Unpaper Towels

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Out of paper towels.  What to do?

Out of paper towels. What to do?

I reached a point recently where I had to choose between buying food or buying paper towels. Of course, it was a no-brainer. We went without paper towels. And then we went without a little longer. But I hadn’t really provided anything in the kitchen to substitute for those oh-so-handy paper towels.

I began to bring the subject up at the grocery store checkout line when I guiltily bought one single roll of a really cheap brand (which are awful, by the way). It was interesting hearing the responses. The male cashiers all completely understood what I was talking about. The female cashiers looked at me like I was on crack. One male cashier told me that he cuts up his old t-shirts and uses those, washes and reuses them. What a great idea. By the time I got home I completely forgot about trying to find something to substitute for those paper towels.

One day I had to laugh at myself. They are called paper “towels”. Duh. That means that at one point in history people used actual cloth towels for the jobs that we typically pull a few off the roll for (sorry, ended in a preposition). I would think about it a bit, envision that flannel would be an awesome paper towel substitute. I still hadn’t done anything about making some towels to use in the kitchen. Here are some creative alternatives I had found.

  • Paper grocery bags — did you know that is what your mothers and grandmothers used to drain fried food before the advent of paper towels? So now I often ask for paper instead of plastic so I have a supply for fried chicken. [Yes, I tried those reusable shopping bags and they got nasty really fast — did not think a cashier would want to touch them after a few months. Working on sewing some new ones. Okay, thinking about working on sewing some new ones.]
  • Junk mail — I know. Strange item to use but if you drop an egg on the floor you do NOT want to use your sponge or a cloth towel. We all have some junk mail laying around. Just open a letter-sized item and use the envelope to scrape the egg (or any other fairly solid mess) onto the paper, and toss.
  • Newspaper — these are especially good for cleaning windows. I don’t subscribe but we do get junk mail printed on newspaper such as grocery store ads.
  • Waxed paper or parchment — waxed paper is quite handy (and I use it when I run out of plastic wrap as well with a rubber band). Parchment paper is expensive so you are not going to clean up the counters with it but in a pinch it can be useful.
  • Old clothes — this goes along with cutting up old t-shirts to create reusable kitchen towels. I have been known to grab a t-shirt that has a hole in it, clean up a nasty mess or clean the bathroom and then toss it out. If you clean up a grease spill you do not want to put a grease-soaked cloth in your washer and dryer. Hand soak, wash, rinse and hang on the line.

Recently I took the time to work on developing some small, square cloth towels to use in the place of paper towels. I did a search online, especially Etsy, and found a variety of cloth unpaper towels as they are called. With the intent of placing them on a vertical paper towel holder some sew-ers put snaps on one side so they could attach one to another in a long line. Some made them without. Most used a cloth broadcloth for one side and a birdseye cloth for the absorbent side. Some used cotton terrycloth. All of them were made using a serger, a type of sewing machine that sews two or more layers together while trimming the edge. The stitching is visible. Not only did I not own a serger I really didn’t like how they looked. I sew only on vintage and antique sewing machines. I could zig zag but I couldn’t serge. So what to do?

Simply sew both layers right sides together, turn, press and topstitch. Easy as pie. They just take three times as long. That’s okay. I do everything slowly now.

Bright kitchen towels

Bright kitchen towels

I started by making some bright kitchen towels using quilting fat quarters, one side the broadcloth (which is what quilting fabric is) and the other side a heavy t-shirt cotton knit I had in my stash. After I figured out how to make consistently nice rectangles (kitchen towels) I cut out some of the unpaper towels 11-3/8 inch squares which result in 10-1/2 inch finished towels. I really love how they turned out. They feel nice, are absorbent, and I could get a dozen out of four rows of the cotton knit leaving a strip on one side to make several kitchen towels.

A dozen unpaper towels

A dozen unpaper towels


Unpaper towels

Unpaper towels


Unpaper towels would make great cloth napkins, too!

Unpaper towels would make great cloth napkins, too!

I am working on sewing an inventory of Unpaper Towels to sell in the near future. Email me if you are interested. If you would prefer to make your own I will be creating some sewing tutorials with directions on how to make your own Unpaper and Kitchen Towels aimed at a beginning sew-er. So subscribe to my blog for upcoming sewing tutorials, all highlighting my vintage and antique sewing machines.

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