I am by my nature a collector and an acquirer, and it’s one of the most pervasive, low-grade sources of tension in my marriage. While I’m constantly bringing new stuff into our home, my wife is simultaneously trying to purge them. For every new ceramic pinch bowl, vintage juice glass, or wooden utensil that rolls in the door, one gets donated or (“accidentally”) broken. But the one thing we can always agree on is that no matter how many Swedish dishcloths we have, there’s always room for at least a few more.
The first time I ever saw a Swedish dishcloth was when my mom gifted one to us and described it as a “dried kitchen towel.” It was printed with a rather unimpressive drawing of a carrot and was slightly rumpled, with a sort of unpleasant fibrous hand feel and the ephemeral weight of a piece of balsa wood. In my eyes it wasn’t a dishcloth, but just a piece of cardboard lying on its resume about its work experience. It went, unused and unloved, into a kitchen drawer.
I remained unconvinced until a reporting trip took me to Sweden’s craft brewing capital Gothenburg, and in between brewery visits I found myself wandering between gorgeous home design stores, continually being confronted by a huge array of artfully designed dishcloths. They were beautiful, and cheap, and so I bought a few to take home.
Even if you’ve never actually used a Swedish dishcloth before, you’ve almost certainly seen them for sale. As of a few years ago they’ve spread across both the internet and a countless number of cute boutiques and kitchen stores, and because they’re exceptionally useful, printed with a wide array of fun colors and images, and are compostable and ecologically-friendly, they’re a fun, low-cost purchase that you can feel good about. If you buy them from a brand like Ecologie they’ll cost you about $6-7 each (unless if they're purchased as a set of three on Amazon). But if you buy them from the brand that invented them—Wettex—they’re less than a dollar a piece and available as a 10-pack on both Etsy and Amazon.
Since that first trip I’ve been back to Sweden two more times for work, each time buying more and more dishcloths. We now have literally dozens, and give them as gifts to people every year. This isn’t just a casual present, either: We are definitely super weird about it. We find ourselves following up with people, asking how they liked them, if they noticed how quickly they dried, if they knew you can put them in the washing machine, and so on.
It turns out, my wife and I have simply tapped into a longstanding passion for these towels. Wettex dishcloths are so ubiquitous in Sweden that, as has happened with iconic brands like Band-Aid and Kleenex, Swedes simply refer to this type of dishcloth as “Wettex.” They were invented in the 1950s by an engineer named Curt Lindquist, and Wettex writes on their website that the first iterations were made when “Curt Lindquist put a sponge in a meat grinder, flattened it out, and mixed it with cotton.” The name is said to come courtesy of Lindquist’s wife, Margareta, and is a portmanteau of the words “wet” and “textile.”
Today, across brands, Swedish dishcloths are made from a combination of cellulose and cotton, which basically makes them a cross between a paper towel and a sponge. This means they’re incredibly absorbent, dry rapidly, and are surprisingly durable. We have yet to lose a single dish towel to deterioration, even after months of continual use, making them significantly more long-lasting than any sponge we’ve ever owned. Our greatest complaint is that they can get a bit smelly, but throwing them into the washing machine gets rid of any funk (they can also be hand-washed).
Wettex claims that each towel can replace up to 15 rolls of paper towels and, based on my own experience, I’d say that’s accurate. While I wouldn’t use them for things like blotting or draining fried foods, they are incredibly well-suited for wiping down counters, fixtures, and stovetops, and we’ve significantly cut down on our paper towel usage since becoming enamored with them. It’s a huge benefit. Not only can I spend less money on paper towels, I can also cut down on my single-use paper consumption in a meaningful way, and not have to fill my limited under-counter storage space with bulky paper towels.
The designs can also be quite beautiful, and you can find Swedish dishcloths with illustrations suitable for basically every season and occasion. We gravitate towards those with natural scenery—birch trees, birds on branches, swimming fish, and whimsical drawings of lemons—but there’s something for everyone.
So far my biggest dishcloth-related victory has been when, during the holidays, we gave friends a dishcloth purchased in Sweden that had an abstract geometric design on it, and they in turn gave us one they had purchased themselves from a local shop. They’d never actually used one before, but we’d talked about them so enthusiastically and for so long they knew it would be something we’d enjoy. The haranguing worked! A miracle.