As diapers go, cloth diapers have been around since the beginning, and they were around long before disposable diapers. Principally, they work the same as any other flavor of diaper, in that they have an absorbent core enclosed within a waterproof outer layer. In the case of cloth diapers, the name tells the tale: the absorbent core is made from layers of cloth fabric, which can be laundered and reused many times. Traditionally, cloth diapers are fastened with diaper pins, but today other closures exist.
Although today disposable diapers are most commonly the choice of both parents for their children as well as the ABDL community, some still choose cloth for any number of reasons.
Cloth diapers come in many shapes and forms today:
Flat: Flat diapers are the most traditional form of cloth diapers. They are literally a square of absorbent fabric. Sometimes these come in the form of multiple layers sewn together into a stack. Flat diapers must be folded into a shape to be applied, which can take a slight amount of additional work during a change, but because there is no predetermined shape, any number of folding methods can be used to shape and layer the diaper as the caregiver wishes. Flat diapers can also be layered on top of each other individually to give as much or as little thickness and absorbency as the caregiver feels is appropriate. Because flat diapers are thin when taken individually, they are easier to completely clean in the laundry, and they dry much quicker than any other type of cloth diaper. Flat diapers are typically applied with pins.
Prefold: Prefold diapers are an evolution of the flat diaper in many ways. Instead of simply a flat square of fabric, a prefold involves several layers sewn together, and they have a thicker section (with additional layers) sewn into the middle section. Because additional layers are already placed and sewn, it takes noticeably less time to prepare a prefold for wearing. However, because of the placement of the middle absorbent section, the variety of folding methods which can be used is somewhat limited. Also, because of the thickness, they require more care to ensure they completely clean in the laundry, and they also take considerable time to dry completely. Additional soaker layers can be added if deemed appropriate. Prefolds, like their flat relatives, are typically applied with pins.
Contoured: Contoured diapers are a more recent idea in cloth diapering. Instead of a square-shaped piece of cloth that requires folding, a contoured diaper is cut and sewn into a shape much like the shape of a modern disposable diaper. This allows for very quick application of the diaper, as there is no folding required beforehand. The drawback to this, however, is that a contoured diaper has much less customizability than do its square brethren. However, as with the other cloth diaper types, soaker or other additional layers can be easily added, which can become necessary as many contoured diapers do not have large capacity on their own. Contoured diapers come in various thicknesses, so laundering and drying times could be considerable in thicker examples. Some contoured diapers are applied with pins, but some come with integrated hook-and-loop closures so no pins are required.
All-In-One: The all-in-one is the closest a cloth diaper gets to being a disposable. Using a contoured diaper as the base, a waterproof layer that can withstand modern laundry machines is integrated right into the diaper. This means that a caregiver can simply grab an all-in-one and apply it. Like contoured diapers, the capacity of many all-in-ones is limited, and although one can add soaker layers, it is more difficult to do in a manner that avoids leaks because of the integrated waterproof layer. All-in-ones are considerably more difficult to launder than the other cloth diaper shapes, again because of the integrated waterproof layer. Drying times can also be quite considerable. All-in-ones feature integrated snaps or hook-and-loop closures, so no pins are required.
A variety of fabric types are used to make cloth diapers. This section is an overview of some of the more common varieties, and is not meant to be an authoritative, all-inclusive list. As the FAQs at adultclothdiaper.com, a cloth diaper vendor online, explain some of the fabrics quite well, the quoted parts in this section are borrowed from their site:
Birdseye: "Birdseye's unique weave makes it soft, comfortable and very absorbent. Its woven qualities make it fast drying and the longest lasting of any diapering fabrics. The weave is looser than flannel and it is also less bulky."
Gauze: "Gauze is a difficult fabric to find but it is also the most popular diapering cloth. Weighing in as the lightest of all the diaper cloths, gauze is soft, loosely woven, and finely spun. This makes it the softest, most absorbent, comfortable diaper. Since its looser, porous weave allows air to move about freely it is especially helpful in reducing the occurrence of diaper rash and is fast drying."
Flannel: "Flannel is the most common diaper fabric. Flannel is the primary fabric offered at some stores since flannel is the easiest fabric to come and is the least expensive. Many diaper companies push flannel because its lower cost make them more profitable to sell, but there are downsides to flannel. Because it is a dense weaved fabric it is somewhat less absorbent and can take much longer to dry. It also loses its initial softness over time and the fabric actually becomes harder."
Terry: "Terry Cloth is the most popular diaper fabric used in Europe. European diapers are usually made exclusively of terry cloth. Because of its bulkiness in the US it is generally used only in the center panel, if it is used at all." Terry fabric is commonly found in bath towels, and is quite absorbent. However, it is a coarser fabric, so as noted by the adultclothdiaper FAQ, it is frequently found in absorbent center panels, where it is covered by softer fabrics.
Bamboo: Very rarely found in adult cloth diapers, bamboo is becoming a more common choice for the layers found next to the skin in baby diapers. Bamboo fabric is said to have excellent wicking properties, making it a good choice to pull moisture away from the skin and into more absorbent layers. Bamboo is also said to be an environmentally-friendly fabric.
Hemp: Another fabric rarely found in adult cloth diapers that is becoming more common in baby cloth diapers, hemp is said to be incredibly absorbent and very environmentally-friendly to grow. It is also said to be a strong fabric that will lead to longer-lasting cloth diapers.
As previously mentioned, cloth diapers typically require a separate waterproof cover. These waterproof covers come in a variety of materials and forms, and namely, fall into three main categories:
Waterproof covers, as previously mentioned, are most often a separate entity from the actual cloth diaper, and as such, there are different ways of applying them. Pull-on pants are comparable to "big-boy" underwear, as the wearer puts his legs through the holes and pulls them on in the fashion of big-boy underwear. Pull-ons have the advantage of being one piece, so there is less possibility of leakage from the seam in the side.
Aside from pull-on pants, there are varieties that are applied similarly to a disposable diaper, as in they have split sides that are then fastened by hook-and-loop closures or snaps after the pant has been pulled into position between the legs.
Plastic: This is by and far the most common waterproof-layer material, as it is relatively inexpensive and easy to manufacture. Plastic is not breathable, but it is completely and reliably waterproof. Plastic has only limited stretch, so over time it can split if frequently pulled too far. Also, plastic cannot withstand high temperatures, so most plastic pants cannot be laundered in a machine, and none of them can be dried in a dryer. Overall, though, plastic pants are incredibly reliable and very affordable.
Rubber: Before petrochemical engineering hit its stride, rubber was the common material of choice for waterproof layers. Rubber has a unique texture and odor, and is naturally-derived. Rubber requires different care than does plastic, but rubber pants are also utterly reliable.
PUL: PUL stands for PolyUrethane Laminate. It is a polyester fabric that is laminated to a thin layer of polyurethane. Its construction makes it thin, waterproof, breathable, machine-washable, and able to withstand higher temperatures. It is much more difficult to find adult offerings in PUL, and when one does find them they are frequently of higher cost. However, one could argue that the longevity of the material and other properties that are unique to PUL as a waterproofing layer outweigh the cost differential.
Fabric-lined covers: Fabric-lined diaper covers are much as the name suggests: a diaper cover that is most often, but not always, waterproof, which is lined and/or covered with fabric for comfort and cuteness. Waterproof fabric-lined covers frequently make use of PUL or Plastic to provide the waterproofing. Care of these items is on a case-by-case basis.
Because cloth diapers are reusable, they require considerably more care than do disposable diapers. The biggest dangers to cloth diapers are chemicals from agents like bleach, and urine. Some compounds found in urine turn into caustic agents over time, the most notable of these being ammonia. Stale urine, bleach, and other chemical agents weaken the fibers in the fabric of cloth diapers, considerably shortening their useful life. Some tricks and, of course, proper care will considerably extend the useful life of cloth diapers, which can be as long as 1-3 years if properly cared for.
A diaper pail is a must with cloth diapers. There are opposing viewpoints on whether that pail should be filled with water first, or if it should be left dry. A dry pail is completely acceptable, and makes transporting the pail to the laundry much easier. However, if you have reason to believe that the urine in your diapers is rather strong (smell, diaper rash, burning after several hours in the diaper), then filling the pail with water to help soak and dilute the compounds in the diaper is recommended. A good diaper pail should have a lid with a good seal to help keep pets out of the pail and odors in the pail. It is strongly advised to leave diapers in the pail for no more than about five days. Otherwise, they will stink greatly, the pail will be heavy and hard to move, and damage can occur as the compounds from urine will have already become ammonia and have started causing damage.
The key to cloth diapering is laundering them. Because of the task cloth diapers do, it is good practice to wash them on the heavy-duty setting of the washing machine. Use a hot wash, as the hot water will kill any bacteria and sterilize the diapers. Use a cold rinse, as cold is more energy efficient and is gentler on the diapers. Use only a normal load's worth of laundry detergent, as using too much will not clean the diapers more but will cause detergent build-up. Make certain that the laundry machines are not overloaded, as cloth diapers absorb great quantities of liquid and will become quite heavy once the wash cycle has begun.
Line-drying cloth diapers is said to be an excellent practice, as the sunlight helps remove stains and gives them a pleasant smell. However, since line-drying is frequently unfeasible, a dryer is the common method. Use a warm setting and expect that they'll take at least as long as bath towels to dry.
In some cases, cloth diapers will exhibit odd characteristics. They may become uncomfortable and feel as if they’re burning against the skin after a short time, which indicates a build-up of ammonia (from stale urine). In other cases, they will begin emitting a noticeable and unpleasant odor shortly after wetting, which is caused by a build-up of detergent. These build-ups are caused by laundry machines that, for whatever reason, cannot quite fully clean the diapers, thus leaving slight deposits that can build up over time and cause issues. In either case, the solution is to wash the diapers as you normally would, then after they've finished the full cycle, re-wash them, making sure to use no detergent. This will help remove the build-up. If the problem was especially bad, do another wash cycle with no detergent.
As a tip, rinsing of cloth diapers, for example in the shower, can help to remove at least some of the urine, helping to avoid some of the degradation of the fabric.
For those who can only access coin-operated laundry, the actual laundering procedures are the same as for those who have their own laundry machines. Some who have their own laundry machines have more options in terms of using their machines for pre-soak options and the like, but ultimately, the actual laundering is the same.
As for waterproof pants and covers, always follow the manufacturer's instructions. Generally, plastic pants and rubber pants cannot withstand the stresses or temperatures found in laundry machines, so hand-washing is advisable. PUL is designed to be laundered at high temperatures, so laundering PUL items should not present any problems.
Characteristics and Comparisons
Cloth diapers have some characteristics that are notably different from disposables. Obviously, there are also some advantages and disadvantages to cloth as compared to disposables.
Cloth diapers, because they are simply absorbent cloth, tend to "feel" noticeably different than do disposables. They absorb liquid in a much different fashion than does the crystal material of disposables, and once they've absorbed that liquid, they will feel "wetter" over time than will disposables. The crystals in disposables serve to keep liquid suspended and away from skin, whereas in cloth the liquid is simply held in the cloth, making it more noticeable. Also, cloth diapers, because the cloth gets quite heavy with moisture, will sag dramatically when they're sufficiently wet. This dramatic sagging makes a onesie very desirable attire while wearing cloth diapers, if for no other reason than the suspending effect it will have on the wet diapers.
Reusable: Cloth diapers are meant to be reusable, so they can be laundered again and again. A well-maintained cloth diaper can last for up to several years, as can the waterproof pants.
Cost-effective: Although cloth diapers require an initial investment, over time they are much less expensive than disposable diapers, especially for those who own laundry machines.
Environmentally-friendly: Cloth diapers are more environmentally friendly than are disposables. Although the energy consumption between the two is disputed (disposable diapers require petroleum for manufacture, but washing cloth requires energy to heat the water and run the laundry machines), even if the energy costs work out to be equal, disposable diapers are a much greater burden on landfills. Also, cloth diapers require far less fuel for transport than do disposables as so many more disposables have to be transported.
Easy customization: Cloth diapers are very easily customized in terms of fit, fold, and thickness. Where disposables require a convoluted process involving slicing or puncturing the outer layer to add more layers, cloth simply requires placing another layer on the stack to be worn. Where disposables suffer from tapes that can damage the shell when adjustments are attempted, cloth can simply be re-pinned or re-fastened with no issue.
Laundry: Unlike disposable diapers, which can be simply discarded when soiled, cloth diapers require laundering. If one wears cloth diapers to bed every night, there might be approximately two more loads of laundry per week.
Dealing with messes: There are few who enjoy dealing with mess once the diaper has been soiled. With disposables, one can simply roll-up the diaper and discard it, mess and all. Conversely, cloth diapers that have been soiled still need laundering. Even though that does not necessitate touching the mess, even being exposed to it during the changing and laundering might be unpleasant for some.
Portability: Cloth diapers, once wet or soiled, need to be laundered. For one who is traveling or otherwise on-the-go, carrying around used cloth diapers can be difficult or cumbersome.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some known good vendors for cloth diapers and supplies:
-eBay (normal eBay cautions apply)