Eliminating paper towels and napkins

No offense intended to those who raised me, but I think I might have been in junior high before I realized that napkins could be made out something other than paper. I don’t know why. I’m sure it was me, not them.

(It just never occurred to me that a napkin could be made from anything but paper. Just like it was high school before I learned that cakes could be made without the purchase of a box of Betty Crocker cake mix, and then I was absolutely astonished by that fact. True story.)

I’m happy to report that I’ve since owned and used quite a few cloth napkins.

However, when the kids came home and saw the table set for dinner earlier this week, I realized that the nuts didn’t fall too far from the family tree.

This (sorta) Old Life:  Cloth napkins kitchen

“Why’s the table set all fancy?” one of them asked.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“What’s with those napkins?”

“Yeah, why do you have those out? I want regular dinner.”

This (sorta) Old Life:  Cloth napkins kitchen

Apparently, cloth napkins means fancy dinner, not regular dinner, and my kids pretty much hate any kind of change because it signals a departure from regular, which means normal.

The offspring were not pleased to learn that the cloth napkins are intended to be the new normal for meals around here, and that the paper napkins are on their way out.

This (sorta) Old Life:  cloth napkins

One child mocked the whole project by running around the kitchen using the napkin as a cape. The other one made a matching cape for one of the dogs by tucking a napkin into its collar.

Clearly, there are quite a few things I should have done earlier in this parenting/homemaking game. Using cloth napkins more regularly is the easiest of those things to implement now.

I’ve long felt uncomfortable with our use of paper napkins, and I’d like to say that I figured out how to make the switch to cloth napkins all on my own, but I was the girl who could not conceive of any way to make cake other than from a box.

It wasn’t until I read this post on Go Gingham, by one of my favorite bloggers, Sara Tetrault, that I realized cloth napkins could be a workable option for us.

The crucial parts of Sara’s plan that converted me?

  • Everyone has their own napkins (distinguishable by different fabrics).
  • Napkins don’t get thrown in the wash after every meal. Each user determines when his/her napkin needs laundering.
  • Napkins have a clear storage place and everyone returns their napkin to it at the end of the meal.

This (sorta) Old Life:  Cloth napkins kitchen

When I read her post, cloth napkins suddenly seemed like a very manageable change to make in our household. So why are we only just now switching, when Sara first wrote about it back in March?

Because I got hung up on wanting to do this thing perfectly. I wanted to make our napkins (like Sara did) and I wanted them to look pretty with our plates and the fabric on our kitchen chairs.

This (sorta) Old Life:  Cloth napkins kitchen

Sara, a frugal living expert, made her napkins with scrap fabric she already owned. I have scrap fabric (boy, do I have scrap fabric) but none of them were pretty/matchy enough.

So I spent a good chunk of an afternoon at the fabric store, looking at the fabrics and having all kinds of “fun” trying to find prints that would complement the colors of our plates, the fabric on our kitchen chairs, and our children’s personalities/preferences. Yes, I spent time in the fabric store trying to choose fabrics I thought each kid would like. ‘Cause I can hop on the Crazytrain so, so fast, forgetting where I really live and what kinds of things really happen there:

This (sorta) Old Life:  Cloth napkins kitchen

I mean, seriously: This is the kind of thing that goes on in our kitchen while I’m out shopping for napkin fabric.

After spending way more time than I wanted to, and about to spend way more money than I wanted to (home-sewn is not the economical choice it was when I was growing up and my mom sewed my dresses), I ended up walking away from the fabric store with nothing because the woman in front of me wanted to return about a million tiny little things, and she wanted to chat about all. of. them. with the one girl working a cash register, and I reached a point where I simply could not stand there without screaming, and I decided it would be better to leave the store with nothing that to cause that kind of ugly scene.

(That’s what happens when I climb aboard the Crazytrain: I want to scream at perfectly nice people because I’m about to go over some edge.)

After calming down, I realized that the Woman with a Million Things to Return was a gift. She kept me from spending more money than I wanted on a project that–let’s be real here–would probably still be sitting in the bag, waiting for me to get to it, long, long after I’ll hit Publish on this post.

I let the idea of sewing my own napkins go and landed on a solution that makes sense for who I really am and what our life is really like.

This (sorta) Old Life:  Cloth napkins kitchen

World Market makes sets of solid-colored cloth napkins that are a pretty reasonable deal, and I already had two sets in two different colors (white and gold). You get 6 napkins for $10, which makes them less than $2 a napkin. Unless you have a 25% off coupon–which I did–in which case you get 4 sets (24 napkins) for just under $30.00. That’s way cheaper than any napkin I could make.

And, we finally have cloth napkins!

And, they match our stuff!

This (sorta) Old Life:  Cloth napkins kitchen

Except, I realize right now, just this minute, that this might all, in some respects, be horrible.

I don’t know anything about where or how these napkins are made, or what it is that allows World Market to sell them so cheaply. Honestly, I didn’t think that far until I sat here writing these words.

Turns out that they were made in India, and that’s all I know. I have a sinking feeling in my stomach, imagining sweatshops and fearing that I’m all kinds of some ignorant, privileged, First World white person who deserves to rot in Hell for a) worrying about whether or not my napkins are pretty; b) contributing to horrible conditions for people on the other side of the world because I wanted cheap napkins; and c) for maybe inciting others to contribute to awful things by posting pictures that make my napkins look pretty.


This (sorta) Old Life:  cloth napkins

Is it better if I put a very mediocre, not-pretty picture in this post?

It would be easy for me to get back on the Crazytrain right now and try to find out how the napkins are manufactured and then somehow rectify this situation if I’ve made a bad choice so that I can feel like a better person, but…

I’m not buying that ticket.


Here’s what I know:

The napkins are bought. I can’t un-buy them. (They’ve been used.)

Cloth napkins, I think, are better for the world than paper ones. I hate that we’ve used and thrown away paper at every meal for years, and I hate that doing so contributes to a throw-away mentality in our society.

The napkins are not more cost-effective than paper or using scrap fabric, but they are affordable for us. So the cost part’s OK.

I need to own that I am a privileged, First World white person and my whole napkin angst right now is the kind of problem people make snarky First World memes about.

This (sorta) Old Life:  cloth napkin meme

This (sorta) Old Life: cloth napkins memeThis (sorta) Old Life: cloth napkins meme

This (sorta) Old Life: cloth napkin meme
I am a privileged person who wants to be more thoughtful in my decisions about how we make this home, but I am not (and never will be) perfect in it. I sorta hate that, but it’s true.

All I can do is keep trying to do this life better, and buying the napkins is some kind of progress for me. At least I didn’t buy fabric and then not use it because I never got the dang napkin-sewing project done. (And anyway, how will I know that the fabric comes from an ethical source? How far can/should I go in this kind of thinking?)

This (sorta) Old Life:  sewing

Hey, buying napkins gives me more time to feel bad about not doing the chair cushion project.

All of this is confirmation for me that there is no one right way to go about intentional home-making, which for us means being (ideally) frugal, environmentally conscious, and socially conscious. It can get really murky, really fast–and I think there are likely no perfect solutions in our very, very imperfect world.

Which is why we need to extend to ourselves the gift of some grace. Next time, I’ll probably think a little more deeply before I buy. And do some research. I’m taking some comfort from the words of Maya Angelou (one of my most favorite thinker/writers) who says, when we know better, we do better.

The Powerful Lesson Maya Angelou Taught Oprah

Before this quick little post on ditching some paper products went all off the rails on me, the plan was to tell you the other way we’ve reduced our use of them–so I want to do that before signing off.

A few months back we invested in a couple packs of microfiber cloths, and we use those for all the things we used to use paper towels for. We keep them in the places we need to clean, and they work great.

This (sorta) Old Life:  cloth napkins

Why are there two toilet brushes in that cabinet? I dunno…Still working on decluttering.

We haven’t missed the paper towels at all. In fact, it was seeing how easy it was to give them up that also convinced us to make the switch to cloth napkins. We highly recommend it.

Just in case you’d like to pass our tips (and trials) to others, here is the highly-Pinnable graphic that just didn’t seem quite so appropriate once I started thinking a bit more deeply about this topic. (But I hate to let a good graphic go completely to waste.)

This (sorta) Old Life:  cloth napkins

How about you?

Ever stumbled in your intentional living attempts? Have other great ideas for reducing paper/plastic products in our homes? Got your own tickets to the Crazytrain? You know we love to hear from you.

Oh, and linking up to The William Morris Project. This week Jules rants about the sad state of young celebrities, which has little to do with her curtains but it did make me laugh out loud (IRL), which is pretty dang hard for anything to do at 5:30 in the morning.