The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

How to make and use rags

Holey shirtHalf of you are going to find this post ludicrously basic, but I suspect the other half of you never learned the facts of life from your mother.  Paper towels seem to be the last bastion of consumer society found in many homesteaders' households, but the truth is that you already have a free alternative --- rags.

How to make rags
The first step in making rags is wearing your clothes into the ground.  After a certain point, there's no purpose in mending a piece of clothing --- the fabric has degraded so much that it will merely rip along your mended seam.  Or maybe your t-shirt now has half a dozen holes that seem to get bigger every day.  Put it in the rag bag.

Cutting up ragsOnce a year or so, I get around to pulling out the rag bag and taking a look.  First, I sort my old clothes into three piles --- 100% cotton, partially synthetic, and fully synthetic or bulky.  The last category doesn't have much use on our homestead, so we tend to relegate it to winter pet bedding, but all of the others will be used.  We turn 100% cotton clothes into fodder for my bees' smoker, and everything else becomes rags.  Underwear and t-shirts make the best smoker fodder and rags, and luckily they're the pieces of clothing that wear out the quickest.

Making rags is simple.  Just cut through any turned-under edges, then riiiiiiiip.  (Rag production is also a great way to improve your mood if you're down in the dumps --- so satisfying.)  It's best to tear off and discard underwear waistbands and t-shirt collars, but otherwise there are no rules.  Just be sure to end up with rags roughly eight inches by eight inches.

Burning rags in a smokerHow to use rags
Now, how do you use rags?  The first line of defense in our household is the wash cloth.  These storebought items (costing perhaps a quarter apiece at the dollar store) will last years as long as you use them for gentle cleaning like doing dishes and wiping down counters.  I only pull out rags when I'm going to be working in more goopy or disgusting situations, like wiping oil off a machine or cleaning up fecal matter.

RagsWhat do you do with a dirty rag?  If it's not too filthy, rinse it out in the sink, then drape it over the side of the laundry basket to dry.  Rags can then be washed with your regular laundry.  On the other hand, we reserve the right to throw rags away if they're too awful --- that's why we use them for the more disgusting tasks that would retire a wash cloth.

We tend to go through rags at just about exactly the same rate we go through clothes.  You're probably discarding your clothing too soon and buying too much of it if you're overrun with rags.

For those of you who were raised using rags, I'm curious to hear what you'd add to my rag tutorial.  Any helpful tips for the uninitiated?  Any uses for those bulky blue jeans and fleece shirts?

Our homemade chicken waterer prevents heat exhaustion during the hottest summer in recorded history.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Our rags fall into three categories: socks, junk clothes, and big rags. I use the junk clothes much as you suggest.... though I'll never break husband of his paper towel addiction.

Socks make great dog / cat toys, polish applicators, and small grease wipes.

The big stuff... old sheets, ruined table cloths... is used as catches and plant covers. In late spring I cover the grass under our cherry tree, climb up, and shake like mad to get the fruit to fall from where we can't reach it. Then I just gather it up from the ground. Big stuff also makes a good kennel cover if the dog will leave it there.

Comment by April Thu Aug 12 09:31:31 2010
Are you like Mom in every way? Our mother uses panties and briefs that have been worn entirely out for all sorts of rag tasks. Do you use undies? Is that first picture a pair of Mark's undies?
Comment by Maggie Thu Aug 12 09:37:35 2010

HA! I remember you said you had nightmares about paper towels. I thought you were joking at the time, but I'm beginning to think we should have asked for elaboration.

Missy was JUST going to post on her Salvaged Threads site ( night about making napkins for the table (We finally got rid of the paper towels!) but ended up getting carried away with work for a client. Hopefully something will go up in the next day or two.

I like the idea of using the old clothing for rag-duty in the barn and garage. I'm always looking for something to wipe oil off my hands or the side of the chainsaw/lawnmower/weedwhacker when I miss.

Comment by Everett Thu Aug 12 10:04:36 2010

(I can't believe I just wrote a long comment and then hit delete instead of post.) My mother kept a rag bag hanging on the shed next to the wash tub. The better rags (wool and heavy cloth) were used to piece together quilts. Soft and durable cloth was used for dish rags. Denim she used to patch jeans and Dad's work pants. Dad used anything below these rags for paint rags, grease rags, etc. Once or twice a year the rag man would come down the street with a huge gunny sack over his shoulders calling R-A-G-S, offering to buy our rags. We sold him the excess. Chicken feed and flour came in cloth bags with nice designs. These were used to make my sisters' dresses. Mother made me a shirt once but claimed it was too difficult.

Comment by Errol Thu Aug 12 10:41:40 2010

Actually, I get sort of self-conscious unless I cut out the crotches of female undies,to use for checking car fluids...I don't want some guy having to realize what his rag is! As for patching cloth--I don't call that "rags." My mother used to make great clothespin bags and other little bags from cut-off pant legs. As for socks--this summer I threw out a big bag of un-mated socks I'd been saving to make puppets or a rag rug out of...I still regret that! btw it's perfectly OK to wear unmated socks esp if they are the same thickness!! I've also used strips of old sheets to tie up tomatoes. Making these strips can lead to a ragrug, too...

Comment by adrianne Thu Aug 12 10:49:09 2010

I'm so glad to see everyone sharing their experiences!

April --- It took about a year or two to break Mark of his paper towel addiction. Actually, he might not be entirely broken. While I was writing this post, I asked him if he'd still use paper towels if I wasn't in his life, and he got quiet, and then admitted that for really messy chores, he probably would. Maybe that means the answer to breaking your husband of the habit is...intimidation? :-)

Very good idea for saving the large cloths for fruit harvest!

Maggie --- That's actually one of my very old t-shirts in the picture. I do indeed use undies, though. They make perfect fodder for the smoker --- the fabric is so thin that they catch fire very quickly, and 100% cotton in the smoker is a must!

Everett --- I have to admit that this post was inspired by our conversation at your house. :-) I don't have literal nightmares about paper towels, but maybe about swiffers....

I didn't know about Missy's site --- I'm going to have to go check it out! I'm glad to hear you've broken the paper towel cycle.

Daddy --- So sorry your long comment disappeared! I'm clearly a rag dilettante compared to your mother. I wish that feed sacks were still made out of cloth, rather than plastic...

Mom --- I've discovered that with a little judicious ripping, it's impossible to tell the difference between underwear and t-shirt rags. You're totally right that unmatched socks go very well together...especially on the farm. :-)

Comment by anna Thu Aug 12 11:33:20 2010

Be careful with washcloths in the kitchen. Merely rinsing them out and drying is not hygienic! I've read research (in Dutch, otherwise I would link to it) that the kitchen washcloth is one of the most unhygienic things in the house. It was advised to replace them every day. Most people don't do that, me included.

But after reading abovementioned paper, I bought a synthetic microfiber washcloth for three reasons;

  • to the best of my knowledge, bacteria and fungi cannot eat polyester, as opposed to cotton.
  • it withstands aggressive cleaning very well
  • it can capture an amazing amount of dust/liquid &c

Every week I let it soak for half an hour in hot water with a good dash of bleach, which is effective against both bacteria and fungi. This works well because it releases oxygen radicals into the water.

Comment by Roland_Smith Thu Aug 12 14:37:59 2010
My method is to make sure that kitchen wash cloths dry out between uses. I wonder how much that impacts the ability of bacteria and fungi to survive there?
Comment by anna Thu Aug 12 14:43:35 2010

About the kitchen rag being the most unhygienic thing in the household...

A little bacteria and fungi in your life is a good thing. I think people have become way to concerned with disinfectants and hand washing. I could be completely wrong, but it seems to me an unused immune system is an unhealthy immune system.

Just one set of articles I read recently:

Anna... I can only imagine both of you have a very healthy immune system. :D

Anyway, I'm not advocating for consuming botulinum toxin or anything, but a reasonable life is filled with tons of bacteria. These people that use hand sanitizer every 15 minutes are setting themselves up for disaster.

Comment by Shannon Fri Aug 13 00:37:07 2010

Shannon --- I so completely agree with you! I figure a little dirt is quite good for me, and antibacterial soap has absolutely no use in our household.

And now I know why we're always so healthy. I was a bit disappointed in the link, though --- I thought it was going to be about taking baths in the forest....

Comment by anna Fri Aug 13 08:08:08 2010

Heh, I was actually going to chime in with a comment similar to Shannon's - a little dirt is definitely good for you. When my brother and I were kids, we rolled in the dirt, mucked about in streams and ditches, and occasionally ate dry cat food; my mum never got angry about it (well, okay, she did say that we really SHOULDN'T eat the cat food, but she didn't get all upset or freak out about it). We also ate a well-balanced diet (she's very big on nutrition). We hardly ever missed school for sickness (or anything else :) ) and only had to go to the doctor for our school check-ups. I think that the dirt and the nutrition, plus having a mum who wasn't uptight (less stress :) ) contributed to us being very healthy children, and generally continuing to have good health in adulthood.

That being said, I let my dishcloths dry between uses, switch to a new one every few days, run them through the regular laundry, and boil them periodically (if they still seem a little smelly after being washed); I should think that's probably good enough! ;)

We're still working on the switch to rags. We're setting up a system of two bins in the closet: one for clean rags and one for dirty rags (that just need to be run through the laundry to be useable again - nothing with motor oil on it, heh), and we use the rags for most cleaning jobs. Our current problems are that we don't have quite enough rags yet (my husband needs to go through his old t-shirts and weed them out), and neither of us can quite bring ourselves to use rags on cat messes. Still, it's a good goal to work towards, and we have at least cut down on paper towel usage by quite a bit! Heh, we're a work in progress! :)

Comment by Ikwig Fri Aug 13 09:41:24 2010
Ikwig --- I think we're all works in progress, and it sounds like you're well on your way. I think that if you let yourself throw away rags from time to time if they're really awful, you'll use them more. Of course, too few rags, is not a problem we have around here. We both buy clothes at the good will that are already half worn out, so within a couple of years of hard labor, they're quite ready for the rag bag!
Comment by anna Fri Aug 13 10:13:55 2010

I agree with the suggestion above to cut old sheets etc into strips for tying up tomatoes.

You can also use rags to stuff a hessian (burlap) sack as a dog bed.

Comment by Darren (Green Change) Sun Aug 15 18:44:15 2010
You're right --- stuffing a dog bed would be a good use for even those difficult to use synthetic rags. And it probably would solve the problem I had of Lucy dragging her bedding out of the dog house and into the yard.
Comment by anna Sun Aug 15 20:23:59 2010
We always used rags when I was growing up. I still use old tshirts and underwear for rags around the house. I always rip up ALL of my old towels into rags. Love the tearing sound! Old towels are the #1 item I use for rags. Old sheets do make good drop cloths or easy ties for the garden.
Comment by Jamie Thu Jul 5 15:35:22 2012
Jamie --- I'm with you on the old tshirts and underwear. I never seem to have old towels, though. I guess we just haven't lived here long enough for them to wear out yet. :-)
Comment by anna Thu Jul 5 19:15:37 2012
I cut our well worn jeans into squares. The larger ones (8-12 inches) I sew a quick zig zag around. I've free handed simple designs when inspired to do so. These get used for non-company table napkins. They are smaller than store bought cloth napkins- which i like, hold up to messy hands. They aren't good for cleaning baby faces but the rest of us like them just fine. They're kinda cute, too The edges fray in the wash, but once trimmed, they stop doing that. The more irregular pieces I save for cleaning. The denim is soft, but also abrasive- good for cleaning bathroom sinks and such. Wash em or toss em.
Comment by andiandi Thu Feb 21 17:49:29 2013
Hi Anna. Love this conversation! Ok, so I do have paper towels on hand but use them sparingly. Sometimes I feel like I keep them on hand for other people's use- kinda like they look at you weird for being too frugal or something if you don't have paper towels on hand . Huge waste of money. One- time use... Etc . When my husband and I were raising our 7 children, I had to be frugal . We had one income as we decided it was best for me to be at home with the children when they were small- we never regretted it. However it did teach us to live within our means. One way I saved was by purchasing used cotton terry house coats or robes at resale/ garage sales I paid a quarter or 50 cents for an old faded robe frequently. I cut them up into wash cloths, some times hemmed them or just gave them haircuts when they got shaggy. I got about 20 cloths from each robe and the fabric was much thicker and held up longer . Cleaned a lot of kids and stuff for very little money. I keep a soak bucket by my washer with bleach water to soak rags when needed. I use a fresh dishrag each day as they can get pretty funky sometimes great post !
Comment by Susie Tue Dec 29 07:39:37 2015

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