The Best, Cheapest Cloth Napkins

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.

mug on napkin

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).

basket of napkins

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).

plate with napkin

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.

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50 responses to “The Best, Cheapest Cloth Napkins”

  1. A great post, I have even had good success with cutting up tea towels into napkin size, easy to wash and reuse etc and as you say cheaper than paper towels or serviettes.

  2. Thanks for the tip! I have a ton of cloth napkins (I worked at a Crate & Barrel outlet and would snap up the 25 cent napkins!), but I am looking for something to replace all the paper towels I use. This looks like an ideal solution!!!

    • After cloth napkins, towels, sheets or whatever outlive their original usefulness, I turn them into kitchen cloths. Large pieces I use to wrap salad greens when I put them into plastic containers. Smaller ones I cut to about 4″ x 4″ and keep in a little basket in the kitchen. These I use as disposable wipes instead of paper towels: for blotting meat before searing, for wiping up really gross spills, etc. I almost never use paper any more.

      Even in the bathroom, I have a basket of “tushie wipes”, rectangles of cotton, about 4″ x 8 “. I use these instead of toilet paper, for pee only, and wash and reuse them. I live alone, and also have regular toilet paper, so any visitor is free to choose whichever they want.

  3. I agree – very relevant! We got tired of the paper mess of birthday parties and family gatherings years ago …started stocking up on hankies (yes!) every time I got a coupon or say them on special. The kids love the festive colors.They do the job! 🙂

  4. That is a great tip, especially how to wash them. I have a few dishcloths that have that rancid smell even after washing, so I’m going to try boiling them. Thanks!

  5. Love this post! We have switched some paper out with reusables, but not at the dinner table yet. Also GREAT tip about boiling! I did not know that. I will be boiling our kitchen towels today. I was about to stick them into the “dirty rags” bag and start buying new ones, but I will try boiling first since they aren’t even ratty yet.

  6. And when they’re no longer suitable for table use, they can still go to the garage and maybe be used once or twice more cleaning up grease/oil/automotive schmutz/etc.

  7. I love those red cloths, they do wear like iron. I remember my Dad using these, he was a mechanic. I could see them lasting a long time as napkins! I am going to remember your boiling trick for hand towels too!

  8. Even though my dad worked for a paper company, I grew up with cloth napkins because he hated paper ones! I need to try out your boiling tip for cleaning them…wondering if that will also get rid of a few stains.

  9. I’m going to try the boiling with dish soap trick on some tea towels. It seems that some of them get that smell especially after all the holiday cooking. I blame the wiping of hands while handling hot turkey, chicken and beef. Thanks!

  10. I love this idea and totally appreciate the cleaning tip. We use bandanas for cloth napkins in our house. Each member of the family gets their own color.

  11. We used paper napkins for a few years after my husband and I married, and he was leery of changing over to cloth. But I’d grown up using cloth napkins, and hated the waste of paper ones, so I started picking up ones that appealed to me at estate sales. For not very much money, I eventually acquired an array of nice linen napkins for special meals, and a couple sets of plainer ones for everyday use. When we ran out of the last packet of paper napkins, I set the cloth ones on the table and just didn’t buy any more disposables. No comment was ever made, and now I think he doesn’t even miss them.

  12. I have specially decorated Bandanas that I use for certain holidays.
    God bless my sweet son-in-law for his love of dumpster diving for he dug out 2, very heavy Large lawn and garden black trash bags full of black heavy duty cloth napkins that where from a restaurant that had closed.
    Two many toicount, but there where lots. I washed them all up, gave some away and some I had decorated up by rubber stamping, adding rick rack, etc. I even thought about buying some Rit dye and maybe dying a few just for the heck of it.

  13. My father was a mechanic. So I have always had these “grease rags” around. I use them for nose blowing. As you said they are soft, virtually indestructible and easy to clean.

  14. I would go totally paperless if I didnt have to use a paper towel to drain the bacon. I’m leary of being able to get the grease out. Got a tip for that one?

    • coffee filters works great when it comes to draining the grease or lay a few coffee filter on a plate and lay your bacon to soak up the grease.
      Remember they are made of paper and paper is recyclable

      • I also save my bacon grease. When cool, I put in an empty butter container or sour cream container and then put in the freezer and I use that to fry my fried potatoes in , fried eggs, etc.

  15. Thank You! I love this idea so much. I’m ordering a box ASAP–at Amazon they even come in pretty colors. I’ve been wanting to switch away from the paper towels and napkins, but hadn’t come up with a good solution yet. I think this will be it. I’m thinking of getting one color for use as napkins and another to use as paper towels.

  16. how practical! We use a mish-mash of cloth napkins from the thrift store for every day and i have some nice sets (also thrifted) for guests. BUT I have been toying with the idea of making 25 or so napkins for class parties. They always use disposables, but I was thinking if I offered to do the laundering and I offered them to other moms sending in birthday treats, maybe that would work. Shop rags are MUCH less expensive in time and materials than buying cute kid or birthday fabric and hemming them myself.

    I’m going to try that cleaning tip, too. I rarely dry things in a dryer because my aunt taught me that the dryer bakes in smells and stains. I usually do a long soak with Oxyclean for any stains and smells.

  17. Thanks to you and everyone who posted comments for all of the extra tips about how to get rid of the “greasy” smell. I have been using cloth napkins for years and have noticed the issues with odors and wondering how to remove them. Now I know! ☺

  18. I inherited a bunch of stained tablecloths. With my minimal sewing skills, I cut them into “napkin” sized squares (cutting out the stained/frayed/worn parts), hemmed them, and integrated then into daily use. When my kids were little and a large napkin seemed “too large” for their hands, I cut regular sized napkins into 4 pieces, hemmed the rough edges, and had “kid-sized” napkins for “kid-sized” individuals!

  19. I recently switched to a different dishcloth, too. I bought a package of a dozen white washcloths for very little; something under $2 I think, or maybe $3. I can use them, abuse them, bleach the dickens out of them, and they come back for more. They are tough on stuck-on foods, and the nap picks up even small counter-top debris. I like your shop cloth solution for napkins, too, and I’ll be looking for some.

  20. Lovely post and completely relevant. We preserve food, to waste less food. Using cloth napkins is part of preserving the earth through the same principal of wasting less. Thank you for sharing.

  21. I LOVE this! I haven’t bought paper napkins in years and have just used my dish towels for everyday hand/face wiping but didn’t have a prettier solution for company. Thanks for the tip on getting that funky smell out – I’m going to try that soon! When my dish towels are too stained/worn for kitchen use, I cut them in half and use them for cleaning. They don’t have to be cut up, but it helps me remember which towels are for cleaning and which are for the kitchen.

  22. Where we used to live we could put paper napkins in with our organic waste that was collected by the city and that was awesome. Here we can’t. We have a supply of cloth napkins made from some cheap sheets though! They work pretty well! Just cut squares and serged around the edge and there you go!

  23. Why hasn’t anyone brought up that these red shop rags bleed red dye in the laundry really bad? If someone did, I missed that comment and apologiize! We have some of those rags, and I hate them because they bleed so much!! I try to only use them occasionally and then wash them only with reds.

    • Caroline, I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve had trouble with them. The ones I bought haven’t given me any trouble with bleeding, but they are a bunch of years old now, so perhaps they’ve changed the fabric or the dye? I will add a note so that other people don’t run into this issue.

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