Close-up of cloth napkins

Cloth napkins have more wiping power than their paper counterparts, reduce waste, feel nice against your skin, and look pretty. They’re both decorative and functional.

Reusable cloth napkins keep trees from being cut down as most brands use virgin tree pulp to produce paper napkins. Cloth napkins also help keep our finite landfill space a little emptier by reducing waste — even more so if you make them from upcycled fabric.

Anecdotally, I know a book editor with five kids who reduced her waste by half with a switch to cloth. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, she swapped out paper napkins and paper towels for cloth out of necessity because she couldn’t find either at the grocery store. A week later, she found that due to these two swaps alone, her landfill waste was cut in half!

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A stack of home-made cloth napkins
Photo: Maureen Wise

Discover Your Napkin Material

Making reusable napkins from scraps of extra fabric you have on hand or worn-out clothing is a great option for reducing waste even further. Instead of using your cast-offs as rags or sending them to the thrift store, upcycle and turn them into napkins.

The back of a button-down shirt is prime cloth napkin material as it is a large, uninterrupted space.

The back of a button-down shirt is prime cloth napkin material.

The sleeves of a large shirt may also be unrolled to find enough material.

The sleeves of a large shirt may also be unrolled to find enough fabric for your napkin.

I think cotton or linen fabric works best. Avoid T-shirts if you don’t want your napkins to have stretch to them.

If you can, use your current favorite cloth napkins as a pattern, leaving enough room for the hem, if needed (see below). If you don’t have cloth napkins yet, no worries: Standard cloth napkins sizes are typically squares of 10 or 12 inches — you decide how big you want them to be.

Napkin DIY Methods

There are a few methods to make your napkins. If you have a lot of fabric, you can go for the two-sided method of sewing together two same-sized pieces of cloth. They look very nice and the double layer adds to both durability and absorbability. This method allows for really fancied up edges including piping, rickrack, or lace around the edges.

The easier method is to use just a single square of fabric for one-sided napkins. If you want to avoid sewing entirely, just finish the edge with pinking shears to discourage frayed edges. Otherwise, you can just stitch a hem around the edge. This is what I’ve done in my example.

Hemming Your Napkins

If you are sewing the hem of your napkins, allow about an extra one-quarter to one-half inch around the edge of the fabric. The most important step is to iron it very well. Fold the napkin edge over about one-quarter inch and iron down the edge. Then fold it over again and iron again, pinning as you go.

Iron your napkin hems very well.

Cut triangles out of each corner this second time around to try to minimize bulky corners.

Cut out triangles to reduce bulky corner hems.

Fold over the squares of each corner into a triangle. Next, sew the edges with a straight line, picking up the sewing machine’s foot at each corner for a crisp intersection.

Sew a straight hem, picking up the sewing machine foot before you turn each corner.

Sew4Home provides wonderful tutorials with photos for making tidy hems and neat mitered corners:

Finished cloth napkins

Enjoy Your Upcycled Fabric Napkins

You can use your cloth napkins for years before they wear out. By choosing to upcycle the fabric, you reduce waste twice!

Feature image courtesy of Don LaVange. All other photos courtesy of  Maureen Wise

This post was originally published on November 13, 2020.

By Maureen Wise

Maureen Wise is a freelance writer for a number of green-leaning companies and organizations. She also is a sustainability consultant and previously worked in higher education sustainability and watershed restoration. Wise serves on the board of an arts and environment nonprofit, is a solar owner, and is a certified master recycler. Wise writes eco-mysteries under the pen name Iris March.