

I’m all for simplicity, as the two graphic examples above show. But if you’re situation is a little more complicated, Embroidery Arts has a tidy little article detailing some creative suggestions from classic monograms to the more complex names, like the DeSario-O’Hara family. (Large D? Large O? Large D, S, O, and H? What about the hyphen? Apostrophe? Guys? Guys…?)

And now – some questions!

What are some examples of different types of monograms, so I know the terminology when I speak to the engraver or embroiderer?

Here’s the standard breakdown of the most common styles of monograms:

Interlocking Monogram

Interlocking Traditional Monogram: Sarah Kellen Radcliff

Standard Circle Monogram: Susan Sellars Engle

Staggered Monogram

Staggered Monogram: Astor Heidi Moore

Diamond Monogram: Katherine Rachel Hackfeld

Panel Monogram: Thomas William Kellar

What about monogramming clothing?

If you’re monogramming your own stationery, do whatever you like. “K + H” in lime green can splash across half the page for all I care. But for clothing, you need to keep it simple, small, and easy-to-read (think a Roman or block type).

I love monograms on clothing, especially men’s clothing. Typically, a monogram (remember: small, simple) resides on the pocket or the left-hand sleeve cuff. There’s some dissenting opinions going back and forth on having your monogram placed on the left side of the shirt, right around your rib-cage area. I find that on thinner men wearing slim-fitting shirts, this looks quite dashing – but you wear the clothes (the clothes don’t wear you), so make sure you have the personality and confidence to pull this little number off. On larger gentlemen, this particular monogram tends to look lost in a sea of fabric, awkward and out of place.

What about accessories – cuff links, buttons, handkerchiefs?

Look, I love monograms, okay? If it was up to me, absolutely everything we owned would be monogrammed, including the three dogs. But monogramming can get expensive (especially the canine kind), and so we’ve largely kept to the must-have staples of monogramming. If I were to give you only three things to monogram, it would be these:

  • Luggage
  • Handkerchiefs
  • Household linens

But above that, you can monogram your cuff links, the buttons on your blazer, your wallet, your tuxedo stubs, your pocket-watch (which is what I gave Jack for his 28th birthday), your collar stays, your money clip, your ties – basically anything that isn’t nailed down. Remember: if you keep it simple, a single person can stand a lot of monogramming.

My biggest piece of advice is this: all monogrammers are not created equal. That means avoid those monogramming shops in the local mall, sporting picture frames and lockets and beer steins. Instead, head to a more reputable joint – either your local jeweler or tailor, or one of the more trust-worthy national stores like Tiffany & Co, Brooks Brothers, or Thomas Pink, all of whom offer monogram services for their products.

What about household items?

And you thought there was a lot of stuff that goes on your body that you could monogram – turns out there’s about a hundred times that amount in your house. Let’s start with the linens.


Monogramming towels can be… tricky. I say this because I massively screwed up some monogramming when Jack and I first got married. I couldn’t decide what monogram to use, because we have different names, so I went half and half, which made our towel collection look weirdly schizophrenic.

In addition, I monogrammed only the hand towels, and the monogram was far too large (think: the size of a salad plate), which overpowered the towels and startled anyone who used them. The hand towels were always set aside when we had guests, left completely alone; the monogram was so large and intimidating that people were terrified to use them.

The best solution I’ve found is to keep your thread color the same as your towel color, or conceivably close and non-clashing. Make sure the size doesn’t overpower the towel – my rule is to turn my hand sideways with my fingers horizontal, and place it over the monogram. If I can still see any of it, it’s too large for my taste. If you’re looking for a more cut-and-dried standard for monogram sizing, remember that most towels (from wash cloths to bath sheets) are monogrammed at the bottom center, and that standard monogram sizing is as follows:

    • Bath towels: 4-5″ monogram
    • Bath sheets: 5-6″ monogram
    • Hand towels: 3″ monogram
    • Guest towels, fingertip towels, & wash cloths: 2-2½”

These things both downplay your monogram and makes it seem less ostentatious, and makes people less afraid to actually use it.


Traditionally, a monogram on your sheets rests two inches from the top hem (that’s the side up by your head, not down by your feet), and centered. Remember that when you make a bed, your top sheet goes on with the nicer looking side against your body/against the fitted sheet, so that when you turn back the top, the hem and monogram are visible and readable.

Monograms on flat sheets are typically 3-4″ large.


Usually a monogram on standard pillowcases is centered at the midpoint of the open end, halfway between the edge of the pillowcase and the stitching on the hem/border design.

Monogrammed Standard Pillowcase, Williams-Sonoma

On square pillows (such as throw pillows or European shams), or on standard-sized shams with a French closure (where the pillowcase buttons in the back instead of sliding in the side), you can center the monogram as shown below.

Monogrammed Throw and European Sham, Williams-Sonoma

Centered Monogram, Williams-Sonoma

Napkins and Tablecloths

Years ago when Jack and I registered for our wedding, a close male friend of mine commented that he could not believe I had registered for a tablecloth with a large letter T, stating that he would never have something that pretentious in his home. You can imagine my delight a year later when I was shopping for a wedding gift on his registry and found that his wife had registered for the exact same table cloth with their monogram – a large letter H. Of course I bought it for them, smirking the entire time.

A monogram for your table cloth is typically 4-5″ large (although if you’re having it done yourself, make it as large or as small as you want) and located 2-4″ from the hem on a part of the tablecloth that overhangs the edge of the table – otherwise, serving pieces or table settings will obscure the view of it. You can locate it parallel to the edge, or en pointe of one of the corners.

Classic “Hotel Style” Tablecloth from Pottery Barn

As far as napkins go, the size of the napkin largely does not change the size or location of the monogram. From cocktail to luncheon to dessert napkins, monograms are typically 2″ large and 2″ from the hem. Like table cloths, your monogram can be located parallel to the hem or en pointe (as shown below), but always in a corner.

Classic “Hotel” Napkins, Pottery Barn

And now that linen is out of the way, let’s move onto even more tricky household items!

Glass and Barware

This really just comes down to your individual tastes. I feel like monogramming individual wine or liquor glasses is just too much; I prefer instead to monogram larger single pieces, like decanters, ice buckets, or martini shakers.

Likewise, don’t feel like you must have glassware professionally monogrammed – if you already have pieces you love, you can do it yourself, at home, using an etching solution.

As stated above, these are typically “the man’s domain,” which means the man’s initial goes first. I say, whoever is taking the time to order monogrammed glasses gets to decide who’s initial goes first. For glass and barware, you can either go with one large initial (usually your surname) or a tradition three-letter monogram.

Flatware and China

Whether you’re scouting out antique flatware with your surname initial already engraved or registering for a whole new set for marriage (or even, hell, expanding the collection you already have), you’ll want to ensure that the style of the monogram matches the actual pieces.

What does this mean? Well, a combination of things.

First, evaluate your flatware or china design. Is there room for a monogram at all? Is there room for a full three-letter monogram, or can you only squeeze your last initial on there? No matter what pattern you’ve chosen for your table, each one comes with certain physical restrictions.

Once you’ve determined the amount of space available for a monogram, you can set upon the type – an ultra modern, sleek set of serving pieces may look out of place with a traditional Victoria monogram in a curly script font. Likewise, retro-hip art deco lettering is going to look strange on Aunt Sophie’s antique flatware brought over from Germany in the early 19th century. Get the idea?

If you have trouble deciding what might be appropriate, enlist the help of your engraver.

Monogrammed Flatware

Rose Monogrammed Flatware from River Ridge

Monogramming china is tougher – there are some cranky schools of thought either way. Some say never to monogram your china, because it makes your home look like a hotel. Others argue that looking like a hotel isn’t a bad thing, and that it further personalizes your table.

Whether you choose to do it or not, the same rules generally apply: examine the style and size of the piece, and match your monogram accordingly. Pickard does some beautiful work, but don’t be afraid to stop into the store where you’re registering and ask some questions.

Pickard Blue Monogrammed Dinnerware, William Sonoma

Gene Gable has published an article over at evaluating monograms from a more unique perspective: that of a type-setter.

One Response to “Deciphering Monograms”
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  1. […] Since you’re going to be a pocket square Nazi, it would be nice if you made them into keepsakes for the wedding party by having them monogrammed. (At a loss for monogramming advice? I’ve got a whole article on that very subject.) […]

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