problems with easy solutions: cloth napkins

When I was growing up, napkins were made of paper.  Sometimes they were just paper towels folded in half, or even a tissue box in the middle of the table. In my mind, cloth napkins were for beautiful French countryside kitchens, for people with tons of money and marble countertops and mortar and pestles. Then I grew up, and I realized that I, too, could use cloth napkins. (And look where cloth napkins led me! I now have a teensy square of marble in my kitchen and not one but TWO mortar and pestles. So there you have it.)

I bought my first cloth napkins right around the time I started using cloth diapers when Sadie was born. Joey and I made the initial decision about diapers because of the whopping cost of disposables, but once I started washing and folding and stacking, the unexplainable pleasure of all those soft piles of clean cotton took over. I read articles in Mothering Magazine about virtuous mothers who had started with diapers and then gone on to swear off disposable everything. They were sewing their own maxi pads! Using cotton toilet paper! Bringing the handkerchief back into style! And of course they were all using cloth napkins.

I never made it to the cloth toilet paper, and I’m really okay with that. But I adopted a little set of four orange cotton napkins, and over the years, I’ve collected so many napkins that we even have enough for parties. And somehow, just like my cloth diapers managed to take a situation involving poop and transform it into a sweet-smelling soft and (again I say, mysteriously) pleasing experience, cloth napkins continue to make every meal feel more special around here.

Last month in the comments for this post, there was a real common thread around trying to replace disposable kitchen items with their reusable counterparts. With that in mind, I thought a cloth napkin post was in order, and for those of you who might want to make the switch, I wanted to talk about a few specifics of our cloth napkin routine.

1. Buy inexpensive, 100% cotton napkins. Although you might want to have something more fancy for dinner parties or special occasions, remember that these everyday napkins are meant to wipe messy faces. A well-loved napkin will be soft and stained. I’d hold off from buying the expensive French linen set (unless you’re looking for a birthday present for me, that is…).

2. Keep a small laundry bag or basket in your kitchen. The convenience of being able to throw dirty napkins and dishtowels right into a dedicated basket makes a big difference.

3. Have dedicated a napkin for each member of your family. This is a new one for us, but it’s been BIG. Buy one or two napkins specifically for each person in your household. Give each person their own color or variation in napkin pattern. This way, the napkin can actually be reused until it’s really dirty and needs to be washed. As most meals just involve a bit of dabbing at the lips, a napkin can often last up to a week before it has to be washed. Assign a color for a guest napkin as well so you always have a clean napkin ready for dinner drop-ins.

4. Wash with a bit of vinegar and lavender oil. Usually our napkins just end up getting tossed in with the rest of the laundry. But every so often, I do a load of only napkins and dishtowels. I wash them on hot and add a bit of vinegar and a few drops of lavender oil to the mix. This keeps them sweet smelling despite years of hard use.

Any more cloth napkin tips? Favorite napkins? Or if you just want to express your cloth napkin love…




  1. Becka says

    I hot glue foam letters on pins. Then put a pin on a napkin. We have 2 small stackqble containers one for clean napkins one for the current ones being used. The pinned napkins get used until they are dirty then we take the pins off and put them on fresh ones. This also helps when we hqve company. They simply get a clean napkin and it gets washed after they leave. We have 2 daughters with names that start with s. They each have their own color s.

  2. says

    One reason I have not switched to cloth napkins is because we don’t have a washer or dryer and must pay for each load we do in our building. I don’t want to add to our laundry stash too much! This post made realize that with only two of us, if most napkins can last a week or more, perhaps that won’t be too much of a big deal. Also, I like your vinegar and lavender oil idea. One question: could hot water, vinegar, and lavender oil work in a sink? That way I wouldn’t have to do separate loads for napkins in the washer. Great tips, Alana, as always!

    • Jenn says

      Do it! We pay for our laundry as well, but between two adults we RARELY use more than two napkins per week. Usually when we do it’s because one went to mop up a wine spill or something, where a towel would have been used either way. The extra laundry created is nothing compared to what’s normally generated in a week.

    • alana says

      Absolutely- you could hand wash these. And just to be clear- I only do a special vinegar wash every so often. The rest of the washes are just with the regular laundry. I say- go for it! I think you’ll be surprised at how well it works, even if you’re not doing laundry that often.

  3. Tanya says

    LOVE cloth napkins! Love finding them while thrifting, and I love it when my mom sends them to me from back East. And they are old linens that look as though they were never even used, with embroidered bits or applique. I do have my favorites!

    • alana says

      Yup- Target should have good ones, and really any sort of imports store (like Cost Plus). We have a local imports store that brings them in from India- they’re just nice vibrant colors for about $3 each. Just make sure whatever you buy is 100% cotton. Some have polyester and they just never get soft.

        • alana says

          It’s called Out of Hand- do you know it? It’s in Great Barrington, as your coming into town on the right, right after Caligari’s (and diagonally across from Domaney’s liquors.)

          • Adie says

            Oh yes! I never noticed the napkins because of all the other treasures there. I will need to stop back and look specifically for them. Thank you!

  4. says

    I love cloth napkins! My favorite cloth napkin story is that I made cloth napkins from all different fabrics for our wedding. It added lots of color to the tables and everyone got to bring their napkin home to keep using. Growing up we all had our own napkin ring so that we could use the same napkin until it needed washing. Now, I make cloth napkin sets and sell them in my shop — each one has a different vegetable appliqued on so that each person can have their own napkin to reuse again and again.

    I love your vinegar/lavender idea!

    • alana says

      Oh, I love that you made napkins for your wedding! I have friends who silkscreened napkins for their wedding, and then everyone could bring home their napkins. They got married in our backyard, so I got extra :)

  5. says

    Love this! We used cloth napkins for a short season, but you have inspired me to start again. I had great success at the thrift stores a few years back. I guess it is time to hit them again!

  6. Ruth says

    I grew up using cloth napkins and while I didn’t use any during school (weird how that worked…) I somehow started using them again as soon as I was out of grad school.
    We use napkin rings (different ones for each person) to tell who gets what and that system works great.
    The two year old just got his own napkin and ring (after just using the adults’ before) and he loves it!

  7. says

    I use cloth napkins, but I need a tip. Maybe you can help.

    I like the idea of each person getting their own pattern, and reusing them several times, BUT –

    where do you store these not-quite-clean-but-not-totally-dirty napkins in between meals? It seems kind of gross to put them back with the clean ones, and yet I don’t want them just sitting out on the table or chairs. We have to use the table and chairs for work during the day. Any ideas?

    • alana says

      We have a basket, and all of the semi-used ones go in together on a sideboard right next to the table. Everything totally clean is in a separate basket tucked away. Maybe that’s seems gross that everyone’s used napkins are all in there together? But really, for the most part, even the semi-used napkins are pretty clean. If one gets truly dirty, it goes in the laundry.

  8. Kara says

    We have used cloth napkins for years and love them. I actually find it unpleasant to wipe my mouth on paper now.

    Anyway, I inherited a bunch of napkins from my grandmother (all in different batiks) and they came in 3 sizes: tiny (cocktail size, but single layer, not folded), medium (“luncheon” size, so about 4″ square when folded in fourths), and large (standard dinner napkin size). So, we choose a size depending on how messy we think the meal is going to be.

    The tiny ones work well for many more types of food than you would think. Saves laundry in the same way that reusing a large one for several meals does.

  9. Cecile says

    When my kids were little I bought plain white napkins and let them decorate them with paint.

    You can use napkin rings to show which napkin is which. Use different napkin rings, buy plain wood ones and paint different colors on them, or just use colored hair elastics.

    You can put the napkins in a basket if you don’t want to leave them out on the table. Ours usually last a week, but we no longer have babies to feed!

    • alana says

      Ah- I was just admiring the sale napkins at West Elm! They have some great ones right now. We bought the ones above at a local imports store- but they were solid! During Hurricane Sandy, Joey decided to spend the day making napkins (I know, I know.) So he silkscreened those gingko leaves onto all the napkins.

  10. Caroline says

    An elegant way to keep individual napkins straight, no gear required: each person in the house folds hers differently after using. A square, a triangle, pleats … the same shape every time … and into the little basket or whatever you use to hold them when the table isn’t set.

    • alana says

      Oh I love this! We’ve done napkin rings and different colors- but never different folds. And my girls are origami lovers, so they’d get into it.

  11. Susan says

    We use cloth napkins in our house and I can remember at my Grandmother’s house they were linen with silver napkin rings – each one different and they got stored in the sideboard during the day.
    Here’s something that I want to try to get more on board with and they might also work as “napkins”.

    • alana says

      What a great idea. I just took a peek, but I’m going to spend more time on their website- thanks so much for posting the link.

  12. Kat says

    When our daughter was about a year old, I bought a huge stack of cheap white washcloths. Used them as napkins, messy face-wipers, spill-catchers, whatever. Along the way, I converted many a new mom to the wash-cloth-as-napkins world. Everyone loved the idea of wash-and-reuse with excellent absorbancy. They are finally (after nearly 6 years!) starting to shred to pieces so I’ve begun to stitch up our own when I have a bit of left over cloth from a sewing project. None of them match, and that’s what I love about them!

  13. says

    Lot’s of good ideas for families here! We (hubby and I) switched to cloth about 3.5 years ago and I haven’t worn out the ones I made yet. I my case, I bought a few different 100% cotton blue prints (my kitchen is blue) on the clearance tables of the fabric store and I just serged the edges. If you don’t have a serger, you can do narrow hems and either sew them on the sewing machine or by hand with a nice running stitch. I have also been successful at finding napkins in thrift stores and yard sales.

    We use a system of two rectangular baskets, side-by-side–one for clean and one for dirty. I’m a little picky about not re-using, but I just toss them in with the regular laundry. It isn’t that much for two people. I tend to use dark prints that don’t show stains much and really, my three year old napkins don’t show any stains at all. (I use an oxiclean type product occasionally.)

    I really love my napkins and hate using paper now. We also use cloth instead of paper towels (I make them from birds eye fabric.) I use regular dish towels when my hands are just wet from being washed or dishes need a quick drying, but my cloth paper towels catch everything else, except for the nastiest, greasy stuff…..then I allow myself to use paper. I save a LOT of money on paper products with cloth napkins and cloth “paper towels.”

    • says

      Birds Eye Fabric? Is that the stuff they make diapers out of? That’s fascinating! I hate all the paper towels we use. We don’t have kids but we had Droooooly dogs.

      • says

        Yes, birds eye has often been used for diapers, along with “gauze.” The stuff I bought a couple of years ago was great, and then I couldn’t get the same quality anymore. I can still buy birds eye, it’s just not as thick. I still do it, though. I think it’s the perfect cloth “paper towel” I cut them about the same size as the paper ones and just serge around the edges. Some people like to use old cotton t-shirts and then you don’t have to finish the edges. They don’t ravel, but they do curl up.

  14. says

    Oh yes, cloth napkins here as well. (Or when we feel very fancy we call them by their French name: serviette.)

    Glad you mentioned the vinegar and lavender idea. Ours, along with the dish cloths, and washrags, can get a wee bit funky (even with regular washings, and I can be sorta manic about laundering, not cleaning, mind you, just laundering). I’ll gather a big ol’ bunch this weekend and make a dedicated load.

    I might also mention, air drying is best, yes? We have an indoor line that I’ve begun using more and more, but soon it will outside time. (Yay spring!)

    • Candy says

      Thanks for the reminder…I need a new clothesline! Something about a line of colorful cloth napkins fluttering in the breeze just makes me unexplainably happy.

  15. says

    Thank you so much for this post! I have been contemplating cloth napkins as we do use a lot of paper.. to be honest, the spouse does the laundry so that was where I was going to have a hard sell since effectively, I’d be putting more work on her. But if it’s only the two of us and they last that long, well, really I bet I can make it happen.

    For those of you who have made your own, I have a ton of cotton fabric… mostly quilting stuff.. novelty fabrics etc. Do you all think that would work? For some reason, I’m feeling like they wouldn’t absorb much.

  16. says

    We’ve been using cloth napkins for about 12 years. I keep them in a cute basket on the counter top. The variety of colors makes it a nice touch. We put dirty napkins into our towel hamper and wash them together.
    I’ve also made small (8″) napkins out of fun fabrics for the girl’s lunchbox. They love seeing which napkins that they got for lunch time. I also sneak new napkins into the rotation depending on the holiday. This keeps my kids from using the paper napkins from the school. (I now have requests from a number of other kids to make napkins for them!)

    • alana says

      It’s true, Maura- I’ve seen the magic of the napkin in the lunchbox, too. I don’t sew, but a friend of mine made napkins for the girls a few years ago out of a couple different fabrics- hello kitty, hearts, things like that. They’re really thin, so they don’t fill up too much space in the lunchbox, and the girls just love them.

  17. Jessica says

    We’ve also been using cloth napkins for years, and reuse them until they actually need washing. I’m not in love with folding them all, but I am in love with seeing the tidy stacks of them in the drawer once they have been folded. Most of ours are actually cotton bandanas!

  18. Cnthia says

    When we were growing up we had cloth napkins and everyone had his or her own napkin ring to identify the napkin they were using that week. At least some of the rings had special stories (“Uncle Will got this one in India”, for example).

  19. Ellen says

    We have used cloth napkins for years, including the years our kids were growing up. We also use washable cloth placemats. After each meal, we gently shake each over the table and then fold both napkin and placemat and put them on each person’s chair. We then wipe off the table. I do have to explain the system to guests!

  20. says

    A few years ago I made my own cloth napkins and embroidered favorite family quotes, jokes and expressions on them. Due to the embroidery I made them double layered so the back of the embroidery wouldn’t show. We use them every day and the embroidery is still holding strong.

    When guests come over they have fun laughing at the jokes they’re in on and trying to figure out the rest.

  21. gillian says

    We have been using cloth napkins for about 3 years. We are a family of four, with two children, ages 10 and 6. We have matching sets of napkins (usually bought at Target or Kohl’s) which we store in a drawer of a tall chest. Unused, clean, napkins are in a separate drawer. We all have individual napkin rings to tell our napkins apart, a fun activity for the kids to pick out their own (try Pier1, Pottery Barn or flea markets for individual rings at affordable prices.) We use them for 3-4 days, then switch out. Our paper napkin usage is half of what we used to use.

  22. says

    We love our cloth napkins! Grew up with them, and when Kyle and I moved in together it was one of the first things I bought (after we had a table to eat on anyway!). I have a set that was my mom’s, and also a special Christmas set that I made for her and then inherited. We have various everyday ones, one monogrammed set that was a fancy gift but is in the everyday rotation, and my favorites – a set that my friend Leah made where each napkin is made from a different tiny fruit print (lemons, oranges, limes, cherries, blueberries, raspberries, figs, grapes, pineapples and apples – they are s colorful!). Napkins are also SUPER easy to make – especially if you have a sewing machine and an iron – makes a great afternoon project, especially with another friend who likes to sew: you can production-line them and then have wonderful hostess gifts to give all year!

    Also, lavender oil. Can’t wait to try that.

  23. says

    This is great that there is so much interest in cloth napkins! My daughter sent me the link to this post on the very same day that I just put “family napkins” on my Etsy site. There are several different listings with over 30 different fabrics to choose from. Use the coupon code Intro20 to get 20 % off your order of napkins!
    Yeah! Cloth Napkins!

    • alana says

      Anne- so well timed! I love your prints, too. Thanks so much for the generous offer. I just want to highlight it again- so forgive the caps :)
      HEY GUYS- ANNE MAKES BEAUTIFUL NAPKINS AND IS OFFERING A COUPON CODE FOR HER ETSY SHOP! Follow the link through her name to take a peek. Thanks Anne!

      • says

        Hello Alana,
        My daughter and I saw you at your book night in Portland, Maine. You signed her book for her birthday! We love the car snacks recipe, the nutty one. We call them dessert. Perfect for my grandchildren who have MANY food allergies if you make them with all coconut oil!
        Thanks for the plug…I am working hard to get my Etsy shop going…many reusable, earth-friendly items!


        • alana says

          Oh, of course- I remember! So glad the book has been useful to you, and it’s nice to see all the good things going on in your etsy shop!

  24. Monica Spina says

    My mother always used cloth napikins since I was small. Both my sister and I have carried on the tradition in our homes. Instead of a different napikin for each family member, we all have a different napkin ring. Etsy has some great napkins made from diaper material that are great for stashng in lunch bags.

  25. says

    I have started making them out of fat quarters, too (I saw another commenter mention this). It’s so easy- if you can sew a straight line you can make them, they’re already perfect napkin size). They make great gifts, too.

  26. Jennifer says

    Okay, I’ve got a question for everyone. Assuming that hiding stains is your only concern, what is the best color for cloth napkins?
    I have a bunch of plain white cotton napkins that I bought at Ikea years ago, and they are still going strong, but with all the stains they are starting to look a bit gross. If they stayed in the kitchen/dining room this wouldn’t bother me, but I take a napkin with me to work when I pack a lunch and I’m not so keen on showing off all those stains to my coworkers. So as of late I’ve been thinking of dying the ones I have or just buying a few darker “traveling” napkins.
    Any opinions on a practical color?

    • Marilyn Friedman says

      I have been tie-dyeing my napkins and dishtowels for many years. They are the perfect thing, because they don’t show stains. I give sets of four napkins, wrapped in a flour sack dish towel as presents, and they are always well received. You can do fancy tieing techniques like I use, or simple rubber band, old school style…it’s fun, easy and extremely useful!

    • says

      I think any print with various medium to dark tones in it will work great. I have some dark blue variegated prints that I’ve been using for 4 years and they still aren’t showing any stains. I don’t know why, but I’ll look for the same thing when I replace them. I just stay away from white or very light stuff for everyday. Even if you bleach them occasionally, they can get greasy stains that won’t come out and just look ugly. BTW, I’ve also made square coasters of similar prints, but in flannel. and they are great, too.

    • alana says

      Just to agree with everyone who has chimed in here- dark prints are great. I find that maroon/ dark blue/ purple are especially forgiving.

  27. Lisa says

    Everyone in our family has there own special napkin ring. Used napkins get put in their ring and placed in a pretty basket.

  28. says

    If you like having matching napkins but want to re-use them, a napkin ring for each person can work too. We did cloth napkins for a while when I was a kid, and that was part of it. I loved my bunny napkin ring!

  29. mary says

    Ah yes, cloth napkins. And while we’re at it-aprons and tablecloths. To say nothing of linen closets, lavender sachets and backyard clotheslines!

  30. Debbie Ricciardi says

    Hi Alana,
    Just finished making a batch of your granola, smells so wonderful. Anyway, took a few minutes to read what everyone had to say about cloth napkins. We have used them for a very long time. We use silver, antique napkin rings with them that I started collecting a long time ago…search for them whenever we travel. I only buy the napkin rings with names on them and sometimes choose them for the name alone. One of my favorites, Celine Pauline, and many others. Friends know I collect them so have received them as gifts for birthdays and Christmas. Thus my collection has grown…our guests really enjoy having a new name for the night and they are always a great conversation starter. I love knowing that we are using something that someone else enjoyed. Tonight John’s napkin ring was engraved with the initials JR from June 6, 1928. Hopefully Cea and Reid will love these as much as I do….they will have them someday…or maybe Ben and Ella!

    • alana says

      Oh, I love this, Debbie. So special. I always love how Cea has such a respect and love for tradition and special things, and I see where she gets it!

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  33. Daniella says

    Wow what a great idea to assign napkins! We go through our napkins so fast, I already have enough laundry as it is and I KNOW we are washing practically clean napkins sometimes. We already have them in a variety of colors and patterns. Thanks! I’ll have to start this :)

  34. says

    It’s so funny you mention this. I’ve used cloth napkins for economical reasons since I first moved out of my parents’ home. I just couldn’t stomach spending the small amount of disposable income I had on something I would use only a few times and throw away. I ended up getting a whole slew of napkins at a few tags sales and from other family members. We hosted many-a-dinner party when we lived in Oregon and I remember people always commenting on the napkins. Here I thought it was so normal, but I guess it’s really not. Such a small thing, but it can make dinner time special and lessen your grocery bill.

  35. says

    I stumbled on your blog and I am so glad I did. I too have transformed my kitchen in to reusing everyday household items. i was so passionate about it that I started my own company a little over a year ago. The response has been tremendous. I am having a blast and realizing that this is so easy to incorporate into your lives. Anyway, just wanted to reach out to you and let you know that I share your passion. You can check out my website and also I have a facebook page under Smartkin. Kathryn

    • alana says

      Thanks for sharing the link,Kathryn- great snack bags too! For those in the comments looking for cloth napkin sources, she’s at


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