When we moved to Huntsville several years ago, one of the items I sent to the thrift store was a tabletop napkin holder. The reason? We hadn’t used paper napkins for years.
I was perusing a clearance area in Target one day in the late-’90s (old habits die hard) when I spotted a stack of cloth napkins. At the time, I associated cloth napkins with weddings and expensive dinners; my grandmother had a stack of them that I can only recall seeing neatly folded in her china cabinet, despite her penchant for spreading out white, hard-to-clean tablecloths for Sunday dinners.
Serendipitously, my shopping list included napkins that day, and a four-pack of marked-down cloth napkins cost just about exactly what a package of paper napkins would have cost. I tossed them in my cart, skipped the paper goods aisle and never bought paper napkins again. Those faded, solid blue napkins you see in the picture above? The original Haggerty cloth napkins, circa 1997.
Some argue that laundering cloth napkins actually makes them less environmentally friendly than paper napkins, which often can be composted or recycled. While this may be true for restaurants or other institutions that have entire laundry loads dedicated to cloth napkins, I would argue that most smaller families can simply toss a few cloth napkins in with an existing load of laundry, leading to little or no extra water use.
Also, cloth napkins last forever. I mean, not literally forever, but I’ve got a few that are going on 14 years. They’d probably last even longer if I line-dried them instead of tossing them in the dryer.
I imagine some people will complain about how difficult it is to remove other kinds of stains from cloth napkins; I certainly remember my grandmother spending untold amounts of time laboring to remove gravy stains from her white tablecloths. My answer to that argument: Don’t buy light-colored cloth napkins, and calm down about stains. If you’ve washed your cloth napkins, they’re clean enough to use again. A lingering stain doesn’t equal lingering germs. Just keep a special, extra-clean stack on hand to impress your guests.