One Small Change: Cloth Napkins

I love Micha Boyett for so many reasons. In the world of the Internet where things often feel so LOUD and ANGRY, her words are gentle and full of grace and light, and I almost never miss one of her posts. I got a chance to meet her last spring, and she’s even better in real life. Micha is the kind of person who listens deeply with her whole heart. After one cup of coffee with her in Grand Rapids, I felt like we’d been friends for ten years. She has a book coming out next year, and I had the honor of peeking at a very early draft. You guys are going to LOVE it. I can’t wait until it’s out so I can buy tons of copies and give them away. But for now, I’ll leave you with this little beauty instead. On cloth napkins.

one small change - cloth napkins

When I moved to San Francisco four years ago, I was recycler. I was passionate about picking trash off the ground. And I felt a lot of guilt for using disposable diapers. But that was as far as my environmental awareness had taken me. Those feelings hadn’t forced me into any big lifestyle changes. It wasn’t all that hard to put the plastic in the plastic bin.

Living in San Francisco changed that. And probably not in the way you might assume. Of course, it’s a cliche that people love their clean air and electric cars around here, but I never really felt like environmental consciousness was forced down my throat.

It was just…there. Literally, outside my window there was the green bin. A whole bin just as big as the blue recycle bin and the black landfill bin! And I was supposed to fill it! The idea of composting was entirely new to me. So I watched people. I bought some compost bags. I got fruit flies in my kitchen. I got frustrated.

And then I made friends. I never talked composting or sustainability with those friends. I just spent time at their homes and saw how they lived with children in their tiny apartments. I saw how they used compost bins with proper lids (so as to avoid the fruit flies). I watched my friend Leah use cloths to wipe her kids’ noses. I watched Katie’s son spill his milk and saw her quick response to clean it with a rag.

Like every other kid in the eighties, I grew up with paper towels everywhere. We wiped our mouths with paper napkins, cleaned our spills with paper towels, ate our lunches on paper plates. And I continued that way of life all the way through my twenties. But, as is usually the case when you leave the culture you know and begin to live in an entirely different sort, I began to recognize that my paper consumption might not be the best thing for the earth.

My friends weren’t doing wild and crazy save-the-world-immediately kinds of things. But, I realized, they were using cloth intentionally. Paper products could be useful; they just didn’t have to be everything.

I’d always thought of cloth in terms of diapers and I’d gone back and forth between attempts at using cloth diapers and guilt that I they were too hard and I was too weak-willed to force them into my life with my baby. But what I saw in my new San Francisco friends was an invitation to do something simpler: To actually use the cloth napkins I kept in my drawer for special occasions.

I could make a daily choice out of a God-honoring conviction. If I want to waste less and walk lighter on the earth, maybe I could wipe my mouth on cloth instead of paper?

The great thing about small changes is that though they start small, they can have wide consequences. Two years after we first arrived in San Francisco, I ran out of paper napkins and made a rash decision. I wouldn’t buy any more. I pulled out my lovely cloth napkins. I folded them and stuck them in the kitchen napkin holder. They were beautiful and they were useful. And I loved feeling fancy when I used them. My boys loved them too. They got to choose from patterns instead of plain white paper. The cloth was softer on our faces and we instinctively treated them with more care.

I learned to use tea towels to dry my lettuce instead of paper. And I moved consistently through washcloths to wipe all the little hands and mouths in my life at home.

I’ve never gone back. And, really, it’s not all that big of deal. I promise you I still love my paper towels when my cat does something disgusting or my kids do something disgusting.

But that switch to cloth two years ago? It’s a small change that reminds me everyday that my choices matter. I decide how much trash I throw into my earth’s ground. I decide how I pass this planet on to my children. And I decide how I teach my children to care for the world around them.

I want to tread lightly. Most of them time, my tread is imperfect. But, maybe, my footprint gets softer and softer the further I walk.

one small change - softer footprints

michaboyett.headshotMicha Boyett is a youth minister turned stay at home mom attempting to make sense of vocation and place after three cross-country moves in four years. She is mama to two blonde boys and wife to a very tall Philadelphian. Her first book, a memoir of prayer, will be released from Worthy in 2014. She blogs at Patheos about motherhood, monasticism, and the sacred in the everyday. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

14 thoughts on “One Small Change: Cloth Napkins

  1. I love this. I started using cloth napkins in college, because my roommate was way ahead of the green curve. I not only still use cloth napkins… I STILL USE THE SAME CLOTH NAPKINS. A dozen years later. This is the kind of “one small change” that you realize is actually a decently-sized change down the road. When I think of how many paper towels and napkins we have NOT used over the years… Wow.

  2. I love this. I use cloth napkins, too, and it always makes me feel good. One small change, indeed.

  3. One of my friends read a book recently that suggested using cloth napkins as a way of reintroducing a sense of “ocassion” into meal time and maybe when my twins turn three I’ll give it a try. We did use cloth diapers for them (after using disposable for our older two), though I never would’ve anticipated it, it simply felt natural (not to mention saving us a TON of money!).

  4. We switched first to cloth napkins (finding that a men’s handkerchief is the perfect size, absorbency, and weight for tiny hands – and cheep for my budget) and then to cleaning cloths from my husband’s old undershirts cut up into 10 inch squares (it is just how it works with his sized shirts). When I get one overly yucky, I can pitch it. They all get stored in this cute kangaroo bag that my grandmother made back in the 1940’s.

    On the down side, I’ve had to put up little signs over the storage bins that say: I am a napkin, I am used while eating; I am a dish cloth, I am used for drying dishes and wiping hands; I am a cleaning cloth, I am used for cleaning up dirty things. Apparently my husband and two teen aged boys don’t have discernment to know what is a cleaning rag and what isn’t.

  5. Love this, Micha! I’ve been contemplating the move to cloth napkins as a replacement for paper towels and I think you’ve nudged me into action here.

  6. We’ve talked about this before – what’s the HBH to do without his abundance of paper products? …but I did purchase some new cloth napkins yesterday and silently set them out for dinner. We’ll see what happens. 🙂

  7. What a great idea. I’m feeling super convicted especially since we just subscribed to getting paper towels delivered to our house every 2 months from Amazon :/

  8. I love this. My husband and I started using cloth napkins and rags for around the house. We don’t even buy paper towels (although I’ll admit sometimes it’d be a little easier) but I’ve been so happy with it. There’s a lot that we cannot do, so it makes me happy to do what I can.

  9. I grew up using cloth napkins, and paper ones don’t feel “real.”
    I love this post for many reasons, but perhaps I love best the observation that all of these cloths are “softer.” I want to sit with this a bit.
    Thanks, Micha!

  10. I began using cloth napkins and towels when my kids were in middle school. I went to a beautiful Christmas party at another kid’s home and they laid out this glorious buffet and a huge basket, filled with a variety of cloth napkins. So started buying them and using them, for parties at first, but over time, for everything. Conservation never entered my mind! I just liked it. I’ve got a LOT of napkins now, these 30 years later and I love mixing them up. (I still keep paper towels on hand and occasionally buy paper napkins, especially cocktail size, so I’ve got some work to do. (THAT’s putting it mildly. . . )

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