Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Reducing Waste, Going Over the Deep End, or Female Empowerment?

***WARNING: Possible "Too Much Information" Alert!***

My Husband and I have read a fair amount of stories, articles, blogs and biographies about people living sustainably.  Often, when you hear about people living off the grid, making their own cheese, and using a bicycle to power their washing machine, you have a few questions.  What do they do for lights?  What do they eat in February?  How do they mail a letter?  Me?  I am always wondering what the ladies use during their menstrual cycle.  What does this say about me?  I don't know. 

At the very least it says that I was born sometime after the 1800's.  Mass manufactured disposable menstrual products have only been around for about 100 years.  Before that women used natural fibers such as wool, sponges, and moss as tampons.  Ancient Egyptian women used papyrus.  Cotton rags attached by a belt or string were used as well.  (Keep in mind that these would need a belt because we've only been wearing undies for a short while too!)  And, ready?  Lots of women just bled.  Like all over the place, I guess.  There were these cool menstrual aprons that would catch some of the blood but would presumably be there mostly to protect clothing.
This picture came from the Museum of Menstruation. The site's a little quirky, but filled with interesting information.

During world War I ingenious field nurses started making disposable pads out of bandages, and an industry was born.  I guess most pad companies started out in the bandage business.  Since then the industry has grown to the money-making machine we see all around us. Or, at least all around us in the pink and powder-blue isle of the grocery store. 

I'm not going to get into the details about bleach and plastic so close (and in) our sacred parts.  But just know that in using some of these products you have bleach and plastic on and in your sacred parts.  I know many ladies are opting for the all cotton disposable products, but I can't afford to throw that kind of money in the trash (literally).  Not to mention the trash itself.  Well, actually, I will mention it.  The trash itself!!  Good Lord.  I know that I fill about a small plastic shopping bag per month.  Let's do a little math. 

Let's see...I'll probably begin my menopausal adventure around 50...and I began my lovely journey into womanhood at 11....minus 18 months for my two pregnancies...say another18 months for my non-menstrual nursing time...

That makes 432 periods.  Holly Cow!!

At about 1 cubic square foot per month, that means it would only take about 18 women like me to fill a 7.800 cubic ft Olympic sized swimming pool!  
 (I just did all this math by myself, it's not an official statistic, please don't quote me to your friends, I'm just trying to make a point here).

Before I go on, I would like to stress that I don't think there is anything disgusting about menstrual blood.  I don't think it's gross.  It doesn't make me queasy.  I don't wish I didn't get my period.  And I don't intend to tell my daughters it is a curse.  I do, however, think trash is gross.  I also think that it's interesting that nurses and doctors have to put bandages and needles in locked containers marked "bio hazard" but we can just toss tons of blood-soaked plastic and synthetic poly-fill in the trash.  Don't get me wrong, I don't want bathroom trash to have to be picked up by a dude in a haz-mat suit, but maybe we should be thinking a little bit harder about what we do with our bodily waste.

So, for many reasons, (not least of which is to keep up my eco-friendly street cred) I have decided to investigate the merits of reusable cloth pads.  Now wait!  Before you get all cringy and disgusted, hear me out.  I have had this conversation with a couple of people.  Although as a rule I don't "get into it" with people--I'm happy with the way I live my life, and I'm happy with the way you live your life--I do think it's telling for people to be kind of appalled by the idea of using reusable pads that they would then have to clean, but they feel fine letting someone else deal with the very personal trash they create.  Make no mistake someone is dealing with it.  Someone is putting it in the trash truck, someone is dumping it in a land fill, someone is driving the truck that churns the trash into the ground, somewhere an aquifer is being polluted with runoff from that landfill and someone, somewhere, is drinking water that has some of your menstrual trash in it.
I mean, hypothetically speaking, of course. 

I don't mean to sound like an environmental Nazi, really I don't.  I also don't want to let you believe that I don't make any trash.  I'm an American--I make tons of trash.  We recycle everything that can be and try to consume as little as possible, but it's a process for sure.  Nor would I want to give the impression that I think everyone should attempt to live the way I am trying to live.  I firmly believe that the differences in people is what makes the world go 'round.  But, if you find yourself thinking it's gross to deal with the clean up from your own period, it might be worth while to ask what you think is gross about it, and if it's ok to let that grossness go out into the world untended.  Would you keep a pile of your menstrual trash in your own backyard?  No? Because it's in someone's back yard.  I mean, when you throw something "away" it only goes away from you, it's still there somewhere.

There is also the trash form the packaging, the boxes, the trash the factory makes, the oil used to get the products to the factory, the oil used to get the products out of the's all a lot of manufacturing madness.

Without getting too dancing-in-the-moonlight-naked-with-the-Goddess-y, there is also the issue of treating yourself and your cycles with love.  Don't let your eyes roll out of your head, there!  The thought of putting something on my body to catch my flow that will be thrown out makes the whole thing feel like trash and a chore.  But picking out a fabric that looks pretty (I even picked out beautiful pearly-looking snaps) and is soft and comfy feels like caring for myself.  It's a totally different attitude toward the event.  The thought of my daughters making a supply in anticipation of their first period makes me kind of weepy. 

Now let's get practical here.  There's also the money.  It's costs me about $140 a year to keep myself in menstrual products.  That's at least half of the cost of the dance lessons I can't afford for my wee one.  The point is, I could use 140 extra dollars.  So, off I go on my adventure to make my own pads.

I looked all around on  the Internet.  The whole idea made me sort of nervous because I am a heavy bleeder. Lots of iron supplements and nettle/yarrow tea helps a bit, but I was afraid that this sort of environmental friendliness was only for the light weights in the outflow department.  I generally just use the overnight pads all the time.  Serious business. The good thing about making them yourself is that you can make them in the thickness, length, and with the materials best for you and the needs you have throughout the duration of your period.

As for the Materials:

The outer layers are made with flannel, they can be also made with T-shirt material, although I hear that the stretchy knit makes it trickier to sew depending on your experience level.  These materials are soft and absorbent.
The inner layers can be flannel, terry cloth, all cotton batting, hemp, cotton fleece or even microfiber cloth, or a combination of these.  I did think it would be pure genius (and possibly necessary) to use a ShamWow. Right?! But then I realized that I didn't know what the heck that stuff was made with. Then I thought of using chamois, but I thought my eco-friendly pads should probably be vegan too.  You can reduce the cost of these pads even more by using old flannel sheets, shirts or baby blankets, and old towels.  I completely sold out and bought new flannel and terry cloth from the clearance bin at JoAnn Fabrics. 
A water proof layer can also be made with PUL (polyester laminate), ripstop nylon, felted wool, or high quality fleece. But I didn't bother with this.  

How to make your awesome pads!

There are a lot of patterns available on the Internet for free, but in the end I just made my own.  I got some helpful hints for doing this and assembled  them according to this lovely lady's instructions.  I took one of the disposables that were working for me and traced it.  Then I traced it again making the pattern for the outer layers adding 1/2 inch.  One 1/4 for the seem allowance and another1/4 inch for the filling.  Then in the middle third of the pad I added wings.  This was the trickiest part.  I made them the size I thought they should be, but when I tried them on there was way too much fabric so I pinned the wings when it was on (very carefully) so I could see where they should snap.
First I traced the inner layer pattern onto two layers of flannel and two layers of terry cloth and cut them out. 
Then I traced the outer layer pattern (the one with the wings) onto two pieces of flannel and cut them out. 
Then I stacked up my inner layers flannel, terry, terry, flannel, and sewed them to the wrong side of the outer layer.  Then sew it right down the middle to keep it in place.  Then sew a zigzag around the outer edge about 1/4 inch in.
Now take the other outer layer and pin it to the one you've sewed already right side to right side.  Sew around the leaving a 1/4" seem allowance and a 2" opening to turn it right side out. Do this on the straightest place you can find to make it easy to close up.  
Turn it right side out.  Top Stitch close to the edges all the way around.  This should also close up your opening.
You're almost done!

Now find the side of the pad that shows the quilting.  Add a couple more channels using a zigzag stitch on either side of the middle channel.  This will attach the top and the bottom and give you more channels in the pad.
 Just attach the snaps or Velcro and your done!  Attach the snaps according to the instructions that come with whatever device you have.  You can also use the sew-on kind.  I can offer a tip if you get a machine similar to mine.  I had to press the pins through the fabric before the "stapled" it down, this just prevented the pins from going all wonky.
You're done! You're a craft-Goddess-eco-warrior-feminist! You're reclaiming the earth and the sanctity of your moon cycle.  And you've saved some money.  Congratulations! 

I have only had one test run with them, but I do have answers to expected questions and some unanticipated advantages.

They didn't leak!  I was able to check them when I went to the bathroom by lifting up the front and looking underneath.  I once saw a tiny spot of red showing through and knew it was time to switch to another.

They didn't slide around!  I was concerned that they wouldn't stay put seeing that they were only snapped around my undies, but I didn't have any issues with that at all.

They were soooo comfy.  Really they were so nice and soft.  It was a great improvement over the plastic.  And, not to be too graphic, but you know how uncomfortable pads can get in the heat of the summer.

It wasn't tricky to clean them at all!  I just put them in a pot of cold water when I was done using them.  I changed the water a couple of times and them just put them all in the wash when I was done.  I don't use a dryer so I dried them on the line (I did feel a mix of embarrassment and pride at this).  A side note: They worked so well that I thought maybe I wasn't bleeding as much as I usually do. When I dropped them in the water, that immediately dispelled that idea.  The water was deep red within seconds.  Those things hold a lot of flow!

I didn't feel that gushing feeling at all!  Ladies, you know what I'm talking about here.  That feeling like some internal body worker just turned up the faucet and you have to stay still for a minute or so while you wait for your pad to absorb this new flood.  I was really worried about this.  I was sure it would all just slide off.  Not only did they not leak, but the blood was absorbed much faster than it is with regular pads.  I even thought that maybe that type of flow wasn't happening.  But since I only made 6 pads to start with to make sure they worked, I was still supplementing with the rest of my supply of disposable pads.  When I used the disposables I had the dreaded experience a bunch of times.

Odor. There wasn't any.  This I looked up.  I'm not the only one to notice.  Apparently, since the materials are more breathable, odors don't have a chance to build up like they do with disposables.

What would you do if you had to use a tampon?  Well, this came up.  I had to go swimming with my girls during my week.  At first I sewed a tube of flannel and closed it on one end and stuffed it with wool.  I sewed it up and left the rest of the string (I used embroidery floss).  It was like a teeny tiny pillow!  It worked, but when I opened it up (wouldn't you be curious?) I realized that wool doesn't really absorb anything, and the flannel did all the work.  Also, this design would still be basically disposable because the I would feel a little iffy about being sure that the inside were really clean.  The next day I just took a small square of flannel and folded two edges toward the middle, then the other edges toward the middle and then folded it in half and put in in there O.B, style.  This worked great and would allow me to wash it and use it again.  This is what I would do again if I had to, but on the whole I generally prefer pads.

Are you insane? Yes. But only as insane as women have been for hundreds and hundreds of years. 

If you would like to try this out but don't want to make them yourself, you can purchase them.  Here are some links!

And don't forget your crafters!


  1. I generally only use pads as backup for tampons, since it feels too messy to me to use pads by themselves. Probably even more reason to use one that's reusable, since it wouldn't need to absorb as much. Have you tried those cup things? They seem like an interesting idea for something that's reusable.

  2. I've been using, making and selling my cloth pads for about 6 years. Once I made the switch I never looked back! Besides, crazy prints in your panties is super fun! :) I make my cloth pads in several designs as well as offer a layer of PUL, great for overnights and postpartum! If you have any questions I'd be I'd be glad to share what I know!

  3. You gotta try out the cup, too:

    Amazing for heavy days and when you can't get away with pads. Easy cleaning, long-time use. I've been told you can buy them (or a similar product) at Whole Foods but I haven't looked.