Let me tell you about the house I grew up in. My bed had to be made with hospital corners, my laundry folded in perfect thirds. Glass walls were squeegeed after every shower. Mirrors were Windexed until they sparkled. Combs and brushes were regularly soaked in ammonia. Countertops had to be spotless, walls whiter than white. The droning noise of a vacuum cleaner was the soundtrack to my life.
To call my mother a perfectionist is an understatement. Though never formally diagnosed, she has always identified as obsessive-compulsive. As a child, she measured the space between her hangers. As a teen, she broke out in hives at a slumber party because her friend’s house was cluttered.
Our family lived by the mantra “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” but our methodology was probably an environmental disaster: We bought Flash, Windex, Clorox, Lysol, Scrubbing Bubbles, and bulk paper towels by the van load. I can’t remember a time when we didn’t have a backup supply of at least six bottles or cans of each in the basement, just in case. Cleaning was so integral to my childhood that my first crush was on the Brawny lumberjack.
While I never lived up to my mom’s exacting standards, some of her compulsions rubbed off. I don’t let dirty dishes loiter. I shine up the bathroom sink twice a day. I carry Wet Ones everywhere I go. And my God, I love paper towels. I could plough through half a roll in one cleaning session. To think of the titanic amount of waste I’ve created over the years makes me cringe. But recently, I found a better way.
The first time I encountered Swedish dishcloths was in the gift shop at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, where I live. I didn’t think much of it until I noticed them for sale again at Ingebretsen’s, a century-old Nordic marketplace in the Twin Cities. I marched up to the counter and asked a staffer if she thought they were worth the sticker shock (they’re about £10 for a set of 2). “Oh, yes!” she enthused. “I’ve been using them my whole life.”
I bought two and lemme tell you — these rags are a game changer. Invented by a Swedish engineer in 1949, the rags are made of 100 percent naturally biodegradable cellulose or a combination of wood pulp and renewable cotton. They are superabsorbent, able to soak up 20 times their own weight in liquid. They are soft and pliable when wet but dry quickly in between uses. Also: They come in a zillion cheerful prints (fat lemons, indigo paisley, flower-power motifs), plus solid colors for minimalist types (no one brand is better than another with these, I’ve found — so I tend to just pick by pattern).
I now use Swedish dishcloths to do nearly everything I once did with a paper towel: wipe down our granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and streak-prone cooktop. I use them to dust our vintage dressers, desks, lowboys, bookcases, and butcher-block dining-room table. When I repot plants, I use the rags to sweep away the dirt that spills out from my terra-cotta pots. When one of my Chihuahuas vomits on the living-room rug, I get down on all fours and use them to scrub the mess clean. (Paper towels would shred under similar pressure.) I even scour the outside of the toilet bowl three to four times a week with them, because my lovely and charming boyfriend still refuses to sit when he pees.
When a cloth gets grungy, I wring it out with dish soap and hot water and nuke it in the microwave for 90 seconds. Unless the dog puked or the boyfriend peed — in which case, I’ll use soap and water, give it a good hard squeeze, and chuck it in the washing machine with the rest of the laundry. One spin cycle later and it’s good as new.
Companies that make Swedish dishcloths claim that a single rag replaces up to 17 rolls of paper towels. I haven’t tested that, but I can tell you that I’ve cut down on my paper-towel consumption by at least 80 percent since I’ve started using them. They’ve allowed me, in other words, to finally end my torrid, decades-long relationship with my Brawny boyfriend.
Some other Swedish dish rags
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A version of this article originally appeared on The Strategist US.