fabric pads for a sustainable period

I hate single-use items. Not long after I moved away from home, I replaced paper towels with washcloths and tea towels. Later I replaced tissues with cotton handkerchiefs.

Replacing disposables for my period took a little more effort. I had been using applicator-free tampons (which are individually wrapped in plastic) and no-frills store-brand panty liners (which contain a thin layer of plastic but aren’t individually wrapped). Out of the products available, these created less garbage than the alternatives, but still a lot more than none.

About 8 years ago, I started hearing about fabric pads and saw some being sold online: the design was like a winged panty liner with snaps on the wings to hold it in place and a pocket in which you could insert an optional pad for more absorption, with synthetic fabric on the back to reduce leaks.

I do some sewing so I started experimenting with making my own pads, but wings and snaps and pockets seemed too fussy, and I didn’t want to use any synthetics. My first version was a thin pad made from scraps of white linen and shaped a lot like the panty liners I used to buy – rounded at the ends and narrower in the middle (no wings). It was OK but washing didn’t get the layers as clean as I wanted and the white fabric stained immediately, of course.

It occurred to me that if I didn’t sew up a pad but instead simply folded fabric to get the layers, it would have the same coverage but be much easier to clean. So I made up a set of pads using black (no visible stains!) cotton flannelette. Each pad was big enough to be folded twice to create a 4-layer rectangular pad. I made as many pads as I could with the small amount of fabric I had, which turned out to be 8.

Newish pad, after a year of use.

Using fabric pads

These pads were my only period product for about 5 years. When flow was light I wore one pad. Otherwise I’d wear two: one tucked close to my body to catch the majority of flow, and one flat against my panties in case of leaks. (The outer pad also helped keep the inner pad in place.) I found that my 8 pads were a bare minimum, so when I needed to change the inner pad, I’d reuse the outer pad whenever I could.

Cleaning fabric pads

After use, I allow the pads to dry (they don’t smell). When I’m ready to do laundry, I soak them for a couple of hours in a plastic container (I use an old ice cream bucket), then give them a bit of a scrub by hand to loosen bits and get most of the blood out, then wash with similar colours.

I’ve heard it suggested that you should wash in hot water (which should discourage recurrent infections) but personally, I’ve had no trouble using warm or cold water. (Having said that, I recently had an infection and washed my pads in hot water out of an abundance of caution.) Until recently I’ve been putting the set in a laundry bag because I find it handy to have them all together, but they probably get a bit cleaner without.

Once they’re clean, I flatten them out and leave them to dry on a flat surface. I dry outside in the sun when I can. Bonus: sunlight has an antiseptic effect. There’s no reason why you couldn’t put them in the dryer too.


Things I became (more) aware of once I started using fabric pads:

  • I can feel when some flow is happening, for instance if I’ve been sitting for some time and then stand up. When I notice this, I’ll go to the toilet and, well, bleed there rather than into the pad.
  • There is less odor. I suspect that some of the odor associated with one’s period is actually caused by lack of air.
  • Two pads may feel bulky, but even under leggings it’s not noticeable.
  • I enjoy the sense of accomplishment I get from making something for myself and the smugness of not contributing to landfill.

Are fabric pads inconvenient?

Reusing things always takes more effort than throwing them away, but don’t find that they take that much effort. I think the biggest obstacle is that we’ve pretty much all been taught to use disposables so going reusable is unfamiliar and thus seems harder than it is.

That said, if I’m away from home, it’s not the most convenient. (Though having a period is really the source of most of the inconvenience.) If I need to change pads when I’m away from home, I put the used pad in a plastic zip bag, leaving the bag open to encourage the pad to dry. (If it stays damp, it will develop an odour.) If I’m travelling or otherwise can’t be sure I’ll have access to toilets whenever I need, I might bring a couple of tampons just in case. But in general, I find it very workable as long as I have my kit: the pads themselves and a plastic bag to put used ones in until I get back to home base.

How long do fabric pads last?

Fabric pads last for ages! I used this same set for 7 or 8 years until I lost all but the one I was wearing by forgetting my entire kit in an airport washroom on my way to Eroticon 2017 (*cries*). If I hadn’t lost them, I’d expect to get at least a few more years’ use out of them. Think of all the disposables you wouldn’t dispose of over the course of 10 years! (I estimate I’ve kept something like 1440 panty liners and 400 tampons out of landfill so far.)

One of my old pads, after about 7-8 years of use. Discoloration is presumably due to the bleaching effect of acidity of vaginal discharge. Normal vaginal pH is 3.8 to 4.5; for comparison, water is neutral at 7.0, and blood is slightly alkaline at 7.4.

How to make fabric pads

These are so easy to make.

  • Buy some cotton flannelette. (I like black because it hides the stains, but there are lots of great colours and prints available too.)
  • Wash and dry the fabric.
  • Cut into rectangles, using pinking shears if you have them. Mine are 6” (15 cm) x 12.5” (32 cm). I recommend making a minimum of 8 pads, but how many you need will depend on your flow and how often you do laundry.
  • Fold them lengthwise then widthwise to wear.

That’s it!