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Friday, September 24, 2010

Problems with and Objections to Cloth Napkins

I love my frugal, cloth napkins. I grew up with white, hemmed, damask napkins at the table. But, somewhere along the way I started using paper napkins. How did I go astray? Well, whatever happened, I am now back on the right track frugal track and have been for over thirty years. However, there are no white, damask napkins here. I am thrifty.

Okay, I declare myself Queen of Parsimony. Remember the Sweet Potato Queens' self proclamation? (Read the book!)

What are your excuses for helping deforest the earth to have your paper napkins and fill up the landfills with your refuse? What excuse do you have for the loss of precious water used in the manufacturing process? The electricity used could be better used by people still using other means to light their homes.

Okay, I don’t want this to turn into a weird version of “clean your plate because there are starving children in the world.” Stopping the madness of paper napkin production and use will not light the homes of families in Africa! They won't be able to iron their clothing with the electricity saved when you quit buying paper napkins. You know that, so I won’t pretend that you are selfish. Or, are you?

Sometimes, necessity IS the mother of invention. But, I invented nothing. I adapted. I just examined my priorities. As usual some of my best decisions come in a moment of financial insecurity. That’s okay. I am better for it. I don’t mean the financial insecurity. That was not beneficial at all. But, the decision to give up paper napkins was beneficial. Um, yes, I did give them up in steps. I did get there!

Since I am a self-proclaimed tree hugger, it puzzles me why I ever used paper napkins. Okay, everyone else was using them, even my mother! They were cheap when I had money to afford such things. If napkins I used were cloth, I would have to wash them! Dry them! Fold them! Whew! I am all out of silly excuses.

So, I changed my ways to suit my budget and to save trees. For over thirty years, I have not ventured from the parsimonious path of using cloth napkins.

The first thing I did was to tear the paper napkin into two pieces, cutting in half my use and my expense. Clever? Maybe not, but it worked. That was a temporary fix that made me start to think, actually think.

Secondly, when I ran out of paper napkins, I just used a cloth dish towel for several meals or days, depending on how messy my meal was. Well, gee, you say, all that reuse of something soiled just smacks of nastiness and poverty. Not really. When cloth napkins were the norm (actually, the only choice), napkins were used for several meals before being laundered. Each person had a different style napkin ring so that the proper napkin could be used for several days before all napkins were laundered. Some people reuse napkins still. After all, most of us just dab at our mouths. I still reuse cloth napkins before laundering.

Thirdly, as I became a bit more financially secure, I had a plan in place. I bought fabric for making my own 20” square napkins. That takes 1 2/3 yards of 42”fabric for six napkins, but buy 1 ¾ to allow for crooked cutting at the store. Then, I looked around my sewing room and found other woven scraps that made napkins, one of a kind. Some of them were smaller, around 10” or 12” square. Whatever size scrap I had to make were the size napkins I had to use. I liked the 20” much better.

The leftover odd bits can be used for quilt squares. The wide piece down the center seam makes a nice little bag with a hole at the top and bottom for storing and dispensing the few plastic bags I get at the store.

You will be happier cutting napkins if you make a pattern for whatever size or sizes you want to make. Use craft paper, newspaper, or notebook paper taped or stapled together. Or, use whatever you have around your house or sewing room. Inner facing makes nice patterns. Make sure the patterns are square! I mean, make sure the corners have ninety-degree angles and napkin sides are of equal length. Why will you be happier? You will be happier with a pattern and more likely to make napkins if you do not have to reinvent the wheel (or the square) every time you cut.

Or not. A friend made one napkin rectangular to be able to use the last odd bit of cloth. I am willing to bet no one noticed! I cannot do that at this point, but she did.

I have been rethinking the preference for 20” napkin size on frugal grounds. Plus, I bought napkin material with chickens on it. I really want to make those for all four grandchildren. Smaller napkins will allow me to make more napkins. For myself, I may still go with the larger napkins. Maybe I will make more small napkins. Ooooh, it appears I am evolving again.

From freecycle I was lucky enough to get two huge bags of shirts that were offered. I gave some of the shirts to my grandson to wear. Then I allowed a friend to take the ones in his size. All I had left were two polo shirts and about a dozen button-up woven fabric shirts that no one liked.

These woven shirts were 2X and 3X. As I looked at them, it occurred to me that the backs would each make a 20” napkin! Happy day! The short-sleeve shirts make two 10” napkins, one from each sleeve. The long sleeve shirts gave me four  10” napkins, two from each sleeve. Each side of the fronts gave me one or two more 10” or 12” napkins. (I avoided the underarm area.) Long sleeved shirts--four 10" or 12" napkins plus a 20" napkin. Long sleeved shirts--six 10" or 12" napkins plus one 20" napkin. Smaller shirts will make smaller napkins.  Folks, this is free material!

All are 100% cotton and from designer shirts. If I had thought about it, I would have removed the label and sewn it to one of the napkins from that shirt. All the napkins are menswear, not florals like I prefer. Since they look masculine, I may sell them. We will see. I plan to package all the 20" napkins, six napkins to a set. Smaller shirt napkins will be packaged together, six to a set. Each set of larger napkins will be six different designs of mens' shirt fabric.

All napkins I make are serged with a rolled hem. Some of them have been used for 20 years and still are in really good shape. The men’s shirt napkins may be hemmed by folding twice and stitching. I have not decided.

When I have company, I put out a stack of napkins that are coordinating, more or less. They all are material I like, so they go together. I ask each person and encourage each person to find a napkin they will like to use. People smile and seem to like this idea. They really take this choice seriously, taking time to choose, not just taking the one on top.

Other frugal ideas I have heard are equally worthy napkin ideas. Of course, I assume you will all recycle fabric items and not buy new fabric. However, if you do use new fabric, remember, you are not saving items from the landfill. You are spending money you could put on a credit card or other bill. What you use is up to you.

Napkins made from flannel with a wide serged hem are good for children. The 10” squares are serged with a regular wide serging stitch. Some use white flannel and serge with a different color thread for each member of the family or for each child in the family. Fold the edges over twice and hem with a straight stitch if you don’t own a serger.

Actually, old sheets, any old flannel item, table cloths, shirts, pants, or sewing scraps are all good candidates for recycling into table napkins. The fabric does not have to be a solid color. For everyday the fabric does not have to be really stylish. However, I am much happier using pretty designs. But, I don’t have children to use napkins, children who might have different ideas or might not care at all.

One guy just cuts t-shirts into rough squares. He has no need to hem or measure! If this would work for everyday with you or your children, then make it work for you. There may be other ways people avoid using paper napkins and use cloth. You might just find a new source of fabric for your new napkins. Can you cut several small napkins from the skirt of your child’s favorite dress that no longer fits? If no one else can wear it, cut that little dress up for napkins. You might be able to cut around stains or tears. Or, stains and tears might not matter for small children everyday.

Furthermore, you can get already-made napkins from yard sales, estate sales, thrift stores, and freecycle. This way, you don’t have to cut, sew, or coordinate. Just use what you find that you like. Last week, I found a blue plaid fabric shower curtain that will be the source for two dozen really nice napkins. The shower curtain looked new and smelled new, just unfolded with creases still evident. (The shower hooks that coordinated were still in the box.) This yard sale had lots of new items. The shower curtain cost me a quarter!

Okay, you don’t sew? My friend did not want to sew and did not have a serger. This was after I bought fabric and made my first set. She admired my napkins and wanted to pay me to make her a set of six napkins. My trade with her was not for money. She bought fabric for a set of six napkins for herself and bought my choice of fabric for six napkins for me. You, too, can trade with a friend. Use any method of getting the fabric, preferably not new from the store fabric. If you find new material at a yard sale, that is fair game and cheaper.

(I do not have to have an immediate payoff from friends. But, she is one of those friends who will take advantage of others. So, I had to keep our friendship exchanges on an even basis. Otherwise, I would be mending, restyling, and sewing from scratch for her most days. I know you all have had a friend or acquaintance like this.)

Don’t think you are making more chores as far as washing napkins. I can put my lightly used napkins in with similarly colored blouses and not use more water. If you make white flannel napkins, just put them in a load of whites. Even two dozen 10” napkins take up no room at all. That is less than two yards of fabric, no more bulk than one small bath towel.

Everyone is groaning? What? You don’t want to use that much clothesline real estate for hanging napkins? Okay, don’t hang them on the clothesline. I don’t.

I usually dry mine one of two ways. I lay all the napkins on the top of the washing machine, making sure the edges nearest me are even. Then, I take a pants hanger and clip it to the stack of napkins. All my thin cotton or cotton blend napkins dry quickly indoors. The hanger can be placed on the clothes line and secured with a clothes pin so the hanger does not blow off the line.

One day, I shook out a napkin and laid it over the washer lid that was raised. I kept putting all the napkins on the lid. My intention was to hang them on the pants hanger. But, when I came back several hours later, all the napkins were dry.

If you do not have a free pants hanger, don’t use your valuable clothesline real estate for napkins. Just hang them all in one space on the line using two clothes pins. I usually place the clothespin about three inches from the ends of the napkins. That way, if the napkins are not all the same, I don’t have to get all the napkins even.

When the weather is not fit to hang the wash outdoors on the clothesline, I might throw the napkins in the dryer with other items. They come out mostly wrinkle free. Smooth and fold while warm. Often, I hang them all on one pants hanger and hang in the doorway. Smoothing wet napkins before hanging helps them have fewer wrinkles when dried. If you hang your napkins to dry and they are a little wrinkled, just fold them and use them. Nothing bad will happen in your life. Promise!

Now, I admit that I like smooth napkins, but sometimes they are a bit wrinkled. They are wrinkled because I did not give each napkin a hard snap before hanging. So, I learn.

Look around for fabric you can repurpose for napkins. Even buying new fabric is easier on the environment than an endless stream of paper napkins coming into your house and into the landfill. To cater to my parsimonious bent and slim pocketbook, I will always look for sale fabric if buying new.

Leave a comment! Have you switched to cloth napkins? If not, what is holding you back? I think I covered all objections, but I will be glad to discuss your objections.

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