Following on from my last post Sewing for your nether regions, a few readers expressed an interest in learning a bit more about how I cobbled together these cheery aides d’undercarriage.
So, here’s what I know (so far!). I’m certainly no expert, but having used homemade pads for about six months, I’ve learnt a thing or two about what I think works well and what doesn’t so much.
First up, finding a pattern. I searched for free patterns for menstrual pads and the first that came up – from Luna Wolf – seemed to fit the bill. Happily this also turned out to be a Really Great Pattern and comes with my full recommendation.
Visit the Luna Wolf website and you can download a set of printable templates for pads and liners in various sizes for free (you can donate to support the site if you wish). The download (which you can get in A4 and US letter formats) comes with very detailed instructions and photographs explaining how to put them together.
Clear guidance on layers and absorbency is given, so there is little point in my explaining here – though I would say it’s something that you can’t really be sure of until you’ve given them a whirl. For that reason, I would advise you make a couple, see how you go, and then make the rest (how many you need will depend on all your personal details such as whether you use tampons or menstrual cups and the nature of your flow).
I made about half a dozen to begin with, and I definitely found there were some I preferred more than others. Here’s what I found:
Even if using these as your full-time pad without the support of, say, a tampon or a menstrual cup, you can only go so thick in terms of layers. A few of my first attempts included several layers and they are definitely not my go-tos – they are just too thick and, frankly, rigid to be properly comfortable. I suspect they might be visible in tight fitting clothes, too. Much better were those made with just a few layers, including a fairly absorbent but lightweight bamboo fleece.
What goes inside maybe doesn’t matter so much as long as it is flexible and wicks moisture effectively (so natural fibres, basically) but what you use for the outer layer really does matter. For a few of the prettiest pads I made initially, I used a fairly thick terry fabric – I thought this would work well but actually it is not very comfortable. The best fabric was, I found, good quality cotton jersey. Soft, absorbent, flexible and really easy to launder.
Happily, I had a selection of offcuts from some pretty jerseys I’ve had in my life over the years – and these all created lovely soft pads that are now in regular rotation.
Don’t worry I’m not going to go all gynae on you! I’m referring to the body of the pad – which is made up of layers of fabric within an outer shell. A good rule of thumb is to use something of ample absorbency like an old towel or flannel (for my first batch I used bamboo fleece nappy liners from when my kids were babies), and then a few other layers – old t-shirts are perfect.
In the end, I found that just a few layers worked far better than a really thick pad – basically a similar thickness overall to the average disposable pad. Yes, they probably need to be changed more often, but they are more comfortable and still reasonably absorbent.
This is the bit that makes fewer layers doable. Before you sandwich the inner layers between your outer fabric, you may want to consider some form of water resistant barrier. I used an old washable waterproof table cloth for some, and ripstop for others. Here it’s really important to note which is the outer side of the waterproof fabric (i.e. the bit that protects from the showers) as this needs to face upwards underneath the other layers. Luna Wolf explains how to position a water resistant layer within the pad, but working out which way up the fabric should go is crucial. As it goes, the tablecloth provides a much better barrier than the ripstop, but it is also more rigid so a less comfortable proposition. Neither is completely safe against a heavy flow day. I’ve recently moved onto menstrual cups which make this less of a problem, though something to be aware of nevertheless.
The pattern suggests where to position your snaps, though it’s best to try on and mark the position for yourself (I found they needed to be slightly further out than suggested. My absolute top tip here is DO NOT SCRIMP ON YOUR SNAPS! I’m afraid I did – I bought a multipack and it was just a whole world of pain as most of them squidged in the wrong direction (I was using Kam snaps pliers) and refused to close. I came to my senses and bought better quality snaps and thankfully the pads have lived to tell the tale: buy cheap buy twice!
The shape of these pads is not going to be for everyone. Just a quick search online for ready-to-buy versions and you will see there are all kinds of shapes – all with different ‘wings’. A more curved, less angular wing will be easier to sew and turn out than this pattern. It’s worth experimenting with, and deciding whether anything is lost in security by creating a more streamlined version. For myself, I saved a bit of time by curving the corners slightly but retaining the width of the wings. I then lengthened the wings slightly so there would be more overlap underneath.
This is dependent on so many factors, it’s hard to say. In the end I made about 15 pads and so far I haven’t run out mid-period (of course that does mean a bit of extra washing). A rule of thumb might be to work out how many disposable pads you would use in a day, and multiply that by two – that way you would have enough to tide you over while the previous day’s are in the wash. And if you make extra that gives you a bit of leeway. If you use a cup or tampons and use pads only for insurance, you will need far fewer.
My pads have gone through a 60 degree wash multiple times with no problems. Obviously the jersey fades over time, but they come out looking clean. As Luna Wolf advises, it’s really important to wash all the fabrics you plan to use in the pads at the same temperature before you get started – that way you won’t get any weird shrinkage and warping when you first bung them in the wash. Something worth noting: the greater the variety of materials you use in your pads, the greater the risk of twisting and warping as the various fibres react differently to continual use.
I think this was the biggest revelation: homemade pads (when made with fewer layers and a soft jersey outer) are SO much more comfortable than shop bought disposable pads. It is not just that the fabric is softer, it is also more breathable and, apart from whatever washing product you use to clean them, is free of all the nasty chemicals and scents used to make the plasticky pads we are used to ‘palatable’ (personally, the fragrances they use make me nauseous, but that’s another story). Artificial fragrance and absorbent chemicals can cause nasty skin reactions and considerable discomfort, particularly after prolonged use.
There is no doubt that, if you sew regularly and have all the odds and ends necessary to make pads at your disposal, you will save money by making them. I’m often surprised by the headline figures we are given for the annual cost of menstruating. I’m pretty sure I’ve never spent a few hundred pounds, but I do believe some women have to spend considerable sums for various reasons over which they have absolutely no control. But even if you only spend a few quid every month, making your own towels is still going to be cheaper. And it’s miles cheaper than buying RTW (is that the right phrase for this?!) reusable towels, which can cost a huge amount – their selling point being the promise of savings further down the line (and a reduction in landfill).
If, however, you don’t sew much and you have to buy fabric, snaps and equipment especially for the project, you may find that the cost adds up to a prohibitive amount. If you have the spare cash then I would say it’s worth it: they’re a fun make and they are really useful. But if you don’t, please don’t give yourself a hard time about it. Periods are hard enough without a whole load of extra worry about the type of products you are using.
The upshot (and a mini rant)
I know some people are squeamish about talking about periods and menstruation, but really it’s time we were more vocal about it, not less.
When we had our first child we decided we would use reuseable nappies – a decision made for both financial and environmental reasons. It was only then that the absolute absurdity of disposable menstrual products dawned on me. I’m sorry to say it took until my 30s to realise that the only reason reusable period products were not as popular or ‘trendy’ as reusable nappies was because our menstrual blood is considered more dirty and distasteful than the slurry that comes out of a baby’s backside.
I know I promised a rather tame discussion of this subject, but how can we discuss it honestly without talking about so many things we have been taught systematically to keep quiet about?
We are chained to a system that has not only taxed us to purchase menstrual products (in the UK a 5% tax that has only just been abolished in the 2020 budget), but that also lies to us and tells us this is the only way.
I would, however, just like to say this: period poverty is one of the great shames of our society. For this reason we continue to buy disposable menstrual pads and drop them into the food bank collection point after purchase. I don’t want the conversation about reusable period products to be one about being environmentally responsible versus not giving a damn – being able to make my own pads is a complete privilege, and one I had fun undertaking. Further, using them involves extra washing and drying, something which – and it is a disgrace that I should have to write this about a 21st century affluent society – is not feasible for many families who have limited (if any) access to basic amenities and resources. Not to mention the mental and physical energy to deal with the extra work involved.
In writing this post I am not suggesting we should all switch to reusables – I know that this isn’t possible for a great many women for a great many reasons. If, however, you fancy having a go at this thrifty little stashbusting make, then I hope this helps you on your way!
If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments section below – or, if you prefer, send me a message using the contact page. Looking forward to hearing from you!