How to sew a cloth diaper
I’ve always used cloth diapers at least part of the time with my babies, both for economy and comfort, so I was thrilled when both my expectant daughters said they’d like some cloth diapers for their babies. I made quite a few all-in-one diapers in the past. All-in-ones (AIO’s) are multi-layer fitted diapers that are sewn to a water-resistant outer layer. The water resistant layer is usually made of polyurethane laminate (PUL), a plastic-backed stretchy polyester fabric. These diapers worked relatively well for me, but they did sometimes leak.
My sister who has been cloth-diapering more recently says that she’s had better leak resistance with diapers and covers that are made separate from each other. So that’s what I decided to start with for our grandbabies. The diapers are an hourglass shaped flannel diaper with elastic and snaps for a good adjustable fit, and they have a pocket in the back so that you can add additional layers (called soakers) for more absorbency. I’ll talk about diaper covers in a future post.
If you’ve never made a diaper before, or don’t have much sewing experience, you might fear that diaper-making is complicated. It is true that there are quite a few steps to making this type of diaper. But here’s a great thing about diapers: babies need LOTS. If your first diapers aren’t perfect, make more. You’ll get better as you go.
This tutorial is just a starting point. If you have a bit of sewing experience, you’ll probably see other ways to get a similar result, and will easily be able to customize/modify instructions for yourself. If some of the instructions are unclear, ask questions and I’ll try to clarify. Not everyone will need all the details I’m including, but I am trying to make this project doable for folks with little sewing experience.
I usually make my own diaper patterns using newspaper. Sewing margins are 1/2 inch. The picture below is the newborn-sized pattern laid on a one-inch grid so that you can get a good idea of how to cut yours. This should fit most babies in the 6-10 pound range.
- Back edge= 13 inches
- Front edge= 9 inches
- Total Length=13 inches
- Narrowest dimension between legs= 5 inches
The SMALL size has a similar shape and will work for babies in the 9-14 pound range. It has the following measurements.
- Back edge= 16 inches
- Front edge= 10 inches
- Total Length=16 inches
- Narrowest dimension between legs= 6 inches
Size MEDIUM (fits 14-20 pounds)
- Back edge= 18 inches
- Front edge= 12 inches
- Total Length=17 inches
- Narrowest dimension between legs= 7 inches
medium LARGE, shown in yellow below, fits babies in the 20-30+ pound range. (When I initially posted these measurements, I thought I was making a medium, but once I sewed one, I realized the measurements below are definitely a large.)
- Back edge= 20 inches
- Front edge= 13 inches
- Total Length= 19 inches
- Narrowest dimension between legs= 8 inches
Once I get the rough dimensions of a pattern blocked out on a piece of newspaper, I fold the paper in half lengthwise so that I can trim both sides of the pattern at once. That way both sides will match. If your first pattern comes out odd-looking, grab another piece of newspaper and try again.
Once you’ve got a pattern that looks reasonable, use the pattern to cut out diapers, cutting two or three full layers of cotton flannel for each diaper that you will make. Three layers will be more absorbent but also more bulky. If you opt for only two layers, you will need more soaker layers. (A hint for affordable flannel: look for flannel bedsheets at thrift stores.)
When you are done cutting out a few hourglass shapes as shown above, you will have lots of smaller scraps. These are what you’ll use for your sewn-in soakers. Cut that leftover fabric into 4×6 inch ovals. They don’t have to be exactly that size, and they don’t even have to be the same kind of flannel. These layers will be sandwiched within the diaper, so anything absorbent and cotton will do. Stack 5 ovals together and zigzag stitch or serge them together. Then zig-zag stitch these stacked soakers to the wrong side (the unpretty side) of the inner layer of your hourglass shapes. Now you’ve got diaper pieces that look like the picture above, all ready to be sewn together.
SEW LAYERS TOGETHER
Stack your hourglass shapes on top of each other with the back sides of the fabric facing out and the pretty sides of the fabric facing each other. You will probably want to pin your fabric together so it doesn’t shift while you sew. You will be sewing around the whole perimeter of the diaper EXCEPT for a 4 inch wide space at the very back of the diaper. You can see the space marked with pins in the following picture.
That’s where your pocket will be, and that’s the space that will allow you to turn your diaper right side out, so be sure to leave that bit un-sewn. Beginning at one of the back pins, sew around the entire diaper with a straight stitch, using about a 1/2 inch margin, and stopping when you reach the other pin. (You can pin in other spots too– just remember that those back two pins are marking the place where you shouldn’t sew.)
The picture above shows the width of the seam allowance. Below you can see the diaper with layers sewn together. You can probably also see that my seams are not perfectly straight. No biggie. These are diapers. They can be adorable and functional without being perfect.
Now it is time for the leg elastic. You need two 4-inch pieces, one for each leg hole. Zig-zag stitch the elastic to the entire inner curve of each leg hole right at the very edge of the fabric. Here I am attaching the elastic, stretching the elastic out as I sew so that the fabric gathers. (Be sure to fasten both ends of the elastic securely.)
Here you can see the elastic gathering one leg hole.
Then here’s the diaper with both pieces of elastic sewn in. If you’d like, you can also add a 4-inch piece of elastic at the front (smaller end) of the diaper to help the diaper fit snugly in front. This is especially good for little boys, to keep them from pottying right up the front of their shirts.
TURNING AND TOP-STITCHING
Now it’s time to turn your diaper pretty side out. It’s really starting to look cute, isn’t it? I will sometimes poke a popsicle stick or the fat end of a chopstick into the corners to get the edges and curved corners of the diaper nice and crisp before I top-stitch.
Some folks would probably iron the diaper at this point to make it lay very flat, but I never do. I just get started top-stitching. #4 is nice decorative stitch on my machine. Or sometimes I just do a straight stitch, which also looks nice.
Top-stitch around the front and back of the diaper, skipping the gathered areas and the open area in the back.
In the past I’ve made soakers that tuck into the back pocket and are completely removable when washing. Removeable soakers dry more quickly, and are versatile. For example, at night you might tuck two soakers into the pocket instead of just one. The down side of completely removable soakers is that you have to reassemble the diapers before use, which can sometimes be daunting for dads, babysitters or others not familiar with your particular diaper system.
My sister came up with a solution that is the best of both worlds. She sews one end of a soaker to the back edge of each diaper. When it’s time for the diaper to hit the wash, she pulls it out of the diaper for more efficient washing and drying. But since it is still attached to the diaper, there’s no hunting for missing parts. Just tuck the soaker back into the dipe before use and you’re ready to go.
For these diapers I’m using those cheapo white washclothes you can buy at Walmart for about $4 a dozen. The newborn diapers fit half a washcloth, and the smalls fit a full washcloth. (You could also make soakers from old bath towels cut down to washcloth size and serged around the edges.)
Tuck your soaker (washcloth) into the pocket. For a half washcloth you will line up the narrow edge of the washcloth with the front (inside) edge of the pocket. If you’re using a whole washcloth, you can fold it in halves or thirds and line it up with the front (inner) edge, making sure when sewing to catch all the layers of the washcloth so it will stay folded. Also make sure that you fold the unfinished edge of flannel in toward the washcloth — that way, as you sew, you will also be hemming the inner edge of the pocket.
The next step is to add a 3-inch piece of elastic to both the front and back edge of the inside edges of the pocket. This will prevent gaps at the small of the baby’s back. Here’s how a diaper looks after it has the elastic added at the waist.(My daughter is stretching the elastic out so you can’t see it gathering very much.)
Finally it’s time to add snaps. (Velcro is another option. After many washings it tends to lose its power, but if you remember to add washing tabs, velcro is a very reasonable choice and is easy to apply.) This time around my sister loaned me her professional-quality snap press– a huge but very effective beast– so I am going with snaps. You can buy many colors of snaps here. The snaps shown here are a size 20, and are extremely durable.
I did a single row of snaps for the newborn size diapers and a double row of snaps for the size smalls, for added adjustability. Below you can see the snap pattern I did on the size small. This will allow three different positions to fit a growing baby. If you’ve chosen to make two-layer diapers, you wi probably want to tuck a smaller extra piece of fabric between the layers in the location where you will be installing the snaps to give the snaps more material to bite into. Also be sure to pull the washcloth out of the diaper so that you don’t accidentally hook it into the snaps. You want it free to pull out of the diaper for faster drying.
I’ll have to add a finished picture of my orange and pink diaper later. I’m waiting for some tangerine-colored snaps that I think will add the perfect adorable touch.
If you have questions about the project, or would like to add your own expertise, please comment below. There are lots of good ways to make diapers, and they can be really fun projects. Once you get familiar with the process, you’ll most likely be able to sew a whole diaper start to finish in an hour or less. I’m pretty sure I could have sewn at least 4 in the time it took me to write this post! Here’s a post showing how I make diaper covers.
And this post wouldn’t be complete without a picture of our daughters making a big fuss over the little diapers for their precious babies. What fun we will have!