The Perfect Dishcloth

March 7, 2013

How to choose dishcloths that last!

By Raleigh-Elizabeth. Image for Libeco Home at Didriks

Little is written of the humble dishcloth, that trusty kitchen servant. Constantly at the ready to help you with everything from too-hot pans to random sticky spots on the counter, the dishcloth is your partner-in-arms. It’s steadfast, always there. Ready to wipe, dry, soak, and shine. Its service is constant. Its devotion total. And its sacrifice… well. What’s with dishcloths constant falling apart? What actually is that smell? And what on earth to do about it all?

Recently, a friend texted me a picture of one of her dishcloths. Both dishcloth and owner were in great despair. The dishcloth, worn with what looked like an anciently long lifespan, was crumpled, hem unstitched, fraying and frazzled. Its general aroma could almost be smelled through the phone. And it was maybe two months old.

But dishcloths don’t have to die such regular, untimely, and smelly deaths. Not at all! They can be things of everyday use and beauty that, like a really cute apron, make you happy every time you see them in your kitchen.

Keeping your dishcloths looking and smelling like new is easy. First, look for cloths made of turkish cotton. Turkish cotton — or any other high-quality cotton — is your kitchen’s best friend. It will hold up best under pressure, stand the test of time, and generally, the higher quality the cotton, the least likely it is to hang on to some foul smell. (Avoid anything that’s made with a blend — it’s those non-natural fabrics that hold the stink!)

Make sure you find one with a textured weave. I’m partial to the ever-handy, super-absorbant basket weave, but any other weave is fine as long as your dishcloth has a little texture. Not only will it help you dry your dishes and hands, it will also help those countertop messes come up a little faster.

And wash it often. We throw our dishcloths in the washing machine whenever we’re running a like-colored load, so they regularly see the wash every other day or so. And that’s key – even if they look like they don’t need it, your dishcloths are germ, dirt, and scum magnets, and the only way out is with a little soap and water. I usually spray our most-used ones with stain spray before throwing them in, just to play it safe, but other than that, there’s no special treatment. They come out looking — and smelling — like new. Which is really nice, since I’ve bought precisely three dishcloths in the last ten years. And you’d never know they’re any newer than the ones my mother gave me as hand-me-downs from the 70′s.

My favorites are the old-standby: Williams-Sonoma’s contrast stripe dishcloths. These things last for millennia. In twenty thousand years, no one will remember Raleigh-Elizabeth, but my Williams-Sonoma dishtowels will be found in mint condition. I’ve also had really good luck with the jacquard dishcloths at Sur La Table and some knock-offs (shh!) acquired in the kitchen aisle super on sale at Homegoods.

Just keep your eyes peeled for turkish cotton and a textured weave, and your dishcloths will have what it takes to last a lifetime. They’ll bear the brunt of smeared tomato sauce and caked-on leftover brownie like a champ. Little hands caked in peanut butter? No problem. A grape juice spill all over the counter? Easy peasy. Your dishcloths can take what you throw at them, and in any working home kitchen, that’s a lot. So honor the faithful dishcloth, and do it justice: choose wisely, and remember, there’s always room in the wash for one item more. At least where your dishcloths are concerned.

What tricks do you have for taking care of wet hands, plates, and messes in the kitchen?

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{ 56 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ma March 7, 2013 at 8:34 am

This is great. I need to buy more dishcloths. I use paper towels way, way too often and it’s too expensive.

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2 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 7, 2013 at 8:36 am

I think they’re so expensive, too! I’m not sure if it’s actually more cost-effective in the end to buy the more expensive dishcloths and then keep throwing them in the wash all the time (some economist or math-magician, weigh in here) but it certainly FEELS less expensive. And also, the patterns on dishcloths are infinitely nicer than those on paper towels : )

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3 Amy March 10, 2013 at 6:30 pm

we are a paper towel free house, and now I am weeding out the dish cloths that I hate.
we still keep paper towels around for occassional use (hello, raw chicken!) but I made about 4 rolls of paper towels last over two years. So I basically describe us as paper-towel-free

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4 Liz March 7, 2013 at 8:47 am

Oh man thanks so much for writing this post!! I keep buying dish clothes only to have them not be absorbent enough or fall apart after a year or two. I have a couple of good dishcloths from Crate & Barrel that I use all the time but they have snowmen on them. Still, I use them all year because I can’t find better ones at local Target/Walmart. Never thought to look for Turkish cotton! Can’t wait to try out those Williams-Sonoma ones! Off to buy them now!

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5 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 7, 2013 at 8:50 am

Yay! They have fantastic colors right now, too. I’m particularly partial to the yellow stripey one : )

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6 Mary Ann March 7, 2013 at 8:48 am

One of my complaints about my kitchen is that I don’t have a place to hang my dishcloth. It ends up slung over the handle of the refrigerator door where it can never dry out. Do you have any suggestions? As always, love your writing.

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7 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 7, 2013 at 8:49 am

Thanks, Mary Ann! And I actually do have a suggestion for you! It’s what my mom does and we have copied: she hangs her dishcloths from the top shelf inside the dishwasher. And then she leaves the dishwasher a little cracked all day long so that air can get in and circulate. The dishcloths hang dry, and it works SUPER well. Hooray!

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8 Krista Hansen March 7, 2013 at 8:59 am

I put a command 3m hook on the side of the upper cabinet on the left side of the kitchen sink. I just hang my dish towel there and it has been working great for years. At the end of the day, I clean up and throw it in the laundry.

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9 Kristen E March 7, 2013 at 8:55 am

Another tip: never, ever, ever use fabric softener on dishcloths or any other towel! It makes them repel water (or at least absorb less efficiently), and it also traps grime in the fiber! Instead, toss the towels in the dryer with a couple of dryer balls (plastic, wool, or even just a few tennis balls) and they’ll come out soft and absorbent!

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10 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 7, 2013 at 9:00 am

Sing it! Truth be told, I never use fabric softener. We never seem to have a problem… and we use dryer balls, too! (Although my husband can’t say their name without laughing.)

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11 Lexy March 7, 2013 at 8:57 am

I hang my dishcloths (and towel) outside during sunny weather to keep them nice and bright. I think it acts as some sort of natural disinfectant, too, because they always smell better after “sunning.”

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12 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 7, 2013 at 9:00 am

Everything is better with sun. Agreed!

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13 Monique March 7, 2013 at 9:14 am

A while ago, I read on Martha Stewart’s website that she (or her staff!) throw dishclothes, sponges, scrubbies, etc. in the dishwasher with a load. It seemed weird to me but I tried it once and now I’m addicted! I throw it in with every few loads (we run the washer probably every other day) and/or when it gets smelly. I pull it out right away to dry.

I figure if the dishes are getting clean, the dishcloth and sponge will too. Those William Sonoma cloths look beautiful though – I might have to check them out!

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14 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 7, 2013 at 9:16 am

I leave all our sponges/brushes in the dishwasher so they can dry/go through every load, and that works very well. I haven’t tried it with my cloths! I’ll give it a go!

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15 Margaret March 7, 2013 at 9:15 am

I find a little vinegar in the wash also helps with the smell; it’s a natural antibacterial and helps the soap rinse out more thoroughly (and I promise your clothes and towels don’t come out smelling vinegar-y!).

Your post is actually pretty timely for me: I *just* posted today about making a simple half apron from a tea towel (http://goo.gl/UaP8V). I am constantly hunting around for towels while I cook, so having one strapped to my waist makes sure it’s always within reach when I need it!

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16 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 7, 2013 at 9:17 am

Cutest tea towel apron ever!

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17 Kelly March 7, 2013 at 9:17 am

I am a little picky too! My mother in law gave me handmade dish towels when I got married, and ever since, they are my preference. She buys toweling fabric from an Amish fabric store, apparently toweling is not all the same, even if it looks the same to me. Also when smells build up, sometimes that is detergent that is building up. And sometimes it is mold. I have too fix alls: one is the sanitize cycle on my HE machine; the other is washing it in the machine with just a small squirt of plain blue Dawn dish soap and adding white vinegar to the rinse cycle. This strips the oil or detergent out. Also, bleach destroys fabric so that is why it looks worn so quickly for some people.

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18 Mary Ann March 7, 2013 at 9:38 am

Thanks, Raleigh and Krista, for how to dry my dishcloth! Ah, my life can get smoother! I don’t have a cabinet next to my sink to hang a hook, but the dishwasher is right there and I would have never thought to hang the cloth in there in a million years! Raleigh, thank your mom for me! I could use a column on dryer balls. I have never used them. I don’t understand them.

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19 Kerry March 7, 2013 at 9:42 am

My dishcloths are so stained from mopping up spills and food bits. I never know how people keep nice white dish towels clean. Do you bleach them? Do all of the food stains really come out in the wash for you? They never do for me. I’ve taken to buying colored towels just so the stains aren’t as noticeable, but there are so many mostly white towels out there!

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20 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 7, 2013 at 9:43 am

YES. My stains really do come out. I spray them with stain spray (I prefer Honest’s) before I throw them into the wash – and I’m CONSTANTLY throwing them into the wash. How often do you launder yours?

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21 Maria C. March 7, 2013 at 10:18 am

You can hang dishtowels on the oven knob!

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22 Maria Baker March 7, 2013 at 11:13 am

About a year ago I was walking around the PX on base in Germany and they had Martha Stewart flour sack tea towels in sets of 4. I liked all the color sets so I bought one of each (they had 3 total sets.) These towels are still my favorites to use. They’re thin, but really absorbent. I also love that they’re a little bit bigger than a standard tea towel. I can’t say enough good things about them. I’ve put them through the ringer and though some of them are stained (my fault) none of them are ripping or fraying. The only problem now is that I can’t seem to find them anywhere else and I don’t live in Germany anymore. I once found them on a Kmart website…perhaps they’ll still be there. I’m off to check right now…

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23 Maria Baker March 7, 2013 at 11:16 am
24 Regina March 7, 2013 at 9:44 pm

I second flour sack tea towels!

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25 Celeste L. March 7, 2013 at 11:53 am

For drying dishes, nothing beats linen. Another good source for dishcloths (the small ones with which to wash dishes and wipe counters) is Crate & Barrel. Their Pintura dishcloths are holding up well, and I have a previous set that matches the Salsa dish towels that has lasted for years. I wash dish cloths after one day of use, towels after one or two days. Sponges are washed regularly and microwaved daily.

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26 GolfTowels March 7, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Golf Towels! They are my most favorite dish towels. They’re like your coffee-mugs and your books. What a story they tell about where you go not only in your mind, but also with your feet.

And, yes, I hang them in my dishwasher with the door cracked for ventilated drying during the day and then replace them at the end of the day with a fresh set (seems like I always use 2 during the day).

Not real keen on having dish cloths visible unless I’m actually using them at that very moment. Ahhhh, the yoke of having lived in a home where I constantly heard, “What if the Queen were to surprise you and drop by; is this how you’d like your home to look?” Well that was kinda silly I’ve always thought. But you know what? I AM the Queen of my home and I love keeping it pretty just for ‘lil ole me.

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27 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 8, 2013 at 7:43 am

Ah, the golf towel. My childhood in dish-cloth form.

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28 sarah March 7, 2013 at 1:02 pm

so…my solution to the dish cloth disaster is NORWEX. i don’t sell it, just buy it. it is super popular in europe and canada and slowly making it’s way to the US. it is a variety of different mops and rags and dish cloths that all have silver spun into the microfiber. silver is a known anti-bacterial agent, and boy does it work. i have a cloth that i haven’t washed in three months and it is still going strong and doesn’t smell. the silver literally kills every germ in sight. i could write a book on this stuff, and trust me, i was a huge skeptic the first time i heard about it. but look it up and see what it’s all about and just try even one thing. i recommend the kitchen towel or the enviro-cloth for cleaning…..

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29 Maria Baker March 7, 2013 at 1:08 pm

I love my norwex dishcloths!

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30 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 8, 2013 at 7:46 am

I’ve never even heard of Norwex until now! I feel like such an out-of-the-know American! Thanks for the great tip – I’ll clearly have to try it out!

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31 Lauren March 7, 2013 at 1:15 pm

I love a great dish towel! In fact, last week I was sick, and my husband brought me home a get well gift- some zinc, candy, and two beautiful dish towels. He’s a real keeper :)

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32 Miggy March 7, 2013 at 1:59 pm

OK are we talking dishcloths as in the washcloth or dishcloth as in a tea towel or drying towel?

I’m thinking it’s the first one. My dishcloths are in a sad state even with my ‘get a clean one every day’ rule. I always put the previous days’ cloth in the laundry basket, but still my dish cloths come out stiff and generally sad looking. Perhaps I should try one of these turkish things?

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33 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 7, 2013 at 2:22 pm

I use my dishcloths both ways (albeit not one used both ways at the same time!), although I do tend to do most of my washing with a good scrub brush. My doctor said it’s the best way to keep out germs – a good brush that gets the boiling-hot pan wash treatment every week! But even if you wash with your dishcloth or just try with them, try turkish cotton with a good textured weave – and a daily wash – and you should be good to go!

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34 Alpha March 7, 2013 at 3:11 pm

I love my dishcloths! I take care of them by sticking them in the washing machine. I normally add 1/4 cup of white vinegar to the wash to deodorise and keep them smelling fresh. Don’t worry the vinegar smell won’t stick. I also prefer drying them in the sun.

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35 Kristin March 7, 2013 at 8:28 pm

I love the fact there is such an in depth conversation about dish towels! I am fortunate to live near a William Sonoma outlet store, I grab their towels on sale and wrap one around a bottle of wine tied with a bow of any kind and ta da the perfect hostess gift, housewarming etc! The store always has a great mark down on the items/colors in season. They had beautiful black bats designs on their halloween ones. Friends are always grateful for a useful gift!

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36 Design Mom March 8, 2013 at 2:06 am

Smart conversations like this about utilitarian household items make me unreasonable happy. Love this post!

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37 Anna March 8, 2013 at 5:12 am

I like reading all your.posts, but I think I liked this one particularly. My only Williams-Sonoma cloths hiave started wearing out in.the centers (maybe this is why they wre in.the clearance bin?). That said, lately I’ve been buying the simple IKEA dishcloths with the red and white stripes… It’s love.
(Do you iron your dishcloths?)

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38 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 8, 2013 at 7:44 am

I do iron mine! But I iron everything – sheets, jeans, napkins. I’m a bit of a presser. I find it really calming. I wonder if that makes a difference. How have your ikea dishcloths fared? It would be great to know they’re fantastic!

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39 claude March 8, 2013 at 5:37 am

my favorite kitchen linen are from couleur-chanvre.com. it’s made of ecological hemp fibers. It absorbs humidity, is anti-bacterial and soft to the touch. they also make beautiful table- and bedlinen.

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40 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 8, 2013 at 7:48 am

Well that’s a clear win-win. Anything that is both practical AND pretty… swoon.

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41 g March 8, 2013 at 7:48 am

Like Margaret above (of Slow Mama), I, too, just posted about the versatility of some everyday items–tea towels among them. Another funny thing is that the picture of my temporary, makeshift apron-out-of-a-tea-towel looks to be the exact same towel that Margaret used! (Hers was pressed and adorable–mine is more of a quick and lazy approach. Mine is not a designer-ly blog–though I enjoy observing and dreaming, I leave the designing to others http://desertgreengoddess.blogspot.sg/2013/02/pioneer-ingenuity-in-modern-world.html) We just moved from Utah to Singapore and we’re taking a more pared-down/make do with what you’ve got/get creative approach to daily living. The tea towel is definitely a versatile powerhouse!

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42 JenG March 8, 2013 at 10:29 am

I love this post! My problem is white white cotton napkins, they are never ever white after the first use. I’ve bleached, tried oxi-spray, vinegar and they are a dingy creamy colour, with old spaghetti stains! Is it the quality? Would linen fare better? I just want to have white napkins again :)

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43 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 8, 2013 at 10:32 am

hrrrmm. that’s a cononundrum. i use white napkins and i have NO issues with mine. (apparently my secret is all free + clear, a little stain spray, and a hot wash?) because seriously, i don’t even blink when people schmear their chipotle-covered mouths on them. i know it’s fine.

BUT. the best way to spot treat white linens is with a little blue dawn dish soap (Classic – nothing funny) and some peroxide. you can spot-treat antique linens that way, too, and we’ve scrubbed and soaked the nicer, monogrammed linen ones that way after every holiday meal and had no issues. what kind of napkins are you using? hot water washes right away? cloth napkins do need to at least get stain-sprayed after the meal, no waiting around.

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44 Brigitte March 8, 2013 at 11:52 am

Also, hanging in the sun to dry can work wonders, plus the smell can’t be beat.

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45 JenG March 8, 2013 at 6:50 pm

I think I am letting them sit too long before washing. I’ll try spraying them right after the meal. I think that should do the trick. Thanks for the hints! Jen :)

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46 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 8, 2013 at 10:32 am

cononundrum? apparently i can’t spell. conundrum!

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47 Nicole March 8, 2013 at 1:02 pm

I’ve stopped washing our dishtowels, tablecloths & napkins with other laundry – too many grease stains kept appearing on our clothes. I do a separate extra hot load of “kitchen wash” every week or so and always add some baking soda to the load – it really helps.

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48 Elizabeth March 8, 2013 at 4:14 pm

I haven’t used paper towels in about 20 (!) years. I do have lots of high quality dish towels, as well as a stash of rags in a kitchen drawer. Each evening I throw them all in a mesh basket I keep under the sink. If they are really wet, they go straight into the clothes washer to get washed with whatever is coming. They rarely stink under the sink, because I use them only once to twice at the max. Once a week they all get washed in the normal cycle, or sanitary cycle if something yucky has happened and then back into the drawer. This way, I have at least one virtuous thing I can feel virtuous about! Offsets my mid size SUV? Maybe not! :)

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49 Andrea sayer March 11, 2013 at 9:08 pm

If you would be so kind to explain… What is a tea towel to be used for? They are so cute, but aren’t great for drying actual dishes. Insight??

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50 Jillian in Italy March 12, 2013 at 6:14 am

You have inspired me to replace all my dishcloths. Because I’m pretty sure a few of mine could get up and walk themselves out the door (I still own one that my Aunt Marge gave me for the 16th birthday). Seriously, my dishcloths all end up looking so grungy so quickly after buying them!

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51 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 12, 2013 at 6:43 am

Yay Jillian! New dishcloths is such a fun thing (sorry, old dishcloths). A lot of other out-of-the-USA commenters suggested Norwex… Having never used them myself, I can’t attest to them, but they’re worth checking out!

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52 Kate March 13, 2013 at 5:01 pm

My favorite dishcloths were discovered on a trip to Biarritz, France 6 years ago – the tea towels from Jean Vier. I still have the original 2 I bought there and have ordered some others since then and had them shipped to the US. Though they are quite pricey with the exchange rate + shipping, they get used everyday and bring joy to an otherwise mundane task! They get softer and softer with each wash and have held up incredibly well (not to mention the fun color & designs). The Basque area is known for quality linen production and though I tried some others from different manufacturers, these are the best! And for Gabrielle and others lucky enough to be in France there are several Jean Vier outlet stores.
http://www.jean-vier.com/

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53 Carole Jones April 29, 2013 at 1:13 am

I don’t know if anyone has posted this or not. There are so many wonderful posts here. We owned a meat pie plant which is inspected daily by Federal Inspectors. They swab everything to make sure your cloths and surfaces are clean. We used a sponge to damped the tops of our meat pies. As we all know, sponges are known for harboring germs. At the end of each day, we simply rinsed the sponge and then put it in the microwave for two minutes. Then we set it on a wire rack to dry overnight. The sponge never got sour or germ. As I mentioned, they were evaluated daily. So, at home, I put my dish cloth in the top of the dishwasher with each batch. When the batch is done, I rinse the dish cloth again then put it in the microwave for two minutes. It will NEVER SOUR and it won’t wear out. Works for me and I have the proof that it works because of our meat pie plant experience.

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54 M.E. September 2, 2013 at 9:55 am

I ditched washcloths altogether. Washing them never really gets out all the grease. Imagine them in your wash machine. Do I want grease in my clothes or sock and perspiration water in my dishcloth? Now I buy a generic
Handi Wipe type of cloth, $.99 for 10 of them. I only use them one day, but before tossing I use it to wipe up a small portion of my kitchen floor. In a week my floor is completely wiped up. Good by mop.

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55 Perry Como October 12, 2013 at 3:52 pm

A mysterious message coming from nowhere…

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56 Melanie January 13, 2014 at 8:02 am

I always soften my washcloths and towels with vinegar. It is a natural fabric softener and works great. No waxy buildup from fabric softeners, no vinegar smell, but soft wash cloths and towels!! If you deal with static in your dryer loads during winter months, just ball up a piece up aluminum foil and place it in the dryer. The charge of the foil negates that charges in the clothes. Voila!! No static.

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