29 January 2008

Cleaning with rags

Paula has asked me to do a post on rags, which, of course, I'm happy to do. This is her request:

"I would LOVE if you would do a post on rags. And a pattern for the adorable rag bag you made. What are rags (please don't laugh)? What do you use them for? How many do you need? Are they the same as kitchen towels (I use these as fabric "paper" towels)? Thanks for your blog. I am learning so much."

Cleaning with rags is the ultimate in fabric recycling. The older the fabric the better it is because it will be soft and very absorbent. I only recycle 100% cotton or linen fabric, again because it's so absorbent. Poly fabric and poly/cotton blends won't wipe spills as well and will never reach that soft fluffy stage cotton and linen have after many washes.

My definition of a rag is a piece of fabric that has been recycled to be used for cleaning or other household duties. I use rags for all my general house cleaning - both moist and dry, for polishing, wiping up spills and sometimes for draining fried foods. Please note: the rags used for cleaning and food prep are two different types and never cross over to do another tasks. I don't fry a lot of food - it will be the odd fried egg or potato pancakes. I use hemmed new 100% cotton instead of paper towels to drain these foods. They are used once, then washed. If there is a lot of fried food, as in the case of potato pancakes, I use three or four clean cloths drain the food. I stopped buying paper towels and napkins a while ago.

I believe the best kind of cleaning cloth is an old towel. When a towel has finished service as a towel, I cut it up into 25cm (10 inch) squares to use as rags. I am a postmodern woman and I like what I use to look like what it is. To me, a rag is a rag and should look like one. We've become used to neat edges and perfection in our store bought cleaning cloths. I usually don't worry about the edges of the terry cloths as they don't fray a lot when I cut them out with pinking shears. But if you're worried about fraying, or if you want to use the rags as dusting cloths, you could run a zigzag stitch around the border to keep the edges contained. You'll need to run the zigzag stitch around all your linen and cotton cloths to stop the fraying. You don't want to be picking up little pieces of cotton from your cloths as you dust. Generally the zigzag stitch is fine on the edges. I am aware though that there are some homemakers who like everything to be neat and tidy, so if you want neat edges, feel free to hem or edge your rags. There are no rules here, you just do what suits you.

I use these rags for my general cleaning. I have one (or more) cloth that is wet and used to clean the sink or bench (or whatever), and a number of dry cloths to dry when I'm finished cleaning. I never leave a surface wet. Drying, or in the case of metal or glass, polishing the surface after it's been cleaned with the wet cloth or scrubbing brush, will give you the best results when cleaning. So, for instance, to clean the kitchen sink, I would use one wet cloth and maybe two dry cloths.

Kitchen rags and general cleaning rags are washed, dried on the line and stored in my rag bag which hangs in the laundry. If one of my dogs is sick and has a little vomit (sorry) inside, I use a rag to wipe up and throw that rag out. That's the beauty of having a lot of rags, you can afford to throw out the odd one, and still have plenty for cleaning.

Cleaning cloths for the bathroom and toilet are never added to the rag bag; they are stored under the sink in the bathroom. I usually colour code my cleaning rags so I know not to use a bathroom cloth in the kitchen. I'm slowly knitting a number of black cloths for the bathroom and toilet. I only have two done so far, but when I have about six of them, I'll only use black cloths for bathroom and toilet cleaning.

I made a larger version of this bag. The measurements of the larger bag are in the photo below. You'll probably need a flap on the front instead of just an opening as the rags will make the bag gape open. Use your clothes hanger as a guide when cutting out the shape at the top. The rest is just straight sides.

Recycling old clothing and towels for cleaning is a really old fashioned thing that I'm sure your grandmothers, and the great grandmas who presented them, all did. Buying cloths specially for cleaning is one of those things we've been duped into. I hope you try this method and stick with it if it works for you. It will save you money, you'll use the products you do buy to their full extent and reduce landfill in the process.

This is just an update on yesterday's post. Tricia saw the bit about the lace doily. She said it was our mother's but it's not hand made. They were mass produced in the 1930s and 40s.


  1. Thanks for that Rhonda, and most of all glad to hear that Kerry is fine, no long trem damage. This post reminds me of a little story....one of my sister's was in her car, with her partner driving, the window need de-misting, and he asked her where the cleaning pad was.....down there, she says, he picks it up, starts cleaning...with her old knickers!! So anything can be recycled !!! Sorry, couldn't resist sharing that.Diana

  2. I have to tell you, I used the last of my paper towels. Using dishcloths and kitchen towels, I adusted to quite well.

    Its going to take me a bit more time, to feel fully comfortable, using flour sack towels to clean.
    I dont know why.

  3. Hi Rhonda,
    Funnily enough yesterday as I was sorting through some old clothes, I thought of you.I found some that were not suitable for the charity bin but would be good for the "rag bag". In only a few minutes I had turned soemthing I would normally just toss into the rubbish bin into a useful item.
    I intend not to buy any more paper towel and just use these instead for cleaning up :)

  4. What type of yarn do you use to knit the dish rags?

    thank you,

  5. Old cloth nappies (diapers) get the most use as rags in our home. With my youngest turning 6 and being out of nappies for over 4 years, I am almost out of my supply. I think I will use older towels next.
    Great post.

  6. I have been making diaper wipes out of old flannel. I seem to go through all 140 in a week!

  7. Rhonda, we have always had a rag bag in our home. Where else can a man find the right thing to wipe up the sump oil?? We recycle all cotton clothing in ours - old flannel pj's are wonderful polishing cloths. I recall with horror my mum standing there one day when I had a friend over, cleaning something up with a pair of old underpants. When a singlet or something small ends it's useful life, I rip it down the front so it no longer gets put back in the cupboard. Lisa x

  8. My husband turns all his old tops into rags and some other pieces of clothing. Corduroy is almost better as a cloth than clothing we've found :)

  9. Hi Rhonda JEan,
    Trying to catch up on reading some good postings. You have another great post here.Thanks again for all the time you put into helping so many.:o)

  10. Another useful post! I really need to organize our closets and get a good stash of rags for cleaning, and all the other things we usually use paper towels for. I really enjoy your blog and have learned so much! You're featured on my latest blogroll...sorry it didnt happen sooner :)

  11. I used to have a diaper holder that looked very much like your rag bag - the whole thing was longer so it could hold 24 prefolds and the opening a bit bigger too, but overall it was the same concept. I would keep my extra pins pinned to it too so I would never be out.

  12. I use the same rage for all my cleaning - kitchen or bathroom. They are the only thing that I wash with HOT water and I feel pretty confident there aren't any germies lurking after that and a good dry in the sun or the dryer. They are all washed together anyway so if I was concerned about contamination I would have to keep them separate in the washing as well.

    I might consider keeping them separate if I could get them color-coded but out rag pile really is just all old towels and clothes so there would be no way to tell what is what.

  13. wow - great idea on the bag - we just have our rags in a plastic bag on a nail in the linen closet - the rag bag would not only use up some of my stash, but it will make it easier to store the rags!

    I'm impressed that you "finish" your rags. I just cut up old sheets, shirts, and even some skivvies! (I just assumed that everyone did this, and am so amazed to learn that people don't - I guess it's all about how you are raised, huh?)

  14. Thanks Rhonda - that was really interesting to hear how you (and your commenters) use rags. I too stopped buying kitchen towels (the paper ones) and kitchen cloths a long time ago. I still have quite a few of my children's nappies (my children are 21 and 19 now!) which have given many years of sterling service. I cut up tea towels when they get thin - they are perfect for cleaning windows, and I also use old vests and cotton t-shirts as they don't fray around the edges. I keep my rags in a fabric tube that was previously a trouser leg - a bit of elastic top and bottom and an old shoe lace to hang it up. It's not as pretty as your rag bag but does the job!

  15. Getting rid of paper towels has been a difficult step for me, but I am determined to try harder this year. I have slowly been cutting more and more rags from old towels, etc. I thought I HAD to have paper towels for draining fried foods, but will now try using cotton as you do.
    Thanks for more tips and encouragement,

  16. I always use rags there so handy and cheap.I had a pair of red plaid flannel pj bottoms that were at the end of their life as pants.So I cut it up and stored the now rags under the bathroom sink,that way I know which rags are for the bathroom.

  17. 3 babies later and we seem to have oodles of muslin wraps that I am going to cut up and use for rags. The hanging nappy stacker also will get a new life as my rag storer. Thanks so much for the tips.


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