Sustainable periods: how to make reusable menstrual pads from scratch

Crafting your own period pads can be a cheaper and sustainable alternative to buying single-use plastic products – and it’s easier to do than you might think. Menstruation researcher and educator Chella Quint explains how to make your own pads from scratch at home. 

Welcome to The Curiosity Academy, Stylist’s new learning hub where you can access workshops, how-to guides, new research and learn the most up-to-date skills from the UK’s most in-the-know people.

No matter how long we’ve been dealing with them, for most women periods arrive as a monthly inconvenience. At the very worst, they’re completely debilitating.

Our underwhelming experience of periods hasn’t been helped by generations of stigma surrounding our monthly flows. From innuendo-filled period product advertising to cringe-worthy sex education, the discourse around periods has been one of shame and taboo for many women. 

One woman on a mission to change this and get us talking more openly about our periods is Chella Quint. The Brooklyn-born, Sheffield-based menstruation researcher and educator began using the phrase ‘period positive’ in 2006 while writing a zine called Adventures In Menstruating that challenged and made fun of the stigmas surrounding periods. 

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“Does being ‘period positive’ mean loving your period? Absolutely not,” Chella tells Stylist. “Periods can be a complete pain in the uterus. There are complications around menstruation like polycystic ovaries syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis, which can often go undiagnosed for a long time because people suffer in silence. My big thing is that talking about periods is a positive act.”

Over the years, Chella has transformed her zine into a series of stand-up comedy shows where she uses humour to tackle period shame. Her latest book, Be Period Positive, also serves as a candid, myth-busting guide to menstruation, covering everything from first periods to menopause

Removing the stigma surrounding menstruation can also help us have more sustainable periods. By deviating away from single-use plastic period products that promise to hide and mask bleeding, we can start to embrace more sustainable period solutions that often need us to confront our messy bodily functions. 

Reuseable period pads can be cheaper and more affordable than plastic products.

It’s essential that women have access to sustainable period products. Research has found that tampons and sanitary pads produce around 100 billion pieces of waste every year. While 27,938 used tampons and applicators are found on the world’s beaches every single day.

Using reusable period products not only has many environmental benefits, but it can also help women financially. It’s estimated that each woman’s period costs up to £41 on average – that’s £492 a year and £18,450 over a lifetime. 

“Up until 100 years ago everyone used homemade menstrual pads,” says Chella. “They repurposed bits of fabric, scrubbed them and reused them. While single-use plastic items felt very innovative and liberating at a time when there weren’t a lot of other conveniences in life, I would love to think we can design better solutions that protect the planet too.”

Here, Chella explains how you can create your own period pads from scratch.  

Everything you need to know about making your own period pads  

“If you can sew, or have access to a sewing machine, you can make your own menstrual products,” says Chella. 

To make period pads from scratch, Chella recommends using three different types of material. She suggests using a breathable, natural layer on top that’s comfortable and healthy next to your skin, like organic cotton. The middle layer should be a hyper-absorbent fabric that can soak up blood, like bamboo fleece. The bottom layer is usually more waterproof, such as a combination of cotton and PUL.

You can even try reusing materials you already have at home, like pyjamas, towels or dressing gowns you no longer use.

Period patterns can come in many shapes and sizes to suit everyone's different flows.

To make your period pad, you’ll need to find a pattern that outlines the shape you want to make. Chella recommends using the Wiki Cloth Menstrual Pad Database where you can download a number of different patterns and designs with picture-led instructions.

There are a huge variety of patterns to suit everyone’s needs and flows. The simplest for beginners to start with are circle and rectangle shapes. Other period patterns come in more elaborate shapes, from teddy bear outlines to dragons. “When I made my very first zine, I interviewed a friend who made her own pads with a zombie design, so when she bled on it, it added to the context,” says Chella.

If you get stuck or need inspiration, there’s a huge network of pad makers sharing advice, patterns and tutorials online. Chella advises joining the Sewing Cloth Menstrual Pads Facebook group where people can share advice in a safe space.

What you’ll need 

  • Scissors (small ones for the curves)
  • Pins
  • Pattern
  • Sewing machine or needle and thread if making by hand
  • Snaps
  • Fabric - three types with specific properties:
  1.  A moisture-wicking fabric that’s safe against skin
  2. A hyper-absorbent fabric
  3. A waterproof layer

How to make DIY period pads

The simplest for beginners to start with are circle and rectangle shapes.

1. Find a pattern you like online, then print and cut it out.

2. Trace the pattern onto each piece of fabric you’re using for the top and bottom layers. Cut both pieces out.

3. Cut out a rectangular piece of middle absorbent layer that will fit inside the other layers. 

4. Place the middle layer inside the two outer pieces of fabric and pin in place.

5. Sew the layers together using a thick stitch around the edge of the pad – you can do this by hand or with a sewing machine. Each pattern you use will have different guidelines for where to make your stitches. Most will have a small seam allowance around the edge.

6. Make zigzags or serge the edges with scissors or a sewing machine.

7. Fix on metal snap fasteners or Velcro so you can attach the pads to your knickers.

Chella’s book, Be Period Positive, is available to buy now. Find more expert-led guides and tutorials on The Curiosity Academy Instagram page (@TheCuriosityAcademy). 

Images: Getty, Chella Quint, Thomas McCart, Corky Lrenzy/Versodile Pad Patterns

  • Chella Quint, menstrual researcher and educator

    Chella Quint Be Period Positive
    Chella Quint is the Period Positive movement founder and menstrual researcher

    Chella Quint is a designer, writer, educator, and performer. A former drama teacher and head of PSHE in secondary schools, Chella created her #periodpositive movement in 2006 to use humour and joy to challenge menstrual taboos and find long-term solutions to period poverty.

    She has become a leading expert on menstruation education in the UK, advising on regional and national policy. Her book, Be Period Positive, is a practical guide covering period-related questions and busting myths and taboos.