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. Brittney Moreno says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I heartily laughed when you repeatedly said, “no one will notice” ?? as the first thing that popped into my mind was my mother in law. She is a sewing and quilting goddess… who also has extreme OCD. I pictured making a wonky sack paper towel and making sure it was at her place setting for dinner one night. Just so I could gauge her reaction. She loves me to death but ?

    Thank you for the laugh and thank you for the tutorial!

  2. Carol Toyama says:

    I see a lot of these tutorials telling how to use a rotary cutter or pinking shears. If you use flour sack cotton, or muslin, you can just tear it. Make a agility cut with your scissors and rip. You get a straighter line. Also, after a few washes they stop raveling.

  3. I bought an old stained linen tablecloth at a rummage sale for a quarter and made dish towels out of it . Next on I find will be made into these .

    1. I cut old bath towels down to cleaning rags and zigzag the edges. I go through my thread and use up the partial spools and bobbins to thin the herd. They are cleaning rags, they don’t need to be pretty or match anything. They also clean better than paper towels. I only buy festive holiday paper towels to decorate the kitchen. At the end of the holiday, the paper towel roll goes into the same cupboard as festive paper ware.

      For dryer sheets, I pour a little fabric softener on bright colored fleece. Dryer sheets are also a waste of money. My sister did get me turned onto those dryer balls, so I’ll probably start pouring the fabric softener on them.

  4. Not sure if anyone said this but you could probably cut the edges with pinking shears to prevent fraying and not even have to hem them. Similarly I made cotton flannel handkerchiefs to replace tissues. Hubby tears up old undershirts for rags.

  5. Nadya Jones says:

    What a great solution in lessening carbon footprint. I’ve recycled old torn clothes into a floor rug. Colorful and cheap. Do you have any DIY outdoor decorating ideas?

    1. I would love to see the rug you made/re-purposed. Can you share a picture of it? Thanks you

    1. If everyone did this, we would use tons of water to wash them. So what’s better for the environment, I wonder?

      1. This is a great question! One would think that the water use would outweigh the benefit of the reduced waste, but this logic actually fails to take into consideration the amount of water and electricity used to make disposable paper towel products. Hope this helps 🙂

      2. The amount of energy, water, wood, etc in making paper towels far outweigh the water used in cleaning, particularly when you need to wash clothing etc anyway. The paper industry is one of the top polluting industries that exist and uses huge amounts of water. The environmental, and habitat destruction that results from logging is another issue. Also, don’t forget about the production of plastics for packaging and the resulting waste that doesn’t breakdown for millennium. There is the option of using gray water, or rain water for washing them if water use is a concern.

      3. I just wash my unpaper towels with the regular laundry. No extra water needed.

  6. Anytime I make “rags” I edge stitch or zigzag in red thread so that my family (husband) knows the difference for hands/dishes and spills.

    1. Great tip!! Thank you!

      1. Ha, ha?. My husband ignores my instructions for kitchen items. The red stitching would have to be flashing neon and singing for him to pay attention to it and then he probably wouldn’t remember what this “reminder” even means. But for considerate husbands it is a great idea

  7. I made gazillions of unpaper towels for Christmas presents this year.
    I used flannelette and serged the edges eyeballing rounded corners.using a 3 thread narrow or rolled hem…did both on different runs.
    When they were finished I cut a fabric roll [cardboard tube] to length and rolled the towels on there…..about 18 per roll.
    The advantage of flannelette is that it sticks to itself so no need for domes and most people have a stand for paper towels that the non paper ones can move in on.
    I wash them and just roll them back on.
    I probably use them more than I did the paper ones…reaching for one to dry hands or hold a hot plate etc.
    Someone asked about use in the microwave. I made thicker towels–one side flannelette and the other Hemp french terry and use them to sit plates on to heat then it is easy to lift them out. I use a plate or saucer on the top.

    1. I visit resale stores to pick up old napkins and tablecloths that I cut down to napkin size. Years ago I started making unpaper towels out of flannel. I throw them in with my normal wash load, they never make a significant change in the size of my load, so I don’t see any changes in my water consumption.

  8. Can these be used in a microwave? My favorite paper towel has been out of stock for weeks and I would love to go reuseable instead. I have bath towel rags for most cleaning but paper towels are something I haven’t been able to replace. Thanks!!

  9. I love this! I got to “no one’s ever going to see your sewing job so put the pedal to the metal” and I was hooked! I can sew, but that was just too funny! I’ve pinned this on my sustainable living board as I’m an organic gardening blogger and it fits so nicely with some things I talk about as well.

  10. I take t-shirts that my kids have outgrown or stained and cut them for rags/paperless towels. No cost for me and no sewing. I keep them in a crocheted holder made for plastic grocery bags (which we don’t use) so my kids can grab them when needed.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Unpaper towels are just TOWELS! We have had them in our kitchens for years as well as our parent and grandparents and great grandparents before them. The solution to not using paper towels is to just stop using them and use the towels you already have in your kitchen.

    1. I think using your dish towels to mop up nasty messes is problematic. Anyone who has had a stomach bug run through the whole family knows rags are necessary, but you shouldn’t use your dishcloths and towels. Even my children know not to use our dishcloths to wipe up the floor (or pet messes, etc.). Gross…

      1. That’s the beauty of Clorox. It helps sterilize viruses and bacteria. I use it sparingly, mostly with towels and our Neto pots (hand washed). Also, the hot water cycle & high temp drying are important for the sterilization process. I used to be a health inspector and have taken microbiology, some bugs are good so killing everything is actually not a good thing. But killing things that can hurt you is important.

        1. if you do not want to use Clorox, you can use hydrogen peroxide instead. it does the same and is a little cheaper.

    2. I agree. I use kitchen towels on everything except poop. I do use paper towels for the nasty stuff. If someone gets sniffles, use tissues or wash with hot water.

      1. Talking about savvy cleaning:
        For poop and other very dirty stuff to be cleaned up I use newspaper. If you find it too stiff, wet it a bit, it becomes as soft as tissue paper and throw away. If you are a perfectionist, finish up the cleaning with a used up napkin, that you can throw also.
        I use newspaper for pre-cleaning anything gooey or unattractive. It does not need water. Just make it wet. The last step of the cleaning is easy with whatever you have at hand.

  12. disque en aluminium says:

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  13. I buy a yard of flannel for $2.00 and do the same thing.

  14. Stephanie says:

    Could we just use pinking sheers instead of sewing them?

    1. I was wondering the same thing!

  15. Omg I love your no nonsense approach to sewing these! No need for Pinterest perfection, they’re rags that will be used to wipe up spills! ❤️

  16. In our house we buy bar rags. They are sold pretty much anywhere they sell towels, etc. they are incredibly cheap, usually white, and take years of using, bleaching, and drying. Also, check out the automotive sections of stores….they are sold there as cleaning and detailing rags. Same as the others, but have usually been about half the cost of bar rags. We have been using cloth napkins for years. Now on the lookout for washcloths in nice colors to use as napkins in our camper.

  17. Leanna Levine says:

    This is brilliant! I’ve just made a lot of unpaper towels following your tutorial. Thanks for the share.

    – Leanna

  18. Annemarie says:

    Thank you so much for this tutorial. I found the towels at Walmart and purchased 2 bags of 10 for only $16. I am using 5 of them for tea towels and the rest un-paper towels. What an awesome idea they work great!

  19. Just finished sewing up a batch, can’t wait to give them a try! After I sewed with a zigzag stitch, I also ran the pinking shears around with hopes of lessening the loose threads in the wash. Thanks for the tutorial!

    1. I did this about 3 years ago, in 2014, ad also used pinking shears and the zigzag to sew the edges. Both of my sons & DILs do this and so does my city daughter. We all keep paper napkins that any server leaves at our table when we eat out and don’t take any when we eat fast food (very rare occasion). All great ideas here!!!

  20. I’ve changed to unpaper towels and love them. Instead of sewing, I bought birdseye diapers and fold them in half a couple of times. Easy to use for everything.

  21. I use a decorative metal container that originally had popcorn in it, to hold my “Raggies” next to the sink.

  22. If you add little snaps on the towels you can snap them together and roll them up like paper towels! Save an old paper towel roll to use in the middle.

  23. Amber Lennox says:

    What do you use to hold your towels? My paper towel holder fits easily on the counter, but a basket of “un-paper towels? Wondering if you have a cute suggestion!

    1. Jessica Lane says:

      I wish I had a cute idea. We have a drawer in the pantry they are just folded up inside.

      1. Try using a tissue box cover. Just fold and stack them with an edge on the top. Or to save time folding try one of those sack bag holders. Just stuff them in and put them out the bottom when you need one.

        1. Great idea! I do this with grocery bags too.

        2. You can make your own bag holder really easily using a teatowel. some elastic and some soft webbing for the handle. Only a little bit of sewing and it’s really simple. You use the fact that the tea towel is already hemmed to save on the sewing you have to do! There are lots of patterns on the interweb and I can’t remember now which one I finally used. But here is one from Martha Stewart that gives you the general idea

      2. I have a set of old vintage tin canisters including a bread tin. They are in perfect condition and I keep my vintage calendar dish towels in there. We never buy paper towels. I am always on the look out for old towels at second hand stores. And I always have a full load of laundry just with them. Homemade laundry soap also.
        I also recycle old clothes into rugs . Hooked and the toothbrush rugs.

    2. SnowKnitty says:

      I fold and store my un-paper towels in a a dollar store basket that I hung on my back splash using a single Command-type self-adhesive hook. They are off the counter but easy to reach. I use a small plastic basket in my trash bin closet for the dirty ones. I try to avoid using them for floor cleaning and such. If they do get used for a floor spill, I just add them to my cleaning rags. I still buy paper towels on occasion but I only use them for craft and painting. To save even more than you save by skipping paper towels, buy a bidet toilet seat attachment. Before the toilet paper hoarding began, we were lucky enough to buy one. What an unbelievable savings in toilet paper consumption (and cost)! Thank you all for caring enough to make small changes that reduce our carbon footprint. Everyone says, “it’s all about the children”. But it’s people like you that live the words!

  24. As to the bacon issue…I put the bacon on a rack on top of a baking sheet and roast at 350 for about 15 minutes or so. This eliminates the need to drain the bacon and only a small amount of grease is left on the rack. I can then scrape the bacon fat into a jar for re use or into the trash. Easy, peasy!