One of the things I think you can never have enough of as someone practicing zero waste is napkins. They can be used in any number of ways. Right now I have napkins serving as, well, napkins, towels, cushioning for glass jars, storage, and more. A solid piece of cloth can be a champion of your zero waste kit.

And while I do enjoy the thrill of the hunt while looking for vintage napkins, they can be a little pricey and they’re often too pretty to be used for any rough and tumble purposes.

Enter all the old cloth I’m sure is sitting around in your house. From old t-shirts that are a little too hole-y to wear to old linens no longer fit for the bed, they’re all perfect for a zero waste DIY.

What can cloth napkins replace?

Cloth napkins are an essential bit of a zero waste lifestyle, because they can become so much more than napkins when the need arises. Use them in lieu of:

  • paper napkins, of course. Feel fancier and kick a single-use item that isn’t that useful anyway. Because there are comparisons about whether it’s more eco-friendly to use paper or cloth, but those arguments about the water needed to produce a cloth napkin are null and void when you’re rescuing fabric and not buying new. Toss in the cloth napkins with your regular load of laundry and feel good about your eco-habits.
  • paper towels. No need for fancy “un-paper towel” kits if you don’t feel like spending the money. Just toss a bunch of larger cloth napkins into a drawer and pull them out in lieu of paper towels when a mess arises. Yes, it can be a little gross but even grosser is the vast amount of destruction something innocuous like paper towels create. Statistic say discarded paper towels result in 254 million tons of trash every year globally. And 51,000 trees per day would be needed to replace the number of paper towels that are discarded every day. Is that really worth the convenience?
  • gift wrapping. ever heard of furoshik? It’s a Japanese practice, a way to wraps gifts or transport items with a large square of cloth. I checked this guy out of my library last year before Christmas and practiced some wraps for gifts

You can also use them to wrap around any glass jars you’re transporting, impromptu plates, wash cloth, and so much more!

Zero waste DIY: turn old fabric into napkins - Green Indy Blog

How to make a cloth napkin

If you have a large, thin piece of fabric like a sheet that isn’t going to be super absorbent, I’d suggest making something like a bento bag for shopping purposes.

Turning old cloth into napkins (or un-paper towels) is as simple as making a couple folds and sewing them down. To ensure my new napkins look a little polished and make sure they don’t fray with heavy use, I suggest a double-fold hem. This makes sure that no raw edges are poking out.

  1. Cut out your fabric into the correct-sized rectangle or square: for a mid-sized napkin, I’d suggest around 16 inches long. For a napkin that could double as a furoshiki cloth, I’d suggest somewhere from 25 to 30 inches long. Don’t forget to add an extra 1/2 inch on all sides for the hem.
  2. Create your double-fold hem: carefully fold one edge over by 1/4 inch (wrong sides together). Then fold it over again so the raw edge is hidden. Do this around all the sides, pinning the folded hems down as you go.
  3. Sew the hem: Sew as close as possible to the folded edge of the fabric. Try to sew in a straight line, but that’s totally not required! Backstitch at the ends so that they thread won’t unravel.

I use my sewing machine (which I got very deeply discounted from Amazon Warehouse due to being returned because of a cosmetic defect) which makes cranking out a bunch of napkins pretty simple. Still, you can totally do this by hand if that’s something that sounds relaxing to you!

If you have a pretty enough fabric, these can be great gifts for people (or at least zero waste gift wrapping!) if you feel like you have enough for yourself already.

Do you DIY cloth napkins or buy them pre-made? What uses do you find for old fabric – I’ve got a pile up and only so many cloth napkins can be made!


Green Indy is a blog about zero waste, minimalism, and generally being less of an a**hole to our Earth (Indianapolis, specifically) by me, Polly Barks. I’m a writer, teacher, and a natural-born researcher/experimenter.

1 Comment

Lisa | Simple Life Experiment · April 15, 2018 at 8:27 pm

Awesome, Polly! I am always excited to find blog posts on making upcycled creations on the sewing machine, as it’s something I have been getting into myself lately. I have always been put off by sewing, thinking that I was no good at it, but I’ve been very pleased to find that the opposite is true. Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.