Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Rags are All the Rage?

True story:  A group of students came over to my home for dinner a week or so ago, and after the meal was over, they had a question for me:  "Could we see your rag baskets?".

Another true story:  My friend TL tells me that her family went on vacation together recently, and that while they were gathered together in their time-share condo, they made a family decision to get rid of paper towels and use rags in their home from now on  ("Like you do," TL told me).

So I'm feeling particularly braggy about my rags right now.

Just in case YOU wanted to be the kind of trend-setter with a rag basket worthy of other people's curiosity and emulation, I figured I'd show you everything you need to get started, right here:  a basket, a pair of scissors, and a t-shirt.

A basket, a pair of scissors, a stained shirt.  
Step 1.  If you're like me, you haven't yet put away your Easter baskets, so you have a great start on creating your own "piece de rag-sistance"!   Think of this as a starter basket, upon which you can improve as your decorating style and available materials allow.  (And then, next Easter, your basket is already near at hand).

Step 2.  Ditch the fake plastic blue grass that your well-meaning friends gifted you with (I'm donating our fake-grass to a non-profit craft center nearby).

Step 3. Grab a pair of scissors and also one of those old stained t-shirts that's not good enough to take to the thrift store.  Cut off the sleeves and  then cut the shirt into rectangles.   Discard the odd-sized corner/neck pieces of the shirts, and then put the rectangles and the sleeves in the basket.

Voila!  You're done!  Congratulations!


Because we as a society have grown so accustomed to using paper to clean with, there might be all sorts of questions hovering around your head right now as you think about undertaking such a drastic project.   (Cutting up an old shirt and putting the pieces in a basket is a huge life transformation, after all).   So here are some imaginary questions with their real, Miser Mom-approved answers.

Q:  Where do I put the basket?
A:   I have a few of them around the home, the same way that most people have paper towels and tissue boxes around the home.  I even have one in my car.  But you can start with hiding it on a shelf near your other cleaning supplies if you're not sure you're ready to bring this "out of the closet", so to speak.

Q:  Don't you still need paper towels for those utterly disgusting messes?
A:  Since you were just going to throw the shirt away in the first place, you could use the cloth rag to clean the mess and THEN throw it away.

[Or, if you go hard-core, you could do what centuries of parents who used cloth diapers have done: rinse the rag in the toilet first, then wash the rag with a load of other disgusting rags.  But remember that you own the rag; it doesn't own you.  So do whatever you're most comfortable with.]

Q:  What kinds of rags work well?
A:   I love t-shirts for rags, because they generally tend to be absorbent and they don't unravel; corduroy pants don't cut it (trust me).  My husband remarked just the other night that he notices a difference between the polyester-blend rags and the full cotton rags.  Terrycloth is good for heavy duty rags, although they fray if you don't hem them.    

If a rag doesn't clean well for you, you are allowed to THROW IT AWAY, because, remember, that's what you were going to do in the first place before you decided to cut it up.

Q:  Doesn't it waste water to wash all those rags?
A:  First of all, even my family -- who use no paper towels or paper napkins ever -- almost never does a laundry load with just rags.  Tossing a few rags into a load of laundry that was already close to full-up with clothes or towels doesn't affect the amount of water or energy the machine uses.

But even if you occasionally end up doing an extra load of laundry, remember that it takes water and energy to make paper towels and tissues, too.  Even more, it takes energy to transport that paper around the world and into your home.  Washing rags still wins.

Q:  How cool are those t-shirt sleeves?!?
A:  Yeah, totally; t-shirt sleeves make GREAT rags!  If you stab yourself in the hand (like J-son did the other day), then a t-shirt sleeve makes a perfect soft wrap to go around your hand, and it doesn't come off like plastic bandaids do.

Q:  How much money will this save?
A:  That depends partly on how completely you convert over to cloth.  (The Miser Mom family still has tissue boxes for our guests and occasionally for ourselves, and, yes, we still buy toilet paper).  

It also depends on how much money you waste already on paper products.  According to CarbonRally, the average American uses 55 pounds of disposable, non-recyclable paper (paper towels, paper napkins, facial and toilet tissues) each year.  One article I found estimated that paper towel costs average almost $200 per year for a family of four; I'm not sure I believe that.  But even at a fraction of that cost, that's a lot of money spent on paper, spent just to be able to throw something in a trash can.



  1. Q: But what about my snooty visitors?
    A: Remind them that the fancy restaurants have cloth napkins. Then ask them to give it a try. If that doesn't go over well, do the clean up yourself.

    Q: What about microwaving bacon?
    A: (This answer I don't know.)

    Great list! Thanks! I didn't know t-shirt fabric didn't unravel.

    1. Actually, most of our dinner guests comment that we've gone fancy just for them when we set the table with cloth napkins. You nailed that first question!

      As for bacon, a glass pot lid or a plate turned upside down over the food will keep spatters down. My teen-age boys (motto: "Mom, can I make a snack?") love the extra grease, so in our household there's no need for blotting. If the boys weren't around, the dog would be happy to clean the plate off . . . nothing about bacon goes to waste in our home!

    2. Thanks for more answers!

  2. True confession: We don't cut rags up. We just use the full ragged t-shirt for cleaning. (I never would have thought to cut them up.)

    (Second confession: I remember a really funny scene from my childhood in which my dad used a clean rag... made of discarded men's underwear... to wipe something up at a bbq we had guests over for. The looks on people's faces(!) But men's underwear is super absorbent.)

    We do still use the occasional paper towel and with the number of cats and toddler we have right now, we keep around pre-moistened wipes. We are of the whatever works survival mode lazy parent persuasion around here. And usually the lazy solution is to grab a rag from the rag cupboard and use that.

    1. heh! . . . From which I deduce that your dad wore briefs, not boxers? My dad's boxers (weaves) made for miserable rags.

      His undershirts were great, except that he didn't have my mom's keen eye for which shirts were rags and which were still good for service, so he'd keep taking his rag-shirts back from the laundry and wearing them again. (That's really why I cut rags up; so we won't accidentally or on purpose stick them back in our clothes drawers).

    2. If they'd been boxers, it probably wouldn't have been so obvious!

      Ours go through they cycle of after they're no longer good enough for wearing, they're good enough for sleeping in. At the point they're no longer good enough to sleep in it's pretty obvious (large tears). Usually I increase the largest rip just so it's even more obvious.

    From my days of cloth-diapering (two in diapers) to now, I remain a user of rags.

    1. Right! People who haven't used rags might think they're somehow worse than paper (that modern technology has improved upon old-fashioned materials, either in effectiveness or in terms of convenience). But as this crowd points out, rags are often *easier*, not to mention cheaper for us and for our environment.