A Custom of Cloth Napkins


When I was in college, one of my literature professors invited her classes to her home for a potluck and evening discussion of a book we were assigned to read. Professor B, as I’ll call her, struck me as a thoughtful, sensible person, and when I entered her home the impression was confirmed. The house was built partially underground- into a hillside, actually- fronted by a very high wall of south-facing windows. The front door opened into an enormous room, part conservatory in the English tradition; part kitchen and dining room; part living and family room. Hallways led in two directions to bedrooms and bathrooms, and interior walls stopped about a foot short of the ceiling. Professor B explained this allowed heat, which of course rises, to flow from room to room, warming parts of the house nestled beneath the hill of earth.

As impressive as the house was itself, there is one image I’ve kept from that evening that has forever changed an aspect of how I dine. On a kitchen counter was a beautiful copper bowl filled with an assortment of folded cloth napkins. As we students filled our potluck plates and looked around for a roll of paper towels to tear from, Professor B casually said, “Oh- take a napkin from the bowl… that’s what our family uses.” She added that she made a point of purchasing cloth napkins while traveling; “Lovely for memories of places I’ve visited each time I bring one to my lips,” she said. She also told us she would cut napkins from yardage bought on sale or suitable items of worn out clothing, and hem them with her sewing machine. When questioned about the regular maintenance of using cloth napkins, she said it was no big deal to include a couple dozen napkins in weekly loads of laundry, and she would rather reuse cloth than throw away paper after every meal.

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I decided to follow her example. I don’t have a copper bowl (though I should be on the lookout!) but I have three small drawers of napkins I’ve amassed over the years. I think of my friend Ellen, who gave me a set printed with colorful daisies, when we use those; I remember India when we use the two-toned orange paisley napkins, which are also great for camouflaging stains when tomato-sauced food is on the menu. I have a set of dainty blue linen napkins with white stitched borders that look lovely on the table, bright spring mornings.

When the napkins start to show wear (argh- char marks from grilling! I now use dark blue or black with those foods), or too many grease stains, they’re relegated to the ragbag. I recently read that soaking cloth in a solution of water and ammonia can take out the grease, and I want to spend a couple of weekend hours bringing back into circulation some of napkins that I don’t use often due to the grease marks.

As for regular maintenance, I usually launder the napkins with same-weight material, such as sheets. I put them in the dryer for just a few minutes and then stack them like pancakes and hang with a couple of clothespins to finish drying. Folding them takes just a few minutes later on. Yes, it’s a bit of time and effort, but worth the trouble when a lovely table is set at mealtime. It’s also nice to know that a couple decades worth of our used paper napkins aren’t languishing somewhere in a landfill.


4 thoughts on “A Custom of Cloth Napkins

  1. We don’t really use napkins, however, I do use flannels as dish cloths. I don’t want to be critical, coming from another part of the world but how does your use of a dryer fit in with your eco friendly ways?

    • Hello Treasures,
      Very good point about my use of a dryer, and believe me it causes consternation. Here’s the deal: the laundry room in our home is on the second floor, not entirely unusual in our neighborhood of very old houses. Many people have clothes lines running out the window to tall poles at the back of their yards/gardens, but we don’t have such a pole. When we moved in, I actually purchased the cord and pullies etc. for a clothes line and then realized there was nothing to run it to. Nor have we yet put up a clothes line at ground level, or I would take the laundry downstairs and outside to hang. We hope eventually to have one or the other (tall pole or ground level clothes line). But for now I do use the electric dryer minimally. Our washer and dryer are highly energy efficient; I run loads an extra spin cycle so things are already quite dry when they come out; and then of course I do hang to dry. I use a gadget in the laundry room, essentially a “lazy susan” with clothes pins. I use a drying rack, and also good ol’ hangers across a shower rod. My point is: I’m aware using dryer isn’t ideal, so I limit my use as possible.

      • After reading your reply and your latest posts I will never pass judgement again!!! Finding the balance is the challenge and upholding and fulfilling our own values and morals are always pushed to the edge. For example, I am very much a penny pincher. We never go out for restaurant meals because I feel the cost is just ridiculous and I can’t help but think about where that money could have otherwise been used. I have slowly been ‘training’ my husband to think along the same lines. Then, for my birthday he (handmade) me a voucher to trade in for a nice dinner out whenever I wanted. Aaaargh, I felt bad but I did have to explain that there are no exceptions to my rules 🙂 On the other hand, when I am out looking for treaures, I will not hesitate to double up on things, only to have them stored away at home, all because it was a bargain too good to pass up. I justify this because all the treasures I collect will have a higher $ value when (and a big IF) I sell them on 🙂

  2. Pingback: Thirty-One Days: Reuse, Remake, Re-love | reusethematerialgirl

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