In praise of the rag bag.

It takes me forever to use up a roll of paper towels. I wish I’d written the date inside the cardboard tube of the roll currently in my kitchen. It’s been there at least a couple of years. Even though I’ve been traveling a lot, that’s still a long time for one roll to have been operating – and to be only about 50% reduced.

It’s not that I’m particularly neat. It’s that I see no reason to use paper towels when I have plenty of rags.

Sure, paper towels are convenient. But they’re expensive, too. Why use and toss wads of paper when I can use a piece of cloth, launder it and use it again? And if you’re just draining salad greens or wiping up spilled water, you don’t even need to wash the cloth – just hang it up to dry.

Call that eco-friendly if you like. I prefer to think of it as common sense.


Maybe you do, too. But you’d be surprised how many folks don’t wash mirrors with vinegar and water and squares cut from old flannel sheets. Or who drain the romaine on paper towels rather than worn-out dish towels. Or who actually buy sacks of “shop rags.”

I have a theory: The reason so many clothes end up in thrift stores is that not enough people have rag bags.


Old diapers, trashed T-shirts

My cleaning-cloth collection includes sheet scraps, old washcloths, bits of terrycloth towels, and pieces of worn-to-death blouses, T-shirts and flannel pajamas.

The rags are battle-ready when I need to wipe up spills, wash my stovetop with vinegar and water, or do a bit of freelance cleaning in the apartment building that I formerly managed. (They still hire me for odd jobs here and there.)

For quite a while my cleaning rags of choice were old cloth diapers. I’d bought dozens of the things, after all. (Believe it or not, most were “slightly irregular” and therefore cost only $2.99 per dozen. I couldn’t make that up.) I was still using the last stubborn survivors when my baby girl went off to college.

Don’t use cloth diapers? I bet you have at least one of the following:

  • Old sheets: Flannel ones in particular are soft and absorbent.
  • Trashed T-shirts: But only the ones too holey even to wear while gardening or painting. I’ve heard of parents who cut soft, worn T-shirts into small squares to make their own baby wipes. Most such “recipes” use paper towels. If you’ve got enough T-shirts, go for it. (But don’t flush them! In fact, I wouldn’t flush paper towels, either.)
  • Shirts or blouses: Long-sleeved cotton or flannel shirts worn out at the elbows, or whose cuffs are irreparably frayed, can be cut up and bagged. Save their buttons for future repair jobs, though. (A former co-worker whose cuffs were shredded cut the sleeves off at the bicep and hemmed them to create a “new” short-sleeved shirt. Wow.)
  • Worn-out bath towels: Their job is to be absorbent so these are great for cleaning, or for draining freshly washed grapes.
  • Old pajamas: We all know how cozy a pair of often-washed flannel PJs can feel. But when they’re too threadbare to keep out the draft, scissor ’em up.

What if you’re more of a rayon-and-silk kind of person? Or you don’t wear T-shirts? Or you don’t expect your sheets to wear out for years? Round up some rags at:

  • Thrift stores. I bought a big bag of towels and washcloths for $3.99 at a half-price sale at Value Village when I moved to Seattle.
  • Rummage and yard sales. These are where marathon T-shirts go to die. I’ve seen bath towels for as little as a quarter each. I bought a full-sized sheet set for $2; still using it, but eventually it will end up in the rag bag.
  • The “free” box at yard sales. I’ve seen old towels, washcloths and T-shirts there.

Incidentally, my rag bag is actually a white plastic bucket in the entry closet. But “rag bucket” isn’t nearly as much fun to say.


Green twice over

I doubt I’ll ever stop using paper towels entirely. They’re great for jobs such as cooling off bacon. But to me it seems wasteful to use a paper towel every time I spill something.

I also don’t want to use one every time I eat something. A guy I know calls paper towels “bachelor plates.” I’ve been in homes where paper towels were used instead of napkins. That use-and-toss habit just makes me wince. I’ll stick with a regular plate and one of the cloth napkins that were six for a quarter at a rummage sale.

Not only am I saving money by not buying paper towels and paper napkins, I’m being green twice over: By not adding more than my share of paper to the landfill, and by giving worn-out fabric one more use before discarding it.

Generally that means really worn-out. The T-shirt I’m wearing right now is a good example. I know how old it is because it bears the legend, “1998: 75 And Still Alive! The Historic Fairview Inn, Talkeetna, Alaska.”

It’s developed holes that cannot be repaired.But at going on 14 years of age, this shirt doesn’t owe me a thing. Time to give it a decent burial — or, in a manner of speaking, a new life. After its next washing, into the rag bag it will go.

And now I know what souvenir I want to bring back from Talkeetna when I attend the bachelor auction later this year. Hint: It’s not a bachelor.

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  1. Holly Samlan

    I do the same. I KNOW my open roll of paper towels is quite old. I bought it when CVS had their house brand ones on special AND the magic red machine giving out coupons to make them FREE-think it was >a year ago. I just use, dry & reuse paper towels for storing produce like lettuce, broccoli, celery, zuchinni, mushrooms……..

    I never had old diapers-I’m the prob the first generation of disposable users. However, I do/did have TONS of old towels, white undershirts and I used to get surgical sponges FREE at my old job (these also substitute for cheesecloth). I kept friends & family completly supplied.

  2. Sherry H

    I use rags for general cleaning, but I do go through paper towels for cleaning up cat barf and grease (like on the broiler pan), where I want something I can throw away rather than work the grease into the laundry. I guess I should collect some ‘disposable’ rags just for that – I do have some t-shirts that are ready to retire.

    I have tried cloth (linen) napkins in the past and to me they’re not very comfortable or absorbent. Thrift store washcloths, on the other hand, might be just the thing. Thanks for the idea!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Sherry H: I expect linen wouldn’t be comfortable. The napkins I got are, I think, 100% cotton — very soft.
      Re cat barf/hairballs: Someone once suggested using several pages torn out of the phone book. It’s one way to use up those #!@$# unasked-for Yellow Pages that keep showing up. Keep one in the garage to soak up oil or other drips from the car, too.
      Definitely for some things you might want paper towels. Just not for all things.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  3. ImJUniperNow

    Hmm. According to my friends and co-workers, I am already wearing rags (thriftshop clothes)!

    Please add socks to the list – after it’s mate has been sucked up into the lost sock abyss, the remaining one is only too willing to sacrifice itself.

    And last, may I get on a soapbox about paper towels in the toilet? People – only toilet paper should go in there. It’s specially designed to break down. Paper towels are made to stay together. You may think you’ve flushed it, but it’s probably in that little crooked part, just waiting to catch other stuff and clog the pipe. Think of it as your arteries after you eat that triple decker deluxe burger!!

    Thank you, Donna, for your kind indulgence.

  4. I have two roommates/renters that are generation younger than me. When one of them asked to borrow some cleaning supplies a few weeks ago I gave him a rag to use, too. He asked if he should just throw it out afterwards; obviously he had never used a rag for cleaning!

    I do still use paper towels, though. And I go through an awful lot of facial tissue every week. Handkerchiefs are just not something I want to use for blowing my nose.

  5. Wonderful Post! I’m with you, I just cut up some new ones (from Hubby’s old t-shirts) this weekend. The old flannel sheets and shirts are wonderful for dusting.

  6. Don’t forget the lowly sock as an awesome rag! I’d tell you to clean out the wheel wells of your tires but………………
    I do like to stick an old sock on the end of a broom and get the crud out of the hard to reach corners.
    Great article!!!

  7. I love my son’s old cloth diapers. They are a dream and have a permanent spot in my kitchen cupboards. My husband loves using paper towels though but I know I need to just let him have his kleenex and paper towels as a cost of a happy marriage.

    I do also feel they are required for greasy things. (Like cooking bacon in the microwave) or cleaning the inside of your stove or washing mirrors and windows. I guess I’m still an addict, but I do use rags all the time as well. I clean the counter a lot more than I do wash windows, so I still think I make out in the deal.

  8. Greast post. I used to do better but no longer wear flannel nightgowns. Gosh, those were wonderful in their second life, so many uses.

    Also, my daughter in law is a social worker, so all old t-shirts go to her for hospital and nursing home patients to wear, if needed.

    Towels go to the animal shelter. But still, there are ways to find cloth to use.

  9. We have a rag cupboard. Growing up it was a rag drawer. Good stuff, rags.

  10. jestjack

    Alas …we’re on the last batch of cloth diapers from my oldest daughter….she’ll soon be 30. They were certainly a wise investment!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Jestjack: Well, maybe you’ll get grandkids who are cloth-diapered and you can swipe some of them once the babies are toilet-trained.

  11. Mollymouser

    I just want to mention that I’ve been to Talkeetna 🙂

    • Donna Freedman

      @Mollymouser: You should come up with us to the auction this winter. Talkeetna will never know what hit it. :-0

  12. Thanks for the tips! This post has inspired me to use some of my old T-shirts that also have holes in them, rather than paper towels, especially since those paper towels aren’t cheap. I held on to the shirts to wear at home since I only buy new clothes when it’s absolutely necessary. I guess I’ll have to buy new shirts though; I suppose when I can’t wear them in public anymore it’s time to buy new ones. 🙂

    • Donna Freedman

      @Neurotic Workaholic: I’m with you on that one. When a shirt embarrasses even me, then it’s time to give it a decent burial. 🙁
      Remember: Unless it’s a greasy job, like that broiler pan, these cloths can be washed and re-used. They should hold up for quite a while. They ain’t pretty but they get the job done.

  13. I try to be as green as I can on almost everything, while I have a spouse that does just the opposite. The more trash the better. Whether it’s paper towels for plates, printing tons off the computer and even in color. He can’t even through the junk mail in the recycly bin. It drives me nuts! I am working on letting go for my sake however.

  14. “through” should be “throw”. Sorry. I need to slow down.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Barb: Don’t you mean you need to “slough” down? 😉

  15. We have a big rag bag–besides cloth diapers, with two boys I have an endless supply of blown out socks and holey underwear. I have my first grader put socks on his hands and help dust.

  16. The one downside to having multiple roommates is that mine won’t agree to use a rag for most cleaning jobs. so we go through a ridiculous number of paper towels.

  17. Good idea for using old tees as rags. I usually just donate old clothes to Goodwill and buy kitchen towels at the store. I still use paper towels, like you said, it’s good for draining the fat from bacon. But, sometimes it’s just easier to use a paper towel instead of waiting to wash dirty rags.

  18. Jersey Babs

    Love the reminder to put a sock on the mop handle for hard to reach places! I’d forgotten that tip. Have always used old tees for cleaning, polishing and dusting. They can also be cut up to make those loopy potholders and rag rugs. I always keep an old towel in the trunk of the car. I have to lean against the fender when trying to reach waaaay back into the far reaches of the trunk. Got tired of ending up wet and/or dirty. Draping the towel over the fender is quick and easy.
    At least you can replace your tee from the Fairview! Just as I noticed how holey my old Moose Dropping tee was getting, they cancelled the event. 🙁 On a frugal note – back when I got it, early 2000s, I was house/dog sitting and didn’t have a lot of spare cash. Then heard the request for volunteers on the radio. Yippee, a few hours parking cars and I had me my Tee. 🙂

    • Donna Freedman

      @Jersey Babs: Another Jersey girl? Me too.
      It doesn’t hurt to keep not just an extra towel but an entire change of clothes in the trunk, just in case. It’s a good place for old sweatpants, socks, T-shirt and sweatshirt to go to die. If something happened and you needed to change clothes, there they would be.
      When I lived in Anchorage I used to carry an extra scarf, hat and mittens in a gallon Ziploc bag in the trunk. They were supposed to be for emergencies. What happened more often is that I would meet someone on the street without one (or more) of those items and I would say I worried they’d be cold, would they please take these from me? Never had anyone turn me down. Brrr.

  19. Great strategy!

    Paper towels are far from the perfect medium to drain your lettuce, sustainable or not. After washing lettuce, I like to let it drain in the dish drainer (never had much patience with those spinner gadgets, though my son swears by them). Then lay the lettuce out on a clean cotton flour-sack type towel and gently roll up the towel and lettuce. Place the roll in a saved, clean plastic grocery bag and keep in the fridge. When you wrap lettuce in cotton toweling, it will last forever. Well…ten days or two weeks, anyway.

    I know: plastic grocery bags! I ask for them at the checkout because they’re perfect doggie-walk cleanup tools. The only time they get thrown out is when they’ve been used for that task. Otherwise, I use them instead of expensive Ziplocs.

  20. I remember reading in a “How to clean the house” book years ago that the best cloth for cleaning is towel material. I used to buy those cheap packets of 12 face cloths from Walmart for cleaning. However after my husband took up the hobby of beach metal detecting, I have an endless supply of abandoned hotel towels from the beach. the good ones I use and the old worn ones I cut up for cleaning cloths.


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