How to Make Unpaper Towels: A Green Alternative to Paper Towels

Learn how to make your own unpaper towels, even if you have limited sewing abilities. It’s the green paper towel alternative.

Unpaper towels hanging on a clothesline.

Paper products are one of the number one “wasted money” items we purchase. **Fear not, I do not suggest you rethink toilet paper – though some do.** Think about how much a roll of paper towels costs. It may not seem like much, but now think about how many you use in the course of the day. Do you try to save a few bucks by buying cheap or store-brand paper towels? Do you use quite a bit more because they don’t clean up as well? These are perfect replacements.

Are unpaper towels worth it?

Yes! Not only do unpaper towels help the environment, but they save money too! You can purchase pre-made reusable towels for $35 for a 20-pack, but you can save even more by making your own.

For just a couple of bucks, you can make 30 unpaper towels. And the best part? It requires no fancy sewing machine and takes almost no time. I just did another set of 30 in the time it took my toddler to watch “the pony movie” (Spirit). If you survived my less-than-technical harvest apron pattern, you should be able to handle this. No straight pins or serger are required.

How to Make Unpaper Towels: Instructions

Shop for Fabric

You want to purchase some flour sack towels. I find this is the best fabric for unpaper towels. They come in five packs and each towel measures approximately 28″ x 29″ which is complete overkill for a paper towel replacement. We are going to turn each towel into six towels, giving us 30 towels.

Mainstays flour sack towels.
Mainstays White Flour Sack Towel – 5 pack

Fold & Cut: No Ruler or Cutting Mat is Required

Lay out your towel on a flat surface. You want it unwashed and somewhat flat (but again, no one is going to notice if it’s perfect or not). Next, you want to fold it in half with the fold on the longest side (one side is 1″ longer than the other side). Cut along the fold with scissors or a rotary cutter so you now have two long pieces. Jagged edges are completely acceptable.

A flour sack towel laid out flat.
Fold on the dotted line.

Cut Some More

Take your two long pieces and stack them on top of each other. Fold these strips into thirds. You then want to cut these folds. This leaves you with six towels of approximately the same size. Here is an optional step: You may choose to iron at this point. The edges curl a bit and can cause some issues when you stitch the sides. I personally never iron. It’s too much hassle with a toddler running around and only small windows of opportunity to sew.

Sew the Edges to Prevent Fraying

On to the sewing. I don’t have a serger or fancy sewing machine. I only have the basic functions. I knew I didn’t want to play around with pressing and hemming, so I decided to do a simple zigzag stitch so they wouldn’t unravel.

I did a test to see which zigzag had the best results, so I did one towel with a small and tight zigzag and a second towel with a wide 3-step zigzag. After washing, drying, and reviewing the results I decided to go with the small and fairly tight stitch.

A close up of two different zig-zag stitches.

The key to sewing unpaper towels is to realize that your sewing job can be terrible and no one will ever know. Do not allow yourself to waste more than 5 minutes per towel. Once washed, the stitches and corners are not going to be seen. Put the pedal to the metal and run that sewing machine at full speed.

You will notice that some edges will already be “finished”. There is no point in re-sewing those parts. Just sew around the unfinished edge with the edge of the material as close to the outside of the zigzag as possible. If there is a huge amount of fabric on the outside of the stitch when you’re done, just trim it off a bit. Otherwise, we move on to the next step.

Wash to Get Rid of Stray Threads

The first few washes will provide threads. Just trim them off when you take them out of the dryer. When the unraveling reaches the zigzag it will stop. Learn from my experience here: Do not wash your towels with other stuff for the first few washes. I had threads all through my microfiber diaper inserts and my son’s flannel pajama pants. I actually suggest using a small laundry bag located in the kitchen to put your used towels and washing them separately.

How many unpaper towels do I need?

It all depends on how frequently you do laundry, but you only need a few available at any given time. A set of 10-12 is a great starting point to see if that works for you. Obviously, you will need to scale up if you have a large family.

As far as durability goes, the ones I made lasted about 2 years of many many rounds through the washing machine. By using white fabric, I was able to bleach them outdoors using the sun instead of using chemical bleach, which really helps with their longevity.

How to Use Unpaper Towels

You can use your new towels in the same way you would use regular paper towels. We use them as napkins at meals, to clean off counters, lint-free cleaning of electronics, dry our hands after washing, do daily household chores, and everything else you would do with paper towels! The only thing we don’t use our unpaper towels for is for draining grease from food.

How to Wash Your Unpaper Towels

  1. Machine-wash on medium or low heat on the delicate cycle.
  2. Try to avoid using fabric softeners to maintain maximum absorbency. Use vinegar instead.
  3. Air dry or machine dry on low heat and gentle setting. 

If you’re going to line dry your towels, check out my tips for line drying like a ninja (and yes, you can dry them on the clothesline in the winter too).

Here are some small laundry bags that are perfect for hanging in the kitchen to keep your dirty unpaper towels in.

Putting Your Towels on an Empty Paper Towel Roll

I keep my unpaper towels in baskets around the house, but some people have figured out how to load empty paper towel rolls with them. I, personally, don’t have the patience to do that, but it is a cute idea. Simply roll your first towel around the cardboard roll, slide it up to the start of the next towel, and repeat. Once on the cardboard roll, you can keep them in a standard paper towel holder.

So are you ready to switch to unpaper towels? What are some other ways you’ve cut down on waste in your home?

A pinterest-friendly graphic promoting my unpaper towel sewing tutorial.

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  1. The only thing we use paper towels for is to line the plate to place bacon on after cooking. Would you use these this way? If not, how do you ‘unpaper’ this process?

    1. Jessica Lane says:

      Yeah, we have a roll stashed under the sink just for that occasion. I’m not sure there’s any unpaper way to enjoy bacon. I guess it’s a sacrifice that just has to be made 🙂

      1. I SAVE BROWN PAPER GROCERY BAGS from the market to drain off bacon and fried chicken. Works great and can then be used as fireplace starters or thrown out.

        1. You idiots talking about sewing un paper towels to reduce carbon footprint and waste in one breath and cooking and eating bacon in the next. You stupid mellinials make my day!

          1. Jessica Lane says:

            Wow, thanks so much Merci for being such a rainbow on a cloudy day!

          2. Barefootladyinpa says:

            I’m a 53 yo women, and let me say ,your name calling is extremely juvenile! In my house we eat meat, some we raise ourselves, some we buy. But we also try and do our part , to reduce our carbon footprint. Even the little things we can do, make a big impact. If you don’t want to eat bacon, fine ,that’s your choice. Hopefully, no one here will bash you for it. But, please don’t bash others for their choices, either!

      2. If you use Dawn and hand wash real quick before it hits the laundry basket?…I have done it many times in a pinch, cause not having bacon, well….lol, that’s not optional.

  2. I like this idea very much. While my contractor was using his box of white rags, I thought, what could I use them for…I think I’ve found the answer! They can be washed in hot water and bleach and they’ll be just like new. Thanks Jessica for keeping us green!

    1. Jessica Lane says:

      You are so welcome 🙂

  3. Pam from Louisville says:

    Great idea. We are trying to reduce our waste and this idea is perfect.

  4. I also tried this but dyed mine pink n purple which was a mistake because now I don’t want them stained up. Lol. So I’m going to buy some more white ones n do it your way ?

  5. Just read your copyright guidelines . can i share this pist on my facebook?

    1. Jessica Lane says:

      Absolutely! We love when people want to share. Just please don’t copy and paste the tutorial.

  6. Takes a lot less time to just do a narrow hem than to do a short zig zag! You don’t have to iron or anything, just turn under twice and stitch. And no worries about raveling ever.

  7. I only use paper towels to wipe up cooking grease and spilled oil and then put them in the trash instead of washing all that grease into my drains. Do you use these for wiping up grease and oil? If so, how do you launder greasy and oily fabric?

    1. Jessica Lane says:

      We have a stash of unpaper towels and other rags that are destined for retirement. We use those for especially messy work like wiping up grease and oil.

    2. Dawn in the sink will desolve it all away

  8. These towels have long been used by my grandmothers in their homes as dish towels. My grandmothers always embroidered sets of these. A set consists of 7 towels. I also embroider these towels and use them in my home. I also make them and usually have a finished set or two on hand to give as gifts for weddings, wedding showers, etc. We have sets of these at my church that different grandmothers made: they embroidered their names into the towels. I think it is a wonderful, tangible connection to our forefathers and mothers.

  9. Janet Westrup says:

    I found that homespun fabric (that comes in a variety of plaids) is much better for toweling and wears like iron. Homespun lasts far longer than thin floursack fabric and is so pretty.
    A 1 1/4 yd. Cut along the fold will make a very generous tea towel.
    I haven’t tried it, but a single yd. of homespun cut and sewn as you suggest should equal about the same amount to small towels.

    1. Jessica Lane says:

      I tried using pretty fabric and my family was afraid of getting them dirty. Trust me, I’d prefer pretty 🙂

  10. Elaine Orazem says:

    You can also make your storage/washing bag out of the same toweling. Maybe just sew it a bit more carefully. Or sew two woven dish cloths together and add a shoelace at the top to gather it. We made these in girl scouts years ago for “ditty bags”

  11. I have been sewing for a very long time and they way you describe to sew these will work great. However the picture you are using (The artsy hanging towels) are surged. I have a surger and use it often and there is no way to get that edge unless you use a surger or you buy them that way so I feel like that is a bit misleading to people coming here expecting that finish with your instructions.

    1. Jessica Lane says:

      Sorry for the confusion about the serging (I was hoping maybe no one would notice LOL). My unpaper towels are no longer photo-pretty. Hopefully when I get a new batch made up, I can take photos of my own.

  12. Just Plain Marie says:

    I’m curious, because I keep seeing tutorials for things like this. In the US, can you not buy dish cloths and tea towels? Dish cloths are small squares of cloth intended for washing dishes, and tea towels are larger rectangles of absorbent cloth intended for drying dishes (or for lining a tea tray, covering a tea pot, covering warm bread, stuff like that). They come in a variety of colours, patterns, thicknesses, etc. I can pop into Giant Tiger or any department store and get a pack for four for $1-2.

    1. Jessica Lane says:

      We do have your standard issue dish cloths and kitchen towels, but people are hesitant to use them as napkins or to wipe up spills with them. We are convenience nation and we’ve been programmed to use disposable paper products for these uses. Unpaper towels are an easier transition for most people as they aren’t too fancy and they are the right size for day-to-day uses.

  13. Are these *un* paper towels good at soaking up liquid as the paper ones are? Researching…..

    Matthew 6;33

    1. Jessica Lane says:

      It totally depends on how you wash them. If you use a petroleum based detergent and or fabric softener, they tend to be less absorbent and can even repel.

  14. 75 years ago, Mother used the floursacks for dish towels and also on top of newspapers to drain fried foods, we didn’t even know what a paper towel was…. I still have flour sack towels in the kitchen, wouldn’t be without them….

    1. I am a young 80…!!!!And I use any cotton anything to dry my dishes etc. when those get worn, I wash and shine the car. spills, whatever…Only when company comes do I use the regular dish towels. Have some paper towels for really messy spils, grease etc. Just pink sheared more {tea towels} dish towels this morning from old flannel pjs…Blue plaid to match my kitchen decor…Try it and you will love it….

  15. Love this tutorial. How to keep the towels stain free? My kitchen linens never look pretty for long. Using products such as Shout stain treatment spray seems to undermine saving money on reusable towels.
    I find myself using paper when chocolate, spaghetti etc are involved.

    1. Jessica Lane says:

      This is where I love the power of sun. Even hanging them in a sunny window bleaches them right out and doesn’t weaken them like stain removers do.

      1. I use dark colored fabric for washable non paper towels. Stains don’t show up as much on dark colors and there’s no need to bleach. If you want to use bleach on your towels, use white fabric to make them.

  16. Anna Gibson says:

    I actually have a pack of those towels. May have to give it a try, although I don’t use paper towels, I use the lysol set wipes. I grew up with them being called ‘Tea Towels”. Not sure why they were called that, LOL. Mom had them and like yourself, cut them into manageable sizes and called them tea towels (T towels? LOL, not sure of the spelling). I had forgotten about it until I was perusing your site. she would use iron-on stencils and embroidery them so they were nice and pretty. She even made a table cloth & table runners using that cloth. I even have a picture of my sister in an embroidered dress using that cloth. I had bought my pack to do the same thing and never got around to it. After i finish m million and one WIP (works in progress) for crocheting…I may have to get around to embroidering those towels. LOL.

    1. Jessica Lane says:

      I totally understand the list of unfinished projects 🙂 That’s what I love about these. They work up so quickly that you’re done before you have a chance to get bored or sidetracked.

    2. If you have these specific ones, they are a bit thin and frail to embroidery on. I started embroider lately (as well as crochet) and found that out. I’ve done one and started another one, but changed my mind on it.. So I love the idea here of making them unpaper towels! If you want to make nice kitchen towels, the muslin in fabric shops are good. I’ve been using that. Although the other comment suggested using muslin instead of these towels, but since these are so inexpensive and cheaper, this would work for me to clean up messes with (less guilt). I think the older ones were better quality.

  17. kimberly bee says:

    Love this idea! The more kids we have, the more dependant I have become on disposable products. It’s shameful, really. I’ve been feeling convicted to start weaning myself and this would be a good start. Thanks for sharing :).

    1. Jessica Lane says:

      I completely get it! Often I realize it’s lunchtime and I forgot to bake bread for sandwiches. I totally beat myself up for buying a loaf, which is just silly. You do what you can do.

  18. This is a great idea, brilliant actually. I love and keep a stack those white towels handy all the time. They’re a bargain for the price, and you’ve taken that to a new level. Way to go.
    Have a great day!

  19. This looks great but I wonder if the cost of washing them (power,water,detergent) would actually make it turn out much cheaper?

    1. Jessica Lane says:

      That certainly is something to take into consideration. To put things in perspective, I have 2 dozen unpaper towels that cycle through with our regular laundry. Even if I washed all of them at once, they’d probably only will 1/5 of the washer capacity. They aren’t very large. I don’t believe they made an difference in the amount of regular laundry I can put in the washer. Often I will line dry them, which lowers the cost as well.

    2. it’s much cheaper to have things that you reuse rather than throw away when it comes to paper goods. Also, much, much greener. I use cloth napkins as well.

    3. 5 gallon bucket and clean, new plunger. Less water, no electricity, and an upper body workout 🙂

  20. Lisa Naron says:

    This is a great idea! We use a lot of paper towels and never really think about how much they cost, or the waste involved. Thanks Jessica!

    1. Jessica Lane says:

      You are so welcome!

  21. OH my. I treasured my flour sacks until they became too expensive. Now I go to the fabric store and buy unbleached muslin by the yard. Last trip I bought 10 yards of white for making holiday tablecloths but I think I will use some for paperless towels.

  22. I love my flour sack towels, but never would have thought about buying more to replace paper towels. I have one that has some holes along the edge to experiment with. Do you have 2 lines of stitching? One along the edge & another about an inch in? It looks that way in the picture. Maybe, I’m looking at it wrong.

    1. Nope, just one very casually placed zig-zag stitch along the raw edge. After a couple of washings, the raveling will stop at the zig-zag stitch and create a nice, solid edge.

      1. Hi! I agree with her, it looks like there are 2 stitches on 1 towel. Are you showing the 2 different stitches in each photo?

        1. Jessica Lane says:

          Sorry for any confusion. I really need to make a new set so I can get better photos. It’s a simple zig zag stitch on the raw edges only. I had tried a three-step zig zag to see if it held up better, but it didn’t seem to make a difference.

          1. I am making them now its going great!

          2. Jessica Lane says:

            That makes me so happy to hear!

        2. It looks like that because the zigzag stitch is so far in…like 1/2 inch.