Yes, You Can Use Cloth Diapers, Even Without a Washing Machine!

“Real Diaper Week” (aka Cloth Diaper Awareness Week) kicks off on Monday!  As the founder and co-leader of my local cloth diaper group, this is very exciting for me!  To wrap up the week, hundreds of locations all over the world are participating in The Great Cloth Diaper Change on Saturday 4/21, when we will attempt to break the Guinness World Record for most cloth diapers changed simultaneously.  The event is hosted by the Real Diaper Association. Click here to find the event nearest you!

***Please take a moment to sign this petition to get WIC to provide recipients with cloth diapers!***

In honor of Real Diaper Week and the above-mentioned petition, I want to share my experience participating in The Flats and Handwash Challenge, a blog carnival that was hosted by Dirty Diaper Laundry last year.  It had approximately 200 participants.

[From my personal blog, entries dated 5/27/11 and 6/3/11 ~Michelle]


My “Day 5” Entry, with photo tutorial on sink washing…

This week has been interesting. As you may know, I am taking part in the Flats and Handwashing Challenge. Lots of experimenting (but perhaps not enough), lots of aching back muscles. I have found that the actual use of the flats has been no big deal. Sure, they hold less than my fancy dipes and thus have to be changed more often, but that’s okay. Brigit is not used to not having a stay-dry liner, so she “asks” to be changed more often anyway. Always keeping us on our toes, that one!

My stash includes 20 (27″x28″) flour sack towels (which I am essentially pad-folding with an angel wing poo-pocket), 4 medium Thirsties velcro covers, and a big wool soaker (handknit by me) for over the night diaper. (I am also adding a smaller pad-folded Gerber Flat (about 27″x24″) inside the flour sack flat for overnight. No problems so far.) Yes, I am doing this overnight, too, even though the rules state that I don’t have to. 😀 I realize that I could technically have one more regular cover and not count the soaker, but I already had 4 Thirsties covers and the snappi/pins thing just doesn’t work well for us, so my ample supply of soakers and other pull-on covers (like these Dappi ones) was kind of useless this week. Incidentally, I am also including my flannel wipes and washable nursing pads in the handwashing. I chose to only use my Dr. Brown’s nursing pads and none of my Milk Diapers (which I usually use overnight) because they are thicker and I was concerned about drying time, especially if I had no direct sunshine available (which in Florida, with random thunderstorms, you just never know), I worry about mildew from the humidity and too-long drying times.

This is the routine I’ve worked out so far (this may still change if I happen to wash again before the challenge ends):

Pail: wet (also serving as presoak). I’m pretty much keeping it in the bathtub, and running more and more water into it as the day goes on to make sure everything in there stays good and saturated. I’ve also discovered that it makes washing easier if I rinse the poopy ones in the sink (it’s EBF poo, so, not too nasty). I spray 5-6 squirts of half-diluted Biokleen Bac-Out over the mess a few times a day, too.

Wash: I am using my kitchen sink, old fashioned lye soap, and a washboard that I picked up for $10 at our local flea market. So…

1. Dump soaked dipes from pail into right side of sink to drain. Meanwhile, left side of sink is filling with hot water, with the bar of lye soap sitting on the bottom of the sink.

2. Squeeze pail/presoak water out of each individual item and plop it into the hot/soapy sink. Fish out the bar of soap, lather it up (as if washing my hands) then dunk bar and sudsy hands a few times, then place soap bar at the top of the washboard on the soap lip/shelf. Washboard is now perched legs-down in the sink.

3. Agitate the hot/soapy sink fulla dipes with a wooden cooking spoon. Start taking each piece and scrubbing on the washboard. Pee dipes are scrubbed very briefly, as the swishing and dunking in hot/soapy water seem fairly adequate for cleaning them. (I may skip the actual scrubbing of pee dipes next time, and stick to swish/stir/dunk.) Poopy dipes get spot treatment with soap, and extra washboard scrubbing until the poo stains are gone (taking much less work than I expected). As each piece is processed, it is re-dunked in the soapy water, wrung out, and plopped into the right sink (which has been filling with clear, cold water this whole time).

4. Drain left (hot/soapy) sink, spray out soap residue, etc., replug and fill with clear, cold water for second rinse. Swish/knead/stir the dipes in the first rinse water (right side sink). Take piece by piece, dunk, wring, and plop into second rinse sink.

5. Repeat #4 (except don’t fill another sink with rinse water unless you used way too much soap originally — don’t ask how I know that :)). This time, wring extra well, and snap out a few times to get even more water out.

This pic would be my third rinse from day 1 when I used waaay too much soap. *blush*

6. Hang to dry on the wooden drying rack. I have two of them and ended up using both for today’s wash, as I waited a little longer than before and the one rack was pretty crowded before anyway. Place rack in sunshine (not so today — it started to storm just as I was finishing up the second rinse…so my racks are blocking the entryway now, positioned under the A/C vent ;)).

Please pardon the naked 3-year-old in the background. LOL

The whole process takes 1-1.5 hrs and really hurts my back (remember, my spine is a chiropractor’s challenge and is easily strained by moderate physical labor). That, and my baby inevitably started to fuss/whine/cry at some point during each washing session, when I would attempt to employ various older siblings to play with her and keep her happy for just a few more minutes… She did end up on my hip for a few stages of each washing session, which made it take that much longer. I know I could have put her on my back in the Ergo, but…well, I didn’t. I was afraid the double strain on my back by wearing a 21 lb baby on my back while hunching over the sink would end up forcing me to drop out of this challenge. 😦


These are my (long-winded) answers to the exit survey for The Flats and Handwash Challenge (a lot of the questions did not offer an exact answer for me, so I had to choose the closest answer). [I realize that this part is long and potentially boring, so feel free to skim/skip it; I just thought some might be interested to read.]


– I took this challenge because I wanted to prove handwashing is possible for low income families.

– I had never used flats before this challenge.

– One “newborn” participated (well, she’s 6 months old, but not crawling yet, so…)

– The poop situation was “newborn/breastfed” (technically, she’s an early eater, but just barely, so not enough to be considered “peanut butter poop” ;))

– Rashes: we did not have rashes before or during the challenge.


– How many? I said “20-24”

– What kind? 20 flour sack towels and a few Gerber Birdseye flats used as doublers for night time.

– I estimated that I spent “1-3 hours” (total) researching folds.  I perused different tutorials for a while a few times, experimented with folding, then tried out several folds on the baby in the weeks before the challenge began.

– The fold I used the most was (“other”) the angel fold…basically the pad fold with the top corners pulled out to make a poo pocket. 🙂 However, I did have to make an adjustment to the rise of the dipe, which meant that there were only 6 layers in the very front, 12 right at her pee exit area 🙂 and then about 4 layers at the back.

– The hardest part about using flats was “learning how to use them.”

– Covers: I used “sized PUL covers” (Thirsties velcro, size medium)

– Accessory I feel is a must: “drying rack”.  It was great to have a portable drying rack that I could hang the dipes on straight from where I was washing them (if desired) and then follow the sunlight around the yard if I needed to. (I would have said washboard if that had been an option, because I thought it was really great for scrubbing poo stains out.)

– Estimated value of my flats challenge stash: “$75-100”

$20 ….. 20 dipes (flour sack towels)

$44 ….. 4 Thirsties covers ($11/ea at Nicki’s Diapers)

$20 ….. wooden drying rack (like this one)

$10 ….. washboard (new, from our local flea market…unable to find web link, sorry)

$94 ….. TOTAL

Ideally, I would suggest 25 dipes, 5 covers, and 2 drying racks, which would put start-up costs at $120…and this also does not account for wipes (mine are double-layer flannel, mostly handmade by me out of old receiving blankets, so essentially this could be “free”), and soap (both for wipe solutions and washing the dipes), but I guess people would already have some baby shampoo and laundry detergent on hand…


– My washing method: “sink with hands”.  I washed in the kitchen sink the most times [described above], but I did try the “bathtub with hands” method once, for the very last washing.

– I disposed of solid waste by: “dunk and swish”.  (Actually, there wasn’t much solid waste, as baby is EBF’ed and having tiny tastes of solids now, but I pre-rinsed the poopy dipes in the bathroom sink to make it easier to scrub the stains off, and “dunk and swish” was the closest answer to that.)

– How hard was handwashing (scale of 1-5)? I said “3” because the actual handwashing wasn’t difficult, in theory, but it was quite hard on my back.

– How time-consuming was handwashing (scale of 1-5)? I said “3” here too.  I found the washing/wringing/hanging to be quite time-consuming, but I tried to compare it to the involvement of resetting the washing machine, adding soaps and such, transferring to dryer, waiting and waiting and waiting…so I figured it’s not that much worse than machine-washing, just that it occurs in a more concentrated time frame.

– How clean were my diapers (scale of 1-5)? I said “5 – very clean.”  Whatever minor staining I did not scrub off with soap and the washboard got sunned out while they were drying.

– I washed “whenever it was convenient, and dried outside.”  I did end up having to bring the racks in to finish drying after sunset a few times, and once, I had to dry inside the whole time because it was monsooning outside, heheh.

– The most difficult part of handwashing: “the physical effort” (with “the time commitment” being a close second).  As I have said before, I have a bad back. ‘Nuff said.

– The least difficult part of handwashing: “getting the diapers clean.” That was surprisingly easy.


– Do I think others could do this if they had to if they were given the proper education and tools? Absolutely!!!

– If I was in a washerless situation, would I do this full time? As much as possible.  This is one of those things that I feel I can’t answer in absolutes due to differing possible circumstances, like whether there is any money for back-up ‘sposies, etc., because if there wasn’t, I would definitely do this full time, but if there was…well, I might need to give my back a break every now and then.

– The most surprising aspect of this challenge? That my diapers were clean!  I don’t know why this was so surprising; I mean, everyone used to handwash everything and things got clean, duh. I guess I just figured it would take a lot more effort than it did to get them clean…it really puts into perspective how dependent we have become on modern technology, because really, a human can do a better job than a machine for many things (think: attention to detail ;)), getting stuff clean included.

– I washed “10+” flats at one time (once as many as 20! That was cutting it close!).  I think if I were to do this all the time (use flats, I mean, not the handwashing part), I would definitely not want to wait that long…I’d aim to wash every 1.5-2 days (tops), so that I would not be so anxious about things getting dry by the time I needed them (I was totally imagining having baby wear a regular kitchen towel if it got to that!). Luckily, flats dry fast. 😉

– It took my flats “2-3 hours” to dry.  In all honesty, I might have been able to answer “less than 2 hours,” but I didn’t pay that much attention to them and wasn’t checking on them at regular intervals. I just waited several hours (probably 2-3), checked them, and they were dry. The times I had to bring them in because it got dark, or the time I had to dry them indoors completely, it may have taken slightly longer, but again, I don’t really know…(apparently I’m lazy! LOL)

– I washed “2-3” covers at a time, which could be rather nerve-wracking since I only had 4 (my 5th cover was just a big wool soaker for use over the night diaper, was not terribly useful for anything else, since I couldn’t find a fold that worked with pins/Snappis that was useful, absorbancy-wise). I would have to carefully examine the covers before a washing to see which ones needed it most (e.g. ones that had gotten poo on them, which I carefully wiped off so they could be used again before washing time rolled around). Only once did I have to wash 3 at once, and it was nerve-wracking.

– I approximated that it took my covers “3-5 hours” to dry.  The parts that took the longest to dry were the edge bindings and (especially) the front panel where the velcro is, as it is double-layered there. I imagine the Thirsties covers are among the fastest-drying PUL covers, though, as the inner layer is slick and not absorbent (unlike the Bummis covers, for example, which are very difficult to wipe out and reuse in the case of a major poo-splosion, and would, IMO, not be suitable for using in this type of [flats/handwash] situation).

– My favorite thing about the challenge: “storing flats” (i.e. seeing them neatly folded in a stack on the changing table shelves?).  I didn’t really like this question’s answer options (washing, folding, hanging); I wish it had an “other” fill-in-the-blank option, in which I would have said “The sense of good that I was doing, treading lightly on the Earth as well as our pocketbook.” 😉

– My least favorite thing about the challenge: the handwashing (ahem, BAD BACK).

– Will I continue to use flats in my every day diaper rotation? Maybe.  There were many pros about using flats, including the ease of getting them clean due to being one layer, the natural material and single-ply nature of the dipes (which to me would imply that stripping would rarely be needed), the low cost of flats, the versatility of items that can be used as flats (e.g. flour sack towels that I used, or flannel receiving blankets which can be acquired very easily, cheaply, or sometimes free if you have the right hook-up!).

On the other hand, I do enjoy the convenience and cuteness of my pockets (Fuzzibunz) and all-in-ones (Bumgenius), but don’t particularly like the fact they are made entirely of synthetic materials, which make them hot and sweaty in the summertime (and not too Earth-friendly), and they need to be stripped a lot, due to residue build-ups and the resulting stinky smells (which I admittedly use bleach for, occasionally, depending on the severity of the stink). [Haha, in that last sentence I was talking about Earth-friendliness, then mentioned using bleach. Ha. I’m so paradoxical.] The stink, in fact, has in the past caused me to switch entirely to natural materials (cotton fitteds and wool soakers), but our house has been re-piped since then, and a filter installed, so our “bad water” issues are not so bad anymore, making synthetic dipes possible to use again. At this point, though, I don’t know what my diaper stash will look like when baby outgrows her current ones… [Update: the synthetic diapers went away as soon as she started eating solids (and thus making stinkier poo); we are back to cotton and wool!]

Thank you so much to Kim at Dirty Diaper Laundry for organizing this wonderful learning experience!


***Again, please take a moment to sign this petition to get WIC to provide recipients with cloth diapers!***

8 thoughts on “Yes, You Can Use Cloth Diapers, Even Without a Washing Machine!

  1. Pfff. Okay I’m not doing the flats&handwash for my twins. What with work, relationship and everything I feel I’m ‘being lived’ enough already. 😉
    However, I am very much interested in using cloth diapers – even if my kiddies are now 20 months already. I am just wondering if it would be worthwhile for me to switch to cloth until they’re toilet trained. Do you know?
    Also: the main reason I didn’t use cloth so far is because I have NO idea where to get good cloth diapers and what to use. Here in the Netherlands cloth diapers are not very prominent in the debates, let’s put it like that. (The link in the Global Change website to the Amsterdam website doesn’t work, sadly.)
    So many questions… Sorry to bother your blog comments. 🙂

    • I definitely think it is worth it to switch! My children were all over the age of 3 when they were completely out of diapers. I don’t know anything about diaper companies in the Netherlands, but I’m sure you can order things online and have them shipped! is a good place to start; they have all different kinds of diapers to choose from, and informational articles as well! Good luck! 🙂
      ~ Michelle

  2. I think cloth diapered babies toilet train a lot eaiser, so I’d switch! Disposable diapers are made so the children don’t feel the wetness, therefore aren’t as uncomfortable. I’m a grandmother now and they didn’t have all the different cloth diaper products out there to choose from, so I just used a combo of prefold and flats. I love that cloth diapered babies no longer have to use diaper pins! Good luck on your toilet training. I loved cloth diapers!

  3. here’s one for you..yes, they can be washed by hand, on a board & many ways..I remember…I did my whole wash in the bath tub, yep, bed sheets & all…I would get in the tub..and tromp around w/my feet..sorta like doing grapes for wine….it worked 🙂

  4. Pingback: The 2nd Annual Flats and Handwash Challenge, Day 1: WHY Am I Doing This? | Grateful Moms of Many

  5. Pingback: Flats and Handwash Challange, Day 4: How I Handwash | Grateful Moms of Many

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