On board Kerguelen, we increasingly have a responsible and zero waste approach. We have recently embarked on various sewing projects in order to reduce our daily waste. The most important? Making washable and reusable unpaper towels ourselves to say goodbye to the paper towel in our bins. Why is that? It’s quite simple: it’s not always easy to control the (over)packaging of the products we need on board. We have therefore decided to start by tackling waste that is easy to dispose of. Paper towels were first on the list.
With this sewing tutorial, you will learn how to make fabric washable and reusable unpaper towels to replace disposable paper towels you may still be using. Don’t worry, I had never touched a sewing machine before I started this project. To tell you how simple it is…
How to change to washable and reusable unpaper towels
We mentioned it above: moving aboard Kerguelen has made us more aware of the speed at which our dustbin fills up and therefore of the waste we generate.
Ashore, the paper towel has for long been an easy solution and we have used it in a variety of circumstances. So it was quite natural for us to take rolls on board when we moved in. However, we soon realised that we could do something different and stop using disposable paper towels. But where to start? This product is so ingrained in our habits that we first had to analyse our use of paper towels and think about sustainable and reusable alternatives.
Finally, replacing the disposable paper towel in our daily lives doesn’t have to be complicated. However, several people called us out on the fact that we were trying to have a sustainable approach but that we would use way more water with washable and reusable unpaper towels since, as its name suggests, it would go in the machine or in the hand wash tub. “Not so green after all, eh?”.
This is a very common remark as soon as we talk about switching to washable and reusable unpaper towels. And even though there was never any question of making laundry dedicated to reusable on board, it made us doubt it and we wanted to get to the bottom of it. During our research on the web, we came across articles comparing the water consumption and carbon footprint of disposable and reusable towels over the entire life cycle of the product and based on various studies and consumption hypotheses. In short, it is very clear that the reusable alternative has a much lower environmental impact than the disposable, even though cotton is a water-intensive crop. But if you want to go deeper into the issue, or if you too are sceptical about the ecological aspect of reusable items, I advise you to take a few minutes to dig additional information in the topic.
Which fabric to use to make washable and reusable unpaper towels
Having an ecological and responsible approach also involves the choice of fabric used in the making of washable and reusable unpaper towels. So, before starting various sewing projects, I spent a lot of time researching fabrics. For washable and reusable unpaper towels, my criteria were as follows:
Ideally, we also wanted to turn to organically grown and GOTS-certified fabrics, guaranteeing a responsible, ethical and pesticide-free fabric production chain. However, we had to overlook this criterion in the course of our research because finding all these criteria in a single fabric made the research quite laborious… and very expensive. We therefore made the choice to go with fabrics that are OEKO TEX Standard 100 certified, guaranteeing the absence of substances harmful to health in the finished product.
Taking these different criteria into account, I opted for a combination of two fabrics to make washable and reusable unpaper towels: an ultra absorbent honeycomb fabric for the basic function of paper towels and a cute but useful fabric for the finishing touch.
Ultra absorbent fabric
100% cotton - 280 g/m2
40° machine washable
Cute but useful fabric
Cretonne fabric 114 g/m2
100% cotton OEKO TEX certified
40° machine washable
Most of the articles or tutorial videos I have browsed, as well as a good number of individuals offering their talent as sewer to make washable and reusable unpaper towels for a fee, suggest using a microfibre fabric for the absorbent side. While it has the advantage of being extremely light and quick drying, remember that microfibre fabric is 100% synthetic. It therefore rejects plastic microparticles every time it is washed and is very polluting. For us, switching to washable and reusable unpaper towels is clearly part of an ecological approach, and we did not want to give in to the apparent ease of this fabric. After all, every little gesture counts.
But why use two different fabrics?
The disposable paper towel you may be using today does not have two different faces and textures. It is therefore quite legitimate to ask yourself the question of the usefulness of two different fabrics for washable and reusable unpaper towels. After all, wouldn’t a simple piece of absorbent honeycomb-type fabric be enough? In most cases, of course it would. All you would have to do is cut and sew it to the desired size with a simple border to prevent the fabric from fraying.
In our case, we decided to opt for a double fabric mainly because of the humidity on board Kerguelen. The slightest droplet of water on any surface takes some time to dry. We will therefore use the second side of our unpaper towel to make sure that the wiped surface will be as dry as possible once the operation is complete.
This not being the only sewing project of the winter, we also decided to use some of our fabrics to brighten up washable and reusable unpaper towels that will be visible in our kitchen corner (called a galley on a boat) because, let’s face it, it shouldn’t be too difficult to make it better looking than a roll of paper towels.
Where to find the necessary materials to make washable and reusable unpaper towels
If you have a stock of fabrics, terry towels or sheets that you no longer use, turning them into washable and reusable unpaper towels will give them a second life. Naturally, if you don’t have any fabrics in stock like us, you will find something to get you started at the local fabric shop or online.
The amount of fabric needed for this sewing project will obviously depend on the size you wish to obtain for each sheet of washable and reusable unpaper towel. Here is what you will need if, like me, you are going to sew 16 sheets of 9’’ by 8.3’’ (23 cm by 21 cm).
Material needed for 16 sheets of washable and reusable unpaper towel (9’’ x 8.3’’ or 23 x 21 cm)
- 29.5’’ x 59’’ (75 x 150 cm) cretonne fabric 100% cotton certified Oeko-tex (114 g/m2)
- 29.5’’ x 59’’ (75 x 150 cm) of 100% cotton honeycomb terry cloth (280 g/m2)
- Pair of sharp scissors for fabric
- Sewing needle
- Chalk or erasable fabric marker pen
- Matching or contrasting threads
- Sewing machine
- Pair of embroidery scissors (optional)
- Seam ripper (optional)
- 82.6’’ (210 cm) of 3 mm cotton rope or string (optional)
Prepare the fabric before making washable and reusable unpaper towels
If this is not your first attempt at sewing, you know that an unprepared new fabric can turn an apparently successful sewing project into a disaster. Colour that bleeds, fabric that shrinks, … You may regret skipping the fabric preparation stage before you start sewing washable and reusable paper towels. But don’t worry, it’s really not that difficult.
Step 1 - Fix the colour of the fabric
The first thing to do after receiving your new fabric is to fix the colour as much as possible. Why should you do this? Well, it will prevent the colour from fading to other fabrics when you use it and when you put it in the washing machine, but it will also allow you to make sure that the final result of your sewing project is perfect.
Fixing the colour of a new fabric takes a little time, but it couldn’t be simpler:
- Pour cold water into a basin or bathtub
- Add white vinegar and coarse salt (the equivalent of one cup of each per 10 litres of water)
- Soak the new fabric in this water for one or two hours
- Rinse with cold water
- Soak the new fabric in cold water for one hour only
Repeat these steps as long as your water in step 5 is coloured with stain.
Step 2 - Machine wash the fabric and iron when dry
After fixing the colour of your new fabric, it is important to machine wash and iron it according to label instructions before starting your sewing project. The fabric can indeed shrink and, if you sew it beforehand, there is a good chance that the final result of your washable and reusable unpaper towels will not be the one you had sewn…
Choose the size of your washable and reusable unpaper towels
Here is the last step before you start the actual sewing part: you need to choose the size of your washable and reusable unpaper towels.
Would you like to get as close as possible to the disposable paper towel format in terms of the size of each sheet and storage on a roll? To do this, you will need snap fasteners to be placed on each sheet of washable and reusable unpaper towels at the latest stage of your sewing project in order to tie them together and roll them up. Make sure you have at least 2 snap fasteners per sheet and place them on each sheet in the same place so that they can be rolled up easily.
Would you prefer to have a hanging system using a piece of string or rope? You will have to integrate the string into your washable and reusable unpaper towels from step n°2 of the tutorial below and make sure it is always positioned in the same place.
Are you planning to make a fabric basket in which to place your washable and reusable unpaper towels rather than integrating a hanging system on each sheet? Why not! In fact, we opted for a “string + basket” combination in our case, as we were afraid snap fasteners wouldn’t work for us when using the washable and reusable unpaper towels sheet, but we nevertheless wanted to have a dedicated storage place on board. A tutorial will be coming out soon to make a fabric basket with a great tool to adapt the pattern to the desired size of basket.
Tutorial - How to make your own washable and reusable unpaper towels
We’re not going to lie: machine sewing goes very fast. The most laborious and time-consuming phase is actually the preparation phase in order to obtain a final result that you will be happy with. I will explain everything in detail for each step of making washable and reusable unpaper towels.
If you want to be reassured about this tutorial, or if you want to make sure that the size you’ve selected is right for you, just cut out one sheet of washable and reusable unpaper towel and do each of the following steps before moving on to a bulk and step-by-step making.
If this is not your first try, I recommend that you perform each of the steps below one by one for all the sheets of unpaper towel you wish to obtain. Meaning, first make the patterns and cut out all the necessary pieces, then go to step 2 for all the pieces of fabric cut out, then step 3 for all the pieces, … And so on. This will allow you to have automatic, faster and more confident movements.
Step 1 - Take measurements, trace the cuts and cut out the fabric
Once you’ve decided which hanging system you will (or won’t) use on your washable and reusable unpaper towels, it’s time to choose the size of each sheet. As before, there are no right or wrong answers here. Anything is possible, the main thing being to adapt the size of your washable and reusable unpaper towels to the use you will make of it.
For my part, I decided to go with a final size slightly smaller than the disposable paper towel I had been using until then. So I decided to cut 9.8’’ x 9.1’’ (or 25cm x 23cm) rectangles from my different fabrics. Before you start cutting, remember to allow a margin (called “seam allowance”) of about ⅜’’ (or 1 cm) on each side to make the seams. In my case, this means that my finished washable and reusable unpaper towels will measure 9’’ x 8.3’’ (or 23 cm by 21 cm).
To make your layouts, I advise you to use a ruler of at least 6 by 12 inch (or 30 cm by 15 cm). This will enable you to obtain right-angled and parallel lines very easily. Mark the fabric with a simple chalk, pencil or water-erase marker.
Cutting is probably the stage that I dread the most (no turning back possible), but it doesn’t require anything except a pair of sharp scissors and a little bit of patience.
Step 2 - Building the inside sewing of unpaper towels
If you have never sewn before this tutorial, now is the time to learn a word. Basting means sewing two pieces of fabric together by hand. It is a temporary sewing process, the purpose of which is to allow a final machine seam to be sewn without any of the fabric moving. Purists will tell you that this step is necessary for any sewing project, but in practice it is mostly used for complex works or when the fabrics to be assembled do not behave in the same way.
And this is precisely our case here. The honeycomb fabric is elastic. Without a basting stitch, it will tend to curl, stretch or accumulate in one place. Cretonne fabric, on the other hand, is not elastic at all. It is essential that they are joined together to ensure a clean and simple machine sewing.
Place the two pieces of fabric right sides together, i.e. the outer facing side of each fabric against each other (it sounds weird, but the outer sides must be against each other). Place pins along the four edges of the fabrics so that they remain in position despite your manipulations.
Thread a needle and tie a knot at the end of your thread and prepare to make a temporary basting stitch by hand. Don’t worry, it’s very simple: it’s a matter of making stitches about ½’’ (or 0.5 cm) long by stitching your fabrics from above and then from below along the edge of the fabric. But you still have two options. Either you want to sew temporarily within one centimetre of the edge of the fabric by going all the way around the fabric. Or you can decide to sew a temporary basting stitch on all four corners only and then place a pin in the middle of each edge to hold the honeycomb fabric in place. In both cases, at the end of your temporary seam, make a basting stitch by stitching your needle backwards to secure your thread.
For my part, I opted to sew only the corners. However, as you will have understood: given the important difference in elasticity between honeycomb and cretonne fabric, I do not advise you to “save time” by replacing the basting stitch with pins or clips placed along each edge of your unpaper towels to hold the fabric in place.
For washable and reusable unpaper towels with a rope or string
If you have decided to make washable and reusable unpaper towels with a rope as a hanging system, it should be integrated at this step of the making process.
Cut regular 5.1’’ (or 13 cm) long pieces from 3 mm thick cotton thread. To position it correctly in the frame of your washable and reusable unpaper towels, fold a piece of rope in half, place it in the same corner of your work each time, loop between the two fabrics right on right, and with about 0.6’’ (or 1.5 cm) of rope protruding from the edge. Secure the whole thing with a pin and then insert it into the basting stitches in a solid manner using several points on the rope.
Be careful, turning the fabric over in step 4 will give a mirror effect to the position of the eyelet.
If you have a patterned fabric, make sure that your patterns are not upside down once washable and reusable unpaper towels are hung by the rope. It’s always nicer if swans have their heads up, for example.
Step 3 - Carry out the inside sewing with the sewing machine
Once the fabrics have been pre-assembled, it is time to move on to the first sewing session on the machine. As this is an inside seam, the choice of thread colour is not important. However, I advise you to stay with tones similar to those you will use for exposed seams. You can of course use two different colours by threading a different one than the colour you used to wind your bobbin. Personally, I chose the same colours as for my outer seams: white on the light cretonne fabric and tone-on-tone on the side of the honeycomb fabric.
If you are unsure of your colour combinations, stitching, or even the handling of your machine, try a few tests on a scrap of fabric before you start making your washable and reusable unpaper towels.
Sewing machine settings
sewing stitch type
Essential information before getting started to sew: it is imperative to keep an opening of 2 ¾ to 4 inch (or 7 to 10 centimetres) on one of the edges of your washable and reusable unpaper towels. This opening will allow us to turn the fabric over in the next step. I therefore advise you to start your sewing from the edge where the opening will be.
Place your fabric so that your needle is a few inches (or centimetres) from the bottom edge of the fabric so that you have room for your opening and to finish the corner of the last edge. In my case, I decided to place the opening in the middle of one of the two smaller sides of my fabric and stitch my needle about 2 ⅜’’ (or 6 cm) from the bottom edge and approximately ⅜’’ (or 1 cm) from the right edge of the fabric (seam allowance). Please note that I do not place the opening in the fabric on a corner as this would be much more difficult to close cleanly afterwards.
Start with a back stitch, i.e. a couple of backwards and then front stitches over so that your seam does not come undone over time. Then sew a straight line to the corner while maintaining a seam allowance of ⅜ inch (or 1 cm). Be careful, honeycomb fabric is very elastic. Be careful to keep it in place as you progress so that you don’t end up with a portion of fabric accumulated at the end of your edge. Once the angle is reached, keep your needle stitched into the fabric, raise your presser foot, turn your fabric 90°, lower your presser foot, and continue sewing in a straight line while maintaining a seam allowance of ⅜’’ (or 1 cm) on the next edge to the next angle, and so on.
Once the last angle is reached, check that the needle picks at the same seam allowance from the edge as the stop point at the beginning of your machine seam. Honeycomb fabric makes it very easy to check this thanks to its embossed appearance. Once you are sure that everything is properly aligned, make a final straight seam of a few inches. Don’t forget to leave an opening of 2 ¾ to 4 inch (or 7 to 10 cm) at this edge. Finish with a stop stitch, raise your presser foot without the needle being stitched into the fabric, remove the fabric from the machine, and trim the threads to free it completely.
Step 4 - Reverse the fabric and pull out the corners
Take a seam ripper if you have one or a simple pin. Remove the basting stitch threads that you sewed in step 2. In principle, you have made your final seam next to your basting stitches. However, if the needle of the sewing machine has stitched in the middle of the basting thread, it may be necessary to pull it more insistently or even trim the thread flush if it cannot be removed without damaging the final seam.
Also trim the threads of your machine backstitching, making sure that there is no excess thread to tighten beforehand.
Once the fabric has been machine-sewn, clear the corners of your washable and reusable unpaper towels. To do this, remove the excess fabric in the corners by first trimming diagonally as close as possible to the seam (without cutting the seam of course, otherwise you will have to repeat step 3) and then trimming the sides of the corner flush (see diagram below). In this way, you will remove the thickness that would have accumulated in the corners and you will obtain pretty corners once your work is reversed.
Then pass your hand through the opening you have left on one of the edges and reverse the fabric through the same opening. Pull the corners out correctly from the inside using the round end of a knitting needle or from the outside using a simple pin pricked into one side of the fabric as a lever.
Your washable and reusable unpaper towels are slowly taking shape and soon it’s time to cross disposable paper towels off your shopping list!
Step 5 - Ironing the work
Once your work is reversed, iron it. The purpose here is twofold: to mark the fabric at the opening to make it easier to close and to flatten the fabric both at the corners and along the edges for a clean and simple final seam. Again, remember that honeycomb fabric is elastic and ironing can stretch it out a little.
Step 6 - Finishing with the sewing machine
Now it’s time for the finishing touches! And for this, you have several options
- Either you wish to close the opening on one of the edges by hand with an invisible seam. I then advise you to follow the tutorials that you will find on video which are much more meaningful than a long speech.
- Either you only want to sew along the edge where the opening is located. In this case, I recommend that you sew as discreetly as possible, with threads that blend in with the fabrics used, and as close to the edge as possible.
- Either you wish to close this opening with a machine seam all around each sheet of unpaper towels. This is the option I have chosen.
Essential information before starting the seam: it is imperative that this seam is narrower than the inside seam of the edge where the opening is located since the aim is to close it. I therefore advise you to start your sewing from this edge just to make sure.
Start at the corner by placing your fabric so that your needle is about ½’’ (or 5 mm) from the top edge and the right edge.
Sewing machine settings
Sewing stitch type
Just like before, start by backstitching and then sew a straight line to the corner while maintaining a ½’’ (or 5 mm) seam allowance. Hold the honeycomb fabric in place as you sew, so that you get a clean finish despite the elasticity of the fabric. Once the angle is reached, apply the same technique as before until you have made a full turn with your washable and reusable unpaper towels.
Finish with a back stitch, lift your presser foot without the needle stitching the fabric, remove the fabric from the machine, and trim the threads to free it completely. Finally, trim the threads of your machine backstitching flush.
There you go, you’ve just sewed a sheet of washable and reusable unpaper towels! Now you can put the disposable paper towel behind you and admire your work.
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