I’m “too lazy” for paper towels – Cloth “un-paper” towels DIY and tutorial

About a year ago, I stopped buying paper towels. It wasn’t that I made the decision on principle (and I’m not about to go all “family cloth” at my house either), it was more that I just didn’t want to buy them because packages of paper towel are huge and I am, in some very twisted and illogical manner lazy about buying paper products*. I started using some old linen napkins instead. And recently, I’ve been using some cotton bubble gauze scraps as my kitchen cloths, just keeping them folded in my kitchen linen drawer with the napkins.

A few weeks ago, some visitors asked me where my paper towels were, and I pulled out some of the gauze towels. That was when I realized I should really just make myself a roll of paper towels out of the remaining gauze in my stash drawer – about a yard each of gray and hot-pink. I had always been interested in making un-paper towels (check out these tutorials using terry cloth and quilting cotton) but it would require the pastic snaps, and only 12-ish towels fit on a roll that way. But plain old squares of cotton bubble gauze? I can DO that.

I love these, because they are super-thin and great for picking up the spilled coffee grounds that inevitably fall out of my grinder every morning. They’re not super-absorbant, but they can be rinsed in the sink and reused between machine washes. And best of all, there are a huge number of  them on a roll on my paper towel dispenser and I can easily just grab a new one whenever I need it.

So here’s how I made them and how I deal with the used ones.

Supplies

  • Cotton Bubble Gauze – 1-ish yard
  • iron and ironing board
  • cutting mat, rotary cutter, and clear plastic ruler
  • sewing machine
  • thread
  • empty cardboard paper towel tube

A standard Target-brand paper towel is an 11 x 11-inch square. This is how big I am making my towels, but really, the key is having one of your dimensions 11 inches, as this is the WIDTH of a standard paper towel roll.

Iron your fabric on high with some steam or water from a spray bottle. This fabric has some natural wrinkle in it in one direction, and you’ll notice that getting the fabric wet will make it wrinkle up. Ironing will ensure that the fabric is completely flat for the purpose of cutting it into EXACTLY 11-inch squares.

The ‘wrinkle’ can be seen here – it is parallel to the selvedge of the fabric, which is frayed in this picture. Ironing will remove this wrinkle.

After ironing, fold the fabric selvedge-to-selvedge, and then fold it in half the same direction once more.

Ironed fabric, folded selvedge-to-selvedge, then center-to-selvedge, resulting in four layers of fabric.

Cut any uneven ends off to start with a nice square end. To do this, line up the folded side of your fabric with one line on your cutting mat. Hold your ruler on top of the fabric so that it is lined up with a line on your cutting mat that is perpendicular to your fabric fold. Cut along your ruler.

Using the same guidelines, cut 11-inch strips from your folded fabric.

Cut 11-inch strips, using the selvedge edge to make your cuts square.

Then, unfold the strips and stack them on top of one-another. Each strip should be about 44-45 inches long by 11-inches wide. Lining up the cut edge of the strip on your cutting mat, cut 11-inch squares. I put a paper towel on top of the stack here to show where the cut should be.

The second cut, to make 11 x 11-inch squares

You should have four stacks of 11-inch squares now.

I finished my towels with a zig-zag stitch, just to keep everything from fraying in the wash too much. It’s not fancy, it’s not beautiful, but it gets the job done, and I’m not too picky about it anyhow.

A simple zig-zag stitch to finish the edge

To do this, I used a slightly wider and longer zig-zag and sewed just over the edge. This is how I lined up the edge of my fabric under the foot, and the weight of the fabric allowed it to slightly gather across the zig-zag.

With this set-up, the needle just about goes off of the edge of the fabric. Because the fabric is so thin, the thread at the very edge of the fabric pulls the edge in and prevents fraying in the wash.

Sew around all four edges of the towel and they are finished! You can use them as-is now, or you can make a roll to put on your paper towel dispenser. To do this, lay out a number of towels as shown below.

Starting at the top of the picture, I laid out the towels. The first towel is laid out flat. The second towel is lined up and laid on top of the first towel, leaving one-quarter to half of the first towel visible. The rest of the towels are laid on top of one another, leaving part of the previous towel visible. This will allow you to “rip off” one towel at a time.

Then start rolling with the top towel, picking up the towel beneath, until all the towels are rolled up on the roll.

The towels are all rolled up – there are about 20 towels on this roll.

The paper towel roll can then be installed in your holder, and towels can be used at will!

With the towels rolled as I showed, you can just pull off one towel at a time without the whole thing unraveling. A perfect “tear” every time!

I have a small bucket (an old ice-cream pail) that I keep under the sink for the dirty towels. After using a towel, I rinse it out a bit and put it in the pail. In the pail, I add a bunch (about a tablespoon) of vinegar to a bit (a cup) of water, which prevents bacteria growth between washes. If the vinegar smell is too much, a similar solution of oxyclean can be used in its place, I’m sure. Don’t use bleach, as this will (of course) cause discoloration of your towels and is really hard on the natural cotton fibers. I wash mine once a week, no matter how many towels are in the pail, and I just throw all the vinegar water into my washing machine with the towels.

After washing, the towels will re-wrinkle – here’s a demonstration of what I mean.

The towel on the right has been sprayed with water, which caused it to re-wrinkle. The width of the towel is affected, but not the length. When I re-roll the towels after washing, I always make sure that I lay them out so the wrinkles are all going in the same direction on all the towels, and that the width of the towels match the width of the paper towel tube. Thus, no ironing ever again!

I have two empty paper towel tubes, so when I wash any towels, I put them on the empty one and then just switch them out when I empty the first.

I hope this was helpful! If you have any questions, feel free to ask away. This is my first major photo-tutorial, and I’m sometimes (ok most of the time…) pretty laissez-faire about my sewing, so I might have left something out. Let me know if you give this a try. I’m sure you could do it with quilting cotton as well, and I’ve got 10 yards of Huck Toweling that is just waiting to be sliced up.

Happy Sewing!

*Last summer a visiting student in the Mayo Summer Research Program needed a place to stay for a few weeks – I had her pay rent in mega-packages of toilet paper. Best deal ever – she had a place to stay with air-conditioning, and I haven’t had to buy toilet paper since. I think I might even make it to halloween or later.

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6 comments

  1. That Short Girl

    Rachel – I was tickled to see that I’m your “out” link. I love your approach and how they take up much less space!

  2. Régina

    Great idea and execution – the snaps put me off ’til now since I am worried about scratching things….

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