When switching to cloth napkins over disposable paper ones, I think it's helpful to liberate oneself from the cloth napkin's traditional fussiness. To replace paper napkins, cloth ones need to be as easy as paper napkins. (I've come to find them easier, in fact: no running to the store to grab more, just popping them in with the rest of my laundry when they're dirty).
If cloth napkins aren't about having a perfect-looking table, but instead are about making a simple, practical zero waste choice, then you can choose to use them differently than your grandmother might have. A few un-fussy principles that I follow as a daily cloth napkin-user:
-Don't iron them. Ironing takes cloth napkins out of the realm of the daily and lands them smack dab in the realm of a fancy dinner party. There's no need to add to your chore list: rumpled cloth napkins have a certain casual appeal, and certainly a time-saving appeal as well.
-Keep them at each family member's place. Sure, you can give each person a new napkin every day. But for a five-person family, seven days a week, that's either a whole lot of napkins or a whole lot of laundry. Instead, I replace them only when they're dirty, or once or twice a week. You can leave them at each family member's place, in the meantime. (I hang mine on the backs of chairs to keep the table clear. If that's some huge faux pas etiquette-wise, don't tell me, I don't want to know.) Caveat: guests get a clean napkin, always, of course.
-Keep enough handy. You certainly don't want to be doing laundry more often than you used to, so when you commit to making the switch, try to gather enough napkins that you won't have to be running loads of laundry every time you want to have a dinner party or your kiddo has a messy meal. I do fine with about ten napkins at a time, but depending on the size of your family, you might want to have many more.
-Look for them secondhand. (Or make your own). If cost is an issue, or even if it's not, cloth napkins are a great thing to buy secondhand, bum off your grandmother, or make yourself. (This tutorial for fringed napkins requires no more sewing knowledge than sewing a straight seam, and is the perfect thing to knock out when watching a movie or listening to a podcast).
-Stains are fine. (Or choose dark-colored napkins). If you're going to be vigilant about keeping your napkins stain-free, choose patterned or dark-colored napkins in the first place, otherwise you'll just have to sit and grind your teeth as your guest mops up a red wine spill with a favorite napkin, or you'll jump up from the table to run your napkin under the faucet at the first splash of spaghetti sauce. If your light-colored napkins get ruined beyond repair, you can always look up a tutorial for naturally dyeing them - I've done this with friends and it makes for a fun evening. I have some light napkins, though, and through five years of use they've truly been fine. If you inspected them, you might find a few stains, but who's inspecting them?
The wonderful upshot of cloth napkins is that once you purchase them once, you'll have them for years to come: a simple change that you can make once and reap the benefits of for a long time. I've found them so easy to use: have you? Any other tips to share?