Top 10 Reasons for Ditching Paper Napkins and Embracing Cloth

Three things happened in my life all of which ultimately led me to switch from paper to cloth napkins for every-day use.

As a child, we were using paper napkins as usual when my mother mentioned to me, “Your great-grandmother would NEVER use paper napkins.” Hmmm. I didn’t ask why, just filed this tidbit away in my “food for thought” category.

As a young adult, I visited a very old and beautiful home in a very old and beautiful part of New England. The table was set with placemats and cloth napkins in rings at all times. I noticed that the napkins in the rings looked as if they’d been used a couple times. I learned that, in the prudent Yankee way, the family reused their cloth napkins throughout the week, replacing them in their personal napkin rings until they were dirty and ready to wash. More food for thought.

After I became a mom and started keeping my own house, I carried on with paper napkins and towels until my son started preschool. The school did not allow plastic bags, plastic wrap, etc., and insisted that each child bring a cloth napkin every day for use as a placemat and as a napkin. This was the tipping point for me – once I got the cloth napkins for him to use every day, I realized a wealth of good things about using cloth over paper, and I’ve never looked back.

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That’s my personal cloth napkin journey. Here are the Top 10 reasons why YOU should consider ditching paper and embracing cloth:

10)  They’re easier than you might think

Paper towels and napkins gained wide-spread popularity in the 1950’s – the TV dinner era. Housewives were intrigued with convenience and disposability and easiness. The strange thing is, I’ve realized that paper napkins really aren’t any easier. In our home we now use cloth, throw them in the washer or hamper after meals, and wash them with the rest of the laundry. They don’t take up much space in the wash and only take a few seconds to fold.

9) You never run out

When I used paper napkins, I was always running out. I’d use paper towels as a backup. Then guests would come over and I’d have to rip a bunch off and fold them over and, well, it’s really not pretty. Cloth napkins are always there, to be reused over and over.

8) You save money in the long run

You may find this hard to believe, but people have done dozens of cost calculations on cloth vs. paper napkins and shared them online. It seems that once you’ve made the upfront investment in cloth napkins, you’ll save quite a bit in the long run – some say as much as $.50/day.

7) They’re better on the go

This is an interesting benefit I wouldn’t have considered. Cloth napkins don’t get all scrunched up in your picnic basket or cooler. They don’t blow away when you’re outside. On a road trip they can be reused over and over. Not to mention they look so dang cute wherever you are. Of course, you need to pack them back with you, but unless everything you’re taking with you is disposable, you’ll probably have to pack something back anyway.

6) They’re versatile

Now that I have cloth napkins as part of my daily routine, I use them for all sorts of stuff, especially on the go. I’ve been keeping them in the back pockets of the car seats to use for whatever messy kid occasion arises – a few dabs on a dirty face here and there, spilled water bottles, cold legs – all can be solved with a cloth napkin. They’re great to line bowls of crackers, chips, or bread, to spread on the countertop under appetizers, and as trivets, coasters, even hot pads in a pinch.

6) They FEEL better

They’re much more soft and comfortable on your skin, mouth, and hands, or sitting cozy on your lap.

5) They WORK better

They absorb beautifully, and don’t rip, tear, or disintegrate into shreds. Have you ever tried to get dried-on food off a kids’ face with a paper napkin dipped in water? Try it with a good cloth napkin. You’ll never go back.

4) They LOOK better

So much better. When set, a table looks so much prettier, more polished, more civilized with cloth napkins under the silverware instead of paper. Not only are some cloth napkins really beautiful (or cute or stylish or fun) but they lend something to the table, even when you’re serving mac ‘n cheese and frozen broccoli. Once you’ve let yourself spend a little money on cloth napkins, you’ll notice napkin fashion everywhere. From hipster to natural to kiddie-cute to country French – there are an incredible amount of options that will make you want to set your table over and over.

3) They’re easier to store

Weird but true. I used to keep paper napkins in this plastic storage thingy that sat on the counter. Not cute. In a drawer, they’d get creased and scrunched. My napkin drawer is now filled with neat little squares that look nice and stay organized.

2) They’re better for the environment

This is a biggie. I’ve heard that the average American uses 6 paper napkins a day (what?!). That’s 8,760 paper napkins for my family of four in a year. That sounds like a lot of trees. Paper napkins pollute landfills and are usually bleached with chlorine and contain toxins (recycled napkins are better, if you must). They are then packaged in plastic and shipped to the store, where you then pick it up and drive them home (CO2 emissions). And that process is repeated over and over.

It needs to be said that cloth napkins aren’t perfect, either. There are a few things you should do to make sure your cloth napkin usage is environmentally optimal:

  • Cotton processing has some negative effects on the environment, so organic cotton is better than regular, and natural linen is even better than cotton. That said, as much as I love linen, it’s very prone to wrinkling. I don’t know about you, but ironing napkins is never going to be part of my routine.
  • If you do separate “napkin washes” in hot water, you could be using a lot of water and energy. If you throw them in with the rest your wash when they’re dirty, it’s really not adding to the laundry at all.
  • Reusing cloth napkins is better than using them once. What’s critical here, of course, is keeping track of whose napkin is whose. There are loads of beautiful individualized cloth napkins on Etsy – where each family member can have a different design or color code.  You can also get personalized napkin rings for each family member to place their napkin into at the end of the meal. Eating ribs? Wash your napkin after one use. Eating rice? Maybe not so important.

And the number one reason for using cloth napkins over paper:

1) Add a little more goodness to your home

How did I feel about my paper napkins? I didn’t feel anything. They were just there, to be used and thrown away. I did some thinking on the matter and realized that it’s all of the above, combined, that makes me feel good whenever I use my cloth napkins.

I am reminded of the quote by good old William Morris: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Cloth napkins are both. Add to that the fact that you’re doing less harm to the environment, and they’re an all-around good thing.

Where to find cloth napkins:

  •  Etsy has hundreds of beautiful, hand-made napkins, including personalized versions (every family member’s embroidered with their own vegetable!), color-coded, or just plain awesome-looking
  • Most home stores – although it’s tougher to find multi-colored or varying versions
  • Vintage stores and garage sales. Since many people gave up using cloth napkins years ago, you can find some great recycled goods out there. I found an amazing stash at a thrift shop a couple years ago – hand embroidered cocktail napkins with various Chinese characters on them, beautiful hand crocheted lace like nobody knows how to make any more, etc., for $.50 each. I shocked myself when I got home that day and realized that I’d bought 26 napkins (!). I love using them.

Already made the switch from paper to cloth? Let us know how it’s going. Any other tips, pros, cons, or benefits? We’d love to hear!