Clean it right, the Nordic way
Super Swedish dishcloth
In 1949, innovator Curt Lindquist was tired of using old rags for cleaning. He thought there could be a better product, one that would look better, be more absorbent, and be more hygienic.
He brought out his meat grinder, a tool found in many Swedish kitchens at the time, and ran a cellulose sponge through it. A slimy green mass came out. Lindquist flattened it out and made a cloth. He called it wettex (wet textile). He went on to register this new dishcloth in 50 countries by 1954.
In 1965, NASA wanted the wettex cloth to line the wall of Gemini 4 Space Capsule. The problem was that they did not want green walls. The NASA contract specified another color. Lindquist worked tirelessly to formulate the proper color for Gemini 4. Lindquist was notified by NASA that his wettex cloth was bonded to every panel scheduled to launch on June 3 of that year.
Today there are two factories in Sweden making the sponge cloth. It is a big industry and very complicated. It involves specific raw materials, commercial mixers, and a large conveyor belt that moves through water and heat. The pulp is mixed and fed onto the conveyor belt. Finally a large roll of flattened cloth is ready to be cut into small dishcloth squares.
Wood chips from Norway are the first ingredient in the sponge cloth recipe. The chips are bonded in lye, and they become pulp. This cellulose is converted into viscose, then mixed with cotton and Glauber’s salt. When the mixture is washed and dried, the salt leaves pores in the fabric, which aids in absorbency. Modern cloths absorb 15 times their weight.
The process of making the dishcloths is environmentally friendly. The lye, acid, and salt are recovered from the process and reused. Any printing on the fabric is done in water-soluble paint, which is biodegradable. The dishcloth will degrade in six to eight weeks in a compost heap, which makes the entire cloth biodegradable. It will degrade in a bucket of water in a number of days.
The dishcloth has been a staple in Swedish kitchens for over 50 years. Today special sterile cloths have been used in the healthcare industry when a large absorption rate is needed. In Germany, they are used in the dairy industry, cleaning and massaging the teats before milking.
The Swedish dishcloth, a good functional product, remained a consumer product in Sweden through the 1980s. At that time, Nils-Gunner Persson, a Swedish entrepreneur, decided to market the product internationally. He had contacts in Europe, Japan, and the United States.
Mark Bretheim, owner and designer of Cose Nuove, which imported only six designs in 2005, marketed the product to retailers in the United States. In 2006, he had 12 designs. By 2007, there were 100 of his popular charming, trendy Scandinavian designs for sale. Swedish functionality and design met, and today, the dishcloths are popular additions to kitchens all over the United States. They are durable and machine-washable, not harboring any smells or bacteria. The fact that the cloths are eco-friendly and sustainable are important to many customers.
One of Bretheim’s brightest moments was the day the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis telephoned. He was told that the Swedish royal couple were in attendance for the opening of the expansion of the museum. When the Swedish queen was in the gift shop, she bought the sponge cloth with his design “The Queen Rules the Kitchen” to take back to Sweden.
The Swedish dishcloth has had a long and mostly humble history. Marketing and great designs continue, and the product has evolved. Cloths can be used for general cleaning, washing the car, removing make up, and even for cultivating seeds. Cloths are found in many kitchens today and will continue to show up in commercial settings.
This article originally appeared in the July 8, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.