We use cloth napkins at our house. This is partly for conservation, partly for aesthetics. When it’s just the two of us, we use them over and over again, tucking them neatly into our personal napkin rings (or not) until their spottiness overrides their practical and aesthetic contribution to our table. When there’s company, we break out fresh napkins for all, and consign them to the laundry straightaway. I not only wash the napkins, I usually iron them as well—my one nod to old-fashioned housekeeping—for the resulting smug feeling it brings.
So there I was recently, ironing a stack of cotton napkins after a bout of houseguests. Brown cotton, woven in India. And I got thinking about how far those napkins had to travel, and by what means, to get to my table (never mind the pesticides and fertilizers and underpaid labor that were likely used in their production). And then I did a little mental estimation of how many times I’d washed and ironed them, and the gas-heated water and electricity that these processes had required. So much for smug. Are cloth napkins better in any regard than paper? Should we just use our sleeves? (Oops, that would mean more laundry.)
Making choices for the materials and construction methods in our new house has involved so much of the same kind of value-juggling, though on a more serious level. We’ve used a lot of cement and some sandstone, both produced locally, but at what cost to the local environment? I honestly don’t know how to quantify that. We’ve passed on reclaimed lumber for availability and transportation reasons, but have used second-hand interior doors from a local office building—the building in which Natural Home is located, in fact. But those doors have required some fairly nasty refinishing. We’ve used thick blocks made of recycled polystyrene and cement, which seem like a good thing—but what did their manufacture consist of? And how far did they have to be shipped? About 900 miles, actually. Is that a lot, or a little, in the world of residential construction? It’s so relative.
An attractive choice would have been adobe or rammed earth, but much of our local earth is highly unsuitable expansive clay, and there are no local craftsmen for these kinds of construction anyway. Local building code and a particularly large and aggressive population of small rodents in our new neighborhood preclude straw bale.
Before we started the planning stage, I imagined a house that would use only the really fine, sustainable materials and methods that we write about all the time in this magazine. With all our information resources at hand, could we not make a perfect house? As it turns out, no. But we have made a house that we both love a lot, that we can afford, that is notably energy-efficient, and that looks like it belongs where it has been put. It has required hard decision-making all along the way and compromises galore.
In our new house, we will continue to use cloth napkins. But maybe I’ll give up the ironing part.
Linda Ligon is publisher of Natural Home. This is part nine of the ongoing saga of her new natural home.