back to school for cloth napkins

eco-craft, family, sewing


Our family eats every meal sitting at a table with placemats and cloth napkins. We do this not because we’re oh-so-fancy but because we put a lot of effort into making our meals and gathering together to eat is important to us. We are also aware that not everyone gets three meals a day and we’re grateful that we do. So mealtime is kind of sacred to us. During meals there are no electronics including TVs and phones. Even if it’s leftovers, we still use cloth napkins. We have a variety of napkins ranging from ones we made from Curious George fabric chosen by our daughter when she was a toddler to beautiful linen ones that we inherited from my mother-in-law. They are all in the rotation and it’s nice to think about how much paper waste we’ve eliminated in the 14 years that we’ve been using exclusively cloth napkins.

At her school, our daughter is in a Spanish immersion program so the kids and parents remain the same for five years. We thought if we could make a bunch of cloth napkins and have the kids use them for every party for five years that that would save a whole lot of waste—both in paper and money. Happily one eco-minded parent suggested that we all chip in to purchase restaurant-quality plastic cups, bowls and plates and metal flatware that could be used throughout the five years so we felt as though we had an opening with the napkins.

We had a lot of quilting fabric, some of which we had designed, that had suffered light damage along the folds on the bolt (that’s a future post) and couldn’t be sold. We decided to work around the fade marks and cut a variety of fabrics into 20” squares. We folded under ¼” twice along each edge, mitering the corners so no raw edges were showing. Then we ironed the edges flat. Using gray thread so we weren’t constantly changing threads with each color, we topstitched them on all sides. There are 20 kids in the class but we made 25 napkins since there are sometimes parents helping out.

The shock then came when I realized that many of these kids didn’t seem accustomed to using napkins very often because several immediately put them on their heads thinking that we were giving them bandanas while others left them on the table unused. Some of the kids actually threw the cloth napkins into the trash can when we started cleaning up because, I’m guessing, it never occurred to them that a napkin could be washed and reused. I told myself that this was a teaching moment and that in time they would realize that napkins are handy to have. By the next party there were none in the trash can.

We continued to send the napkins for parties along with a collection bag so they could be brought home for laundering. We’ve found that if we take all of the napkins out of the dryer and fold them as soon as they are dry, they never need ironing. Our daughter helps us wash and fold them and she seems pleased to take them to each class party. Now that we have the class napkins we have found that we’ve used them for baby showers, block parties and choir gatherings as well. We store them in the collection bag at our house so they’re ready to go at a moment’s notice. Sometimes it’s the small changes that have a surprisingly big impact over time.

12 thoughts on “back to school for cloth napkins

  1. What a great idea!

    We use cloth napkins at home (even thought it’s just myself and my husband … for now) and even with just the two of us I’m amazed at how much paper we save. Such fun to share this tradition with a classroom!

  2. I’ve always used nothing but cloth napkins, since I was a child. I never really thought about using anything else. But I love the idea of offering them to the classroom. I guess I just never thought that the kids wouldn’t know what to do with them.

  3. I love this idea! I made 120 round cloth napkins for our wedding and we use them all the time. Just Kona cotton so it’s easy to wash and they line dry flat. But I’d never thought about a collection bag and taking them to parties! I’m going to mention this to hostesses in the future. What type of bag do you use for the collection bag?

  4. Weeks–Your writing about the sacredness of shared meals reminds me of these words of Martin Buber: “One eats in holiness and the table becomes an altar.” Yes.

    Craft Nectar readers: FunQuilts fabric really does make lovely napkins–look here for some I made with the Wild Bunch line:

    I notice Bill and Weeks have some fabric from their earlier fabric lines on sale:
    I may have to do a little shopping. . .

  5. So for Chrsitmas we pull names now that the family has gotten older and larger but as Mom I am always looking for something less expensive to do for each family…I think I’ve found it! Thanks for the great idea, I’ve done holiday themed napkins but never thought of everyday…duh!

  6. I’ve used cloth napkins since I moved out of my parents’ house. I picked up the habit from a friend whose Mom is from France. It’s so easy just to toss them in the wash that I’m surprised that anyone would use paper napkins.

    What a great idea to offer them to the class! Maybe some other parents will get the idea to start using them at home too.

    I’m just learning to sew with a machine, so maybe I’ll make a few as practice. Thanks for the inspiration!

  7. So for Chrsitmas we pull names now that the family has gotten older and larger but as Mom I am always looking for something less expensive to do for each family…I think I've found it! Thanks for the great idea, I've done holiday themed napkins but never thought of everyday…duh!;…

  8. I thought that maybe my family was weird. I’m so glad that there are other families out there using cloth napkins. My dad never let us use paper napkins, would never even buy paper towels. Now I’m a married lady with a family and we use nothing but cloth napkins. We feel the same about meals. We eat together and we cherish our family time with our blessing of ample food. What a nice idea about the classroom napkins. In today’s climate of going green, it sure is nice to see some practical ideas to teach kids how to conserve.

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