Making cloth napkins/handkerchiefs/dishrags from old clothes

19 Jul

Stack of napkinsLet me begin by saying that I have nothing against paper napkins or people who like them. I prefer not to waste too much on disposable personal hygiene, though, and I’ve always bought the cheapest paper napkins I could find (Target and Dollar Tree). Still, we can all admit that cloth napkins are softer, classier, and more absorbent than their paper counterparts. They are also reusable, and I much prefer reusable products over disposable ones, which typically leads to saving both money and natural resources. I’ll admit that the environmental benefits of cloth napkins are a bit debatable, but making cloth napkins from my own scraps of fabric should be a sure winner. Using my own castoff clothing would avoid any of the emissions associated with manufacturing and transporting a truckload of new cloth napkins. Plus, I like making things myself, so it’s a form of entertainment if you want to think of it that way.

You can make great cloth napkins out of old white t-shirts. I have a constant ecosystem of white undershirts in my home. When I buy new shirts, the oldest ones get turned into napkins or rotated to the kitchen for wiping up spills. I used to throw used napkins and worn-out shirts away, so making my own napkins reduces our trash output on two fronts while also saving money.

Old clothes for fabricFinished napkin unfoldedFinished napkin folded

Thankfully, this is one of the easiest sewing projects around. My classic dinner napkins are white, square, 10 inches on each side, and double-ply, which lets you make at least two per undershirt. This is easy to accomplish with a simple cardboard square, cloth, thread, and sewing machine. Fold them in quarters for pocket squares or handkerchiefs. If you’re making dishrags or hand towels, you may not care about the shape and dimensions as much. Most of my napkins are square, but many of them are irregular since I’m striving to reuse as much of the original fabric as possible. Irregular ones may not be good for when the Queen comes to visit, but they’re great for wiping up messes or blowing your nose. There’s no need to stick to white fabric, either. I use whatever comes to hand. Old pajamas? Ancient camouflage t-shirt? Lobster boxers? Once they’ve gone through the washing machine, they’re as clean as any other fabric.

Partially completed camo napkinCompleted camo napkin

For square napkins, use a cardboard template (I cut mine from a cereal box) and cut out two squares of fabric slightly larger than the template. Place the template between the two squares; if there’s a pattern, put the “good side” facing inward so the napkin is inside-out. Sew three sides of the square and slide out your template. Turn the napkin right-side out, fold the open edges inward slightly, and sew across it. Continue to sew around the remaining three sides for a consistent seam all around the napkin.

Basket of napkins

The sewing part is so easy that it gets a bit dull (you can do them while you watch television, with the increased risk of sloppy, irregular napkins that comes with being distracted). With our current basket of cloth napkins, we can make it from one laundry day to the next…usually. Thankfully, the supply of used t-shirts is still high. At least making something useful out of a much-loved shirt lets the old favorites live on.


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  1. carbar

    07/19/2010 at 7:28 pm

    When I finally visit one day, remind me not to use the lobster napkin.

  2. Drew

    07/22/2010 at 12:21 pm

    Very astute, Carly. I’m glad you realized that “lobster boxers” was not a hypothetical or euphemistic example. We won’t be giving that napkins to guests…or at least not to guests that read the blog.

  3. andrew

    01/18/2011 at 3:43 pm

    I say skip the middle man. Left sleeve=nose, right sleeve=mouth. It’s a win-win-win since you needed to wash that shirt anyway…