habit shift: cloth napkins.

erin_boyle_reading_my_tea_leaves_IMG_4069I grew up in a house where we used cloth napkins for most meals, so I’ll admit off the bat that embracing cloth napkins wasn’t really a shift for me. Still, I know it’s an eco-friendlier habit that not everyone readily embraces. 

I think some of the reluctance to the permanent cloth napkin switch comes from perception. Cloth napkins feel fancy, like something that should only come out when there’s company or a special occasion. And they seem like a lot of work: all that washing and folding and for the neatniks among us—gasp— ironing. 

On one hand, the perceptions are true: cloth napkins can feel fancy and they do require cleaning. But neither of those things makes them complicated to use. 

Here are a few tips for shifting your napkin habit if you haven’t already:

  1. Go cold turkey. Some shifts take time to adapt to, but the cloth napkin trip is best done all at once, no looking back. Put back the package of napkins back on the shelf, leave the store, dig out the stack of cloth napkins you might be hoarding for a special occasion and put them to work on pizza night instead.
  2. Choose what you like. If you do not have a stack of grandmotherly napkins to dig into, you should buy a set that you like. (Obviously.) But: many people will tell you that you need to buy dark colored napkins to avoid staining. I will not give this same warning. Dark napkins end up getting just as worn as white ones, just differently. We’re talking about cloth that gets soiled and cleaned regularly: this is not cast iron, it will not last forever. So, choose a set to love, and try not to get too precious about it. (More on my napkin color theory in this post.)
  3. Consider linen. If you’re looking for longevity, I’ve found that the linen napkins we’ve had have held up the best over time. The only caveat about linen: they’ll be rumply unless you iron them. If you don’t dig the rumpled look, linen napkins are probably not the best choice for you—go for thick cotton instead.
  4. Reuse. For most adults, a cloth napkin can be used many times in a row without being laundered. The swipe of a few crumbs isn’t enough to warrant a wash. To keep things organized, growing up my family used napkin rings with our names printed on them to keep track of whose napkin was whose. We haven’t needed to institute a similar practice in our small family yet, but napkin rings, different colored napkins for each family member, or even little cloth pouches to keep only lightly soiled napkins are all possibilities.
  5. Just throw them in the hamper. Coming from someone who does not have a washing machine or dryer in my own home—let alone in the building where I live—I hope you’ll believe me when I say that you can toss a soiled napkin into your laundry hamper without thinking much more about it. We keep a pretty robust napkin collection (somewhere around 16 at last count). We don’t go through them all every week, but life with a toddler is a little messy, so the backup has proved helpful. I don’t do a separate napkin load and I very rarely pretreat napkin stains, unless Faye’s been particularly enthusiastic about spaghetti. (Note: In case you’re hesitant, in my humble opinion, cloth napkins were made for kids. It is so much less annoying to use the same cloth napkin throughout a meal than to crumple twenty flimsy paper napkins in the same space of time. (Even when you have a child who’s unswayed in her belief that oatmeal is a finger food.))

For the curious:

Our linen napkins (a wedding gift).


Our favorite tumblers.


Faye’s wooden bowl.


Faye’s tiny flatware was a gift from her grammy (unsure of the source).


Our plates and cutlery were from Brook Farm General Store (also wedding gifts, no longer for sale).


Everything else is vintage!


PS. More about my daily habits over on Remodelista.

Habit Shift is a new series. I’m hoping the series will offer quick tips, concrete takeaways, and a whole lotta can-do spirit for focusing on ways to shift personal habits in an effort to be little bit more environmentally friendly, a little more healthy, and a little more happy.  Good for us, good for our planet.

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