Cloth Napkins for the Kitchen

Go Gingham How to Make Cloth Napkins

I have been trying to get rid of our disposable kitchen items over the last few years and it has been a slow and painful process. I’m no longer purchasing paper towels, paper napkins, paper plates and cups – basically anything that gets used once and thrown out or composted. Paper napkins were the last to go and have been the hardest disposable to part with. Paper napkins are just so darn easy and inexpensive!

These cloth napkins for the kitchen are absorbent and cute but that doesn’t change the fact that having a new routine in the kitchen is hard to get used to. Change is hard especially when it means trading convenience for saving money and the environment.

Go Gingham Cloth Napkins

This was my criteria for dropping the convenience of paper napkins for cloth napkins.

  • I am willing to do it if I don’t have to buy something new, including fabric.
  • I don’t want to waste more resources – as in more loads of laundry.

Cloth Napkins for the Kitchen

Here’s the outcome of the cloth napkin switch over…

  1. The cloth napkins were all made with fabric that I already had on hand (YES! using those scraps is good in the kitchen and the sewing studio – love it!)
  2. They can be tossed into the washing machine with other loads – meaning I don’t have to add to our laundry piles.
  3. Each person has their own napkin which is a different fabric and you’re not to use someone else’s (gross).
  4. Each person gets to decide when their napkin needs laundering. I’ve been known to gather up cloth napkins after barely a smudge on them. This was not helpful.
  5. Each person in our family gets at least 4 napkins. Messier people can request more.
  6. After breakfast (or whenever, really), your napkin gets neatly folded jammed into the drawer for the next eating time.
  7. Be my guest and use the “guest cloth napkins” – yes, I made a couple extra in case friends come over for after school snacking – which seems to happen often.
  8. We also needed enough so that we had spares as the just washed napkins were line-drying after washing. Household furnishings (and clothing) lasts a lot longer if it’s line dried. These single layer napkins line dry in almost no time.

We don’t actually have a table in our little kitchen but do have an island with two stools and mostly eat dinner in our dining room. We have different cloth napkins for dinner dining and I switched those a while ago. The dining room cloth napkins get laundered once-a-week on Sundays. We keep those tucked away on our chairs and if we switch seats, everyone is sure to grab their napkin! (I just re-read this and laughed! Perhaps too much information here!)

Kitchen Cloth Napkins Go Gingham
The napkin drawer: it used to be all paper until cloth took over!

These cotton cloth napkins are all different sizes but basically are 12” to 18” squares. Some are rectangles but about that range. I used my serger and did a rolled hem. They are single layer. If you’d like to do fancier cloth napkins, I have double-layer napkin directions here. There are also instructions for making napkins with contrasting fabrics.

Go Gingham Kitchen Cloth Napkins
Rolled hem on the edges. I used my serger for this but you could also use a sewing machine with a very tight stitch.

This is the last time the drawer will look like this so we need to live it up.

Go Gingham Homemade Cloth Napkins
The drawer will never look like this again.

If you don’t sew and would still like to transition away from paper napkins, check end-of-season sales at Target, Bed, Bath and Beyond, and Cost Plus. They seem to have plenty to choose from and maybe you can find a few gingham napkins, too.

Are you a cloth napkin or paper napkin household? Are you inspired to switch?

Go Gingham related links:

A dining room table table-cloth for Flag Day – many of my festive scraps came from this project!
How to tutorial on the dining room table ping-pong – what our dinner table looks like
Why I use an inside laundry line and not an outside laundry line


Sara, creator of Go Gingham, is passionate about cooking and feeding her family healthy, real food. She's a green enthusiast, too, who loves to grow food organically. Sara loves to travel - especially by trading houses. An avid runner, she can also be found chasing after her chickens in the backyard.


  1. We’ve used fabric napkins for years, but I love your idea of a different color for each person! Ours are a hodgepodge of colors and fabrics — some were gifts, some are bandanas (love the big size, as the kids still tie one around their necks on BBQ nights), and others I’ve picked up at the thrift store (the Goodwill stores have 50% off a certain color tag each week, which makes thrift store prices even cheaper, and the stores here in the Portland area switch colors each week on Sundays, so shop then for the best selection).

    1. Kristin,
      I love that look of bandanas around the necks! Very clever. The cloth napkins that are single layer are pretty much the same feel as bandanas, too, so that’s a great option – both for cost and if you don’t sew. Great tip on the Goodwill sale days! I’ll look for you… 🙂

    1. Erin, the napkin ring is a lovely idea. We are not in a “napkin ring mode” at our house these days. It seems manners and beauty are not present at the table for the time being. I’m blaming it on having teenagers!!
      It is good to know how to clean up a spill without using disposable stuff. Same with knowing how to use a corded phone but that’s another subject! Thanks, Erin. 🙂

    2. I have the same problem. I only use cloth napkins. Guests never want to dirty the “good” cloth napkins and are always looking for something else to use. At least friends that are over often have gotten used to it. I hope someday enough people will be using cloth napkins that no one will think twice about using them at someone’s home.

      1. Emily, I hope so, too. It’s almost like the fancy guest bathroom towel that nobody wants to use because they might get it “dirty.”
        There is something to changing attitudes about toss away after one use and re-useable. There is definitely a convenience factor involved that people don’t want to make more work for their hosts – or themselves! If there’s one thing all these comments have shown is that washing the re-usable items is no big deal!
        Thanks, Emily.

    1. Thanks, Carrie. The key is the different colors for each person in the family. I was making more work for myself until we went that route.
      The napkins are NEVER folded after people use them. They are jammed into the drawer with food stains and crumbs but I’m trying to ignore those!! 🙂
      Good luck and let me know how it goes.

  2. I’ve used cloth napkins for as long as I have had a home of my own. One thing that helps us is to have a dedicated receptacle for “kitchen” laundry (dish clothes, napkins, dirty rags [I use rags not paper towels also], etc.). With a small household I don’t have a lot of laundry to do so as I’m bringing the hamper out of the bedroom to the laundry room, I grab whatever is under the sink as well.

    I hate paper napkins- I hate the waste, the hassle of another thing to buy, the cost, and the “cheapness” of them. One thing I noticed is that new friends are always really surprised when they are handed a cloth napkin. To them, it’s like it is a great honor reserved for the most special occasions – getting a cloth napkin. As if it is some massive imposition on my part and they aren’t worthy of it. I can’t exactly put words to why, but it makes me sad that our society has gotten to the point that a cloth napkin is considered by so many to be “high-class”.
    Cee recently posted..5 Ways Perfectionism Costs Money

    1. Cee, that is so true.
      “…it’s like it is a great honor reserved for the most special occasions – getting a cloth napkin.”
      That is really how we’ve become as a society – buy it cheap, use it once and toss it out. You are right that the extra effort really isn’t that much effort at all.
      Our kids each had friends over this week who were surprised (and enchanted as teenagers can be!) by the cloth napkins. It’s not just for “fine dining” anymore.
      But, when my kids have to iron the dining room cloth napkins as part of owing me an extra chore?? That’s a big deal!!
      Thanks, Cee, and great job on your routine and waste-free living!

  3. Cloth napkins we can do, but getting rid of paper towels is another story. We’ve tried before, it’s so tough. Thanks for the inspiration!
    Joy recently posted..A Day of Tank-fullness

    1. Hi Joy! That’s funny because we’re the opposite – we got rid of paper towels ages ago. Maybe we should trade routines!?! 😉
      I’ll do a post about the paper towels and you’ll see. It’s really easy. I DO keep a stash of paper towels hidden in the basement but mostly for cooking bacon and school supplies. It seems every fall that’s what schools want along with baby-wipes. Go figure!
      Thanks for leaving a comment, Joy!

  4. Great post, Sara! I always pull out the cloth napkins when I have run out of the paper napkins. My biggest frustration was that the identical cloth napkins got mixed up in the drawer, so that I felt I needed to wash them each time. I had never thought of giving everyone a different napkin! I think I will go back to cloth napkins armed with this new strategy, but I am with Joy – it is very hard to give up paper towels. I guess I need to have a rag that is nice looking, but not so nice that I won’t use it to clean up messes. Dish towels don’t seem right for this, but I have not found an alternative.
    Annie Kip recently posted..Favorite Things Friday – Spheres

    1. Annie, as I shared with Joy, the paper towels were easier than the napkins!
      The trick for us was each person having their own color. Now, no one is upset about their napkin being used by someone else and I’m not washing the napkins nearly as often!
      Thanks, Annie.

  5. I’ve converted everyone in our house to cloth except the husband. I’m still working on him. I’ve gotten him down to a roll of paper towels every couple of months. What I found works great for napkins are large washcloths for the kitchen from Kohl’s. They sent me a $10 card to use and I purchased those with it.

    1. Diana, yes, sometimes the husbands can be the trickier ones to convert! Maybe if you stenciled little hearts onto his or perhaps love notes?
      The washcloths sound like a great idea. Thank you for the tip! 🙂

  6. I found cloth serviettes (my name for napkins) in the local thrift store. I then died them to suit my decor (though… that wasn’t entirely successful). Now to stop my mother BUYING paper napkins from Ikea (cause she just LOVES cute paper napkins!). Actually I so seldom use serviettes, as I live alone (and evidently am not that messy?!), but growing up, we used them ALL THE TIME!

    As for paper towels – when I hemmed some curtains, I took off a lot. I cut them down to smaller ‘paper towel’ sized pieces. I just wash them when they are done. If only I’d hemmed my rags though – hindsight is 20/20!
    Sarah recently posted..Zero Waste update

    1. Sarah, those paper napkins from Ikea are so cute! They are hard to resist so I can’t blame your mother. She obviously did a good job raising you since it sounds like you hardly need a napkin while eating 😉 !!
      Very resourceful use of your curtains! I love that. My favorite tablecloth is from curtains from our old house. Home furnishings are best when they relive in new ways!
      Thanks, Sarah. Great job. 🙂

  7. I love it when Go Gingham pops up on my facebook feed. Especially when its about something as beautifully random as cloth napkins 🙂 I suspect its a cultural difference, but its rare to see paper serviettes outside a restaurant in the UK. Cloth napkins tend to come out for special occasions, but most people (in my experience, which isn’t universal!) just don’t bother most of the time. Probably just as well in our house, as we don’t tend to bother with ironing either 🙂

    Kitchen roll is everywhere though, and it drives me nuts how profligate people are with it! We have a couple of microfibre cloths under the sink for wiping up floor spills, and a stack of old face flannels for everything else. They get chucked in washing machine whenever a dark wash or towel wash goes on and I get to feel good about the trees that haven’t died for us this week!

    Thanks for another useful, yet entertaining read!

    P.S. Can’t remember who was after pretty (but not too pretty) cleaning cloths, but the face flannels work well if you use the ones that still look respectable but are a bit old for face washing, and trim them with bias binding or scraps from the rag bag.

    1. Oh, Rosie! Great tips and love your attitude. Thanks for the cultural/country difference perspective!
      Your experience may just be universal – we only know what we all know and hearing from one another what works and what doesn’t is always helpful.
      Thanks, Rosie! So glad you stopped by!! 🙂

  8. Sara, I joined your blog recently and I’m making my way through the archives. I too worked for Ralph Lauren at a factory store. I have loved seeing old RL products in your posts. I get tickled at the idea of 2 former RL employees buying 2nd hand and last week I found myself getting 2012 back issues of Southern Living and Real Simple out of the recycle dumpster.

    Todays post on cloth napkins was adorable. I never would have thought of using “everyday” cloth napkins. I am so doing it. I look forward to finding them while thrifting. 🙂

    1. Pamela, I absolutely think that “Uncle Ralph” would be so proud if he knew we were dumpster diving and re-purposing over the world-wide-web! Seriously, the taste level of the Polo/Ralph Lauren empire can’t be argued with. My PRL stuff is looking pretty ratty and tatty since it’s been a long time since my paychecks came from them!
      Live it up everyday that’s my attitude. Go with the cloth napkins and fine china – or the Ralph Lauren “gingham” everyday dinnerware. 🙂 Thanks, Pamela!

  9. We use cloth napkins too – bought for pennies at yard sales, etc. they get switched every few nights and washed with regular loads. Like you said, they dry fast when hung up (and I skip the ironing the this way too). We also don’t use paper towel or sponges – I have a drawer of dish cloths (they get washed like the napkins – after all, they are in hot soapy water every night) and another drawer of cleaning rags that get thrown in with the regular wash. Disposables are something that just started with my generation – I dont remember them being around the house when I was a kid.
    Heidi recently posted..lucky

    1. Heidi, I agree that disposables are a more recent invention and not really necessary. It’s amazing how we can all be tricked by companies to think these products are necessary.
      I love your methods for keeping cleaning rags handy and then tossing them in with the regular wash.
      BUT, I thought Canada got rid of the penny??? 😉
      I heard that on the radio recently and am prepared since we’ll be in Victoria, BC next week on a home exchange.
      Happy spring, Heidi! Thanks for sharing.

  10. I ditched both paper towels, and paper napkins about 4 years ago, and don’t miss either! When the cloth towels, or cloth napkins are dirty, we just toss them in the washer for the next load. Super easy, and what a savings on my checkbook! Paper towels are the biggest waste of money – – and no one ever just uses one. I don’t think anyone really paid much attention to how many they were using when cleaning up a spill, or drying their hands. I sure noticed tho – – it felt like I was buying them all the time! I love the patterns you chose for the napkins, and the idea that everyone gets their own color. Great idea!!

    1. Martha, I agree with you and why is that?
      “…and no one ever just uses one.” Paper towels are too easy to grab more than one at a time and the next thing you know, you’re buying more!
      Thanks for the pattern compliment. My kitchen goes with anything red, white and blue so those scraps all “work” with the colors.

  11. You’re right, we did. It was recent, though. And they still pay/charge pennies when the transaction is digital – the banks just don’t give them out anymore. I would imagine that I paid slightly more than pennies for the napkins too. 🙂
    Heidi recently posted..lucky

  12. Great post! I’m with you that paper napkins have been the hardest thing to give up in the kitchen, we’ve all but completely eliminated plastic baggies and paper towels (I do keep a roll for REALLY nasty messes) but napkins were hard. I finally brought out a set of 6 that I had purchased and used a sharpie to label the tags #1-5, oldest to youngest. That way we don’t have to wash them every meal. After the meal they get folded up and stacked in a basket in the middle of the table in numerical order so it’s easy to pass them out at the next meal. It’s working so far!

    1. Ashli, that sounds like a brilliant system! – Especially because I love Mr. Sharpie pens 😉
      What a great way to keep from washing after time they get used because they don’t really need washing after one use.
      Thanks, Ashli, and great job!

  13. We tend to grab a paper towel at our house but I’ve been trying to switch over to cloth. I participated in a great flickr swap were we made napkins for each other but I still only have 4 I think the secret is to make more. Thanks for the tip on everyone using the same all the time!

    1. Petra, having more napkins for every day use is definitely working out better than I thought it would. Eating can get messy and especially when kids of all ages are involved! I’ve not heard any complaints about needing more napkins so that’s good. I am the ONLY person who seems to deem napkins too dirty to use again and that they HAVE to be washed! Oh well. I’m sure you have enough fabric scraps in your stash…. 😉

  14. Great post. We use cloth napkins almost exclusively at our house. There are four of us, and everyone gets a fresh napkin at breakfast. After the meal each person’s napkin is folded (theoretically) and left at his/her place at the table (or sometimes on the chair). The same napkin is used at lunch and dinner. That way everyone gets a clean napkin each day, but only one per day. On school days, my kids take a cloth napkin in their lunch box. I made special ones so they wouldn’t feel too weird using cloth at school. My son’s has the Oregon Ducks logo and my daughter’s is a purple tie-dye. I hadn’t thought of everyone having their own napkin print at home. I may have to try that.

    1. Sharie, how sweet that your kids have cloth napkins for their school lunches, too. My kids used to go for that – before they became teenagers. Now, I’m not sure what they use but neither would dream of a cloth napkin for school lunches now. Live up the cuteness – and hugs – now!
      I love your addition of the “in theory” folding. We have a bit of that here, too. 🙂
      Thanks, Sharie!!

  15. I missed this last week, but want to comment on how much I love this post. We’ve recently made the switch from paper towels to microfiber cloths–so easy!–and this is just the inspiration (and information) I need to wean us off paper napkins. This is great!
    Rita@thissortaoldlife recently posted..Marriage equity = home equity

    1. Rita, I’m so glad. Weaning is right when it comes to these modern conveniences. Once you start doing it, it is really easy. Congratulations on the transition. Well done! 🙂

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