Update: It appears that in recent years, the quality of these shop rags have declined and their dye runs more readily and for longer periods of time than they once did. So they might be not the same magical solution that they once were.
When I was a kid, we used paper napkins for everyday meals. I don’t think anyone really thought about it too much beyond the fact that they made for easy clean-up, but I grew up thinking that cloth napkins were reserved solely for holiday meals and restaurant dining.
As I got older, I started being a little bit more concerned about the number of disposable products I was using and switching to cloth napkins seemed like any easy place to start. The only issue was that true, readymade cloth napkins were kind of expensive, particularly if you were building a supply from scratch on the very low salary from your first job like I was (and at that point, I did not have the sewing awareness necessary to make my own).
For a long time, I made due with a short stack of cloth napkins culled from clearance bins and thrift stores. But then, I discovered something that totally rocked my cloth napkin world. I found myself at a dollar store in need of inexpensive cleaning cloths. They didn’t have exactly what I wanted, but I picked up a package of their red shop rags, thinking I might be able to make due with them.
They didn’t work for my original project, but once I’d washed folded them, I realized that they looked for all the world like a pile of cloth napkins. I tucked them into a basket, put them on our dining room table and we haven’t looked back (we’re on our second set. It took more than four years of daily use to wear out the first batch).
I am now convinced that for everyday use, there is nothing better than a pile of shop rag napkins. They are cheap (typically no more than $10 for a package of 25), made of cotton, and are nearly indestructible. Both my sister and Alana use them in their households and have told me how great they are for family dinners (in Raina’s house, they’re also used for wiping tiny noses and mopping up spills).
There are just a couple tricks you should know before you turn to shop rags for your own napkin needs. First is that they need a good wash before you start using them. Skip the fabric softener, as it makes them less absorbent and add a little white vinegar to the cycle. I also find that it’s best that you wash them with similar colors the first time out, because they do tend to run a little the first time.
After you’ve used them for a while, they may eventually start to smell of rancid grease (this happens with most cloth napkins). If this occurs, heap them in your biggest stock pot (or canning pot!), fill it up with water and add a small amount of dish soap (not laundry soap). Boil them for 15-20 minutes, drain them, and wash and dry as normal. They’ll be good as new.
I realize this post might seem out of the ordinary for a blog that deals mostly with canning and preserving, but the way I see it, inexpensive cloth napkins are a natural extension of the ethos that would lead someone to start canning in the first place. And it’s such a good tip, I had to share.