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Please forgive the indelicacy; I was recently surprised to find out how many women don’t know this trick.
Take a single sheet from a roll of paper towels, preferably uncolored. It will probably be about eleven inches square.
Fold it in half, between and parallel to the perforated edges. Fold it again, the long way, into thirds — ideally, so that the third that is bordered by the initial fold is on the outside, and the third that is bordered by the doubled edge is on the inside. You should now have a strip that’s eleven inches long and a bit less than two inches wide.
If you require a string, and you have string, here’s where it comes in. Take a piece of string that’s twice the length of the tampon plus desired tail, wrap it over the strip’s short axis, and tie it so it forms a loose loop. Pull the tails to one side.
Now fold the strip along its shorter axis, but not quite in half. Bring one short edge over to within about two inches of the other short edge. The strip is now about six and a half inches long. If you’re using string, the half on the in-folded side should lie in the fold.
Folding in the same direction as last time, take the edge formed by the fold you just made, and fold over the thicker side of the strip about an inch and a half in from the edge.
You should now have a strip a bit under two inches wide and about four and a half inches long. If you’ve done the last three folds correctly, it’ll be six sheets thick at one end and twenty-four sheets thick at the other. I find this makes the rolling easier and tidier, but it’s not strictly necessary. Once you’d folded the towel lengthwise into halves then thirds, you could just start rolling from one short end to the other; but the strip tends to splay and distort as you roll it. The third and fourth rounds of folding stabilize it a bit.
Starting from the thick edge, roll the strip into a snug but not impenetrably tight cylinder. Use in the normal fashion. It won’t be quite as absorptive as the commercial variety, but it’s a good deal cheaper and can be improvised at need.
In a pinch, you can do this trick with a length of toilet paper folded lengthwise, but I find the finished product comes out a little too long, and the paper has a tendency to shred and pill a bit in use: not ideal, but heaven knows it’s better than getting caught short.
There are two reasons to avoid tinted or printed paper towels. One is that the dye can’t be good for you. The other is that the towels aren’t always dyefast. It’s hard enough to get out the usual sort of stains, but fugitive dye stains from colored paper towels can get you some really funny looks from your dry cleaner.