LONG info on how I diaperOkay, more info from me.
Dh was a little nervous about using cloth, but I even got him using pins eventually. I was determined to use them, and got most of my info online (googling "cloth diapers"). We used a service the first couple of months. It was nice to ease into it that way, but it limited our options more (they give you prefolds only usually, and mine started using ones that weren't very soft) and once we started washing them... we thought it was no big deal. Partly because we were both willing to wash, so it split the load, and partly because we use a simple routine (no wet pail).
As someone mentioned, the cheapest option is usually prefolds with the cheaper covers (like Dappi, that I think you can buy at Babies R Us even. Hated the Gerber though, nasty stiff things). If you don't pin, they're very easy to use, too - fold the diaper in thirds lengthwise, fold the front in a little bit to make it fit, and put it in the cover. The covers are roughtly the same shape as a disposable and use either velcro or snaps to fasten so if you pre-load a couple with folded diapers they really are as easy as disposables. You can pre-prepare some to ease reluctant partners into it. And as I said earlier, I found poop easier to clean off the baby with cloth.
I bought most of my cool AIO (all in one), fitteds, and pockets used, so they were a lot cheaper. Ebay has a thriving cloth diaper section. There's also orangestarfish.com and a couple forums that sell mama things. And a lot of independent online retailers sell seconds cheaper. I found some at children's resale shops and even thrift stores.
Covers do not have to be washed every time they are used (unlike diapers or AIO (all in ones) or pockets). If they get poop on them, or start smelling like pee, obviously you wash them, but usually you can just hang them on a dresser drawer or somewhere to air out between uses. 3 covers is probably the minumum. I liked having 5 and LOVED having 8, so I could keep one ready in the diaper bag and a bunch ready on the changing table.
As I think someone else mentioned, to calculate how many diapers you need, decide how often to wash diapers. Most people settle for every 2 or 3 days. Then figure how many diapers the babies use at their age - newborns go though an amazing number, a dozen a day easy, so for little ones get 3 dozen or figure on washing more often.
I think it's best not to get too many of the small or xsmall covers or fitteds since most babies out grow them so quickly. Prefolds last longer, especially if you're willing to pin.
AIOs are easiest, since they're like disposables except you can wash them. You don't have to prepare them as they're one whole thing, the absorbant part and the waterproof part (at most you'll have to snap the inner part in after washing). They fasten like disposables, with velcro or snaps. You use them once and then toss them in the pail.
Pockets are almost as easy to use - you just have to stuff the absorbant material in first (prefolds, special inserts, whatever).
But they cost more. And you have to buy as many of them as you would fitteds or prefolds since they must be washed after every use. But they are good for the diaper phobic and when you have limited time/space, so I like a couple to send when my MIL takes the baby or just to keep in the diaper bag. Or for the middle of the night.
Doublers: doublers are your friend. They're small oblongs or flared rectangles made of diaper material that you put on top of a prefold or inside a fitted or AIO, against the baby, to add absorbancy. They can sometimes be used instead of a diaper for newborns. Lots of diaper sites sell them, but they're easy to make - just sew together a couple layers of flannel (old sheets, nightgowns) or hemp. You can control absorbancy with them, and make the small prefolds last longer.
Fleece and fake suede: these are non-natural fabrics but oh so useful. They wick the pee away from the baby and into the diaper, so the baby feels dry. Many AIO and pockets offer a layer of fleece against the baby's skin. I went to thrift stores and bought cheap ugly fleece jackets and cut them in the shape of doublers and used them on top of the prefolds, and when I made doublers I used fleece as the top layer. Bonus - you don't have to hem fleece, because it doesn't unravel. Double bonus - the better fleeces (with smaller nubs) release poop nicely. A well formed poop rolls right off fleece and into the toilet.
Silk: If you don't do non-natural fabric, silk is a good option as an occasional liner instead of fleece and suede. It doesn't feel dry the same way, but it does an amazing job of preventing or healing diaper rash (ds had yeast issues early on). Again, you can find silk clothes at thrift stores to cut up.
I used a steel foot-pedal trash can (and a waterproof bag) because I'm paranoid about smell and they seal well. But in general they didn't smell much. Once ds started eating solids, I started separating wet and poopy diapers.
The wet diaper pail is in ds's room. I shake a couple drops of tea tree or lavender oil in the pail once a day (I think you're supposed to put it on a wipe and put that in the pail, but I was lazy). His room never smelled bad.
I have a little pail in the bathroom for poopy diapers. We shake the poop into the toilet, and dip the worst of it if necessary, then dump it in the little pail. I'm told the dipping is unnecessary. Then put a little BioCleen Bact-Out (bought at the local crunchy granola store) on the messy part of the diaper. It's an enzyme cleaner and helps with the odor and staining. Our bathroom doesn't stink. In fact, the poopy pail smells better than the wet pail.
The dreaded washing.
The main thing is: Washing diapers is much like washing anything else, though it's stinkier as you stuff it in the washer.
A couple things to remember, though.
1) hot water sets protein stains, like poop, so poopy diapers should be washed or pre-washed in cold first.
2) soap causes buildup and then less absorbancy so detergent is better. I tend to use whatever we use for our clothes (we mostly use a gentle/natural concentrated type detergent. But sometimes we use All or Tide. Never noticed a big difference).
3) fleece and hemp can really retain smells, so using baking soda/vinegar and dawn dishwashing detergent occasionally helps.
4) some diapers have special requirements. For example, Little Lambs AIOs say not to wash in "free and clear" type detergents, becaue they cause build up. I never noticed a problem with other diapers, but it's true my LL's started wicking after a month or so of being washed in All. A wash with Dawn added took care of it. Also, see wool information below.
5) Covers can be washed with diapers, except wool ones, but you should fold over any velcro to minimize snags. Also, when I only had a couple covers I tended to wash them in the sink so I wouldn't have to wait for them.
So... a general routine we followed:
1. Change the diaper.
2. Wet ones go straight to the main pail.
3. Poopy diapers we shake out over the toilet and swish them some. My mom rinses them pretty thoroughly. I'm not so diligent. Dh even less so.
4. Rinsed poopy diapers get a squirt Bac-Out and go in the small pail.
5. After a couple days (when they start to overflow from the poopy pail), we wash the poopy diapers with detergent in cold water on a short cycle.
6. Then we add the wet-only diapers and wipes and wash in hot/cold.
Some people use just a cold rinse for the poopy diapers instead of doing a double wash.
Eventually I bought a modern washing machine and started adding baking soda with the detergent and vinegar in the rinse cycle. It made things a little fresher, but wasn't necessary.
I have a lot of fleece and hemp, so every couple washes I add a squirt of Dawn dishwashing detergent to the wash and do a double rinse and it keeps them smelling good.
I use a dryer for the diapers, but that's partly because I have a construction zone instead of a yard with a clothes line. Many covers and AIOs (and my pail liner) should be air dried to protect the waterproofing. Even ones that don't say you have to air dry them will last longer if you do.
I came late to wool because it sounded scary and hard, but I'm a convert. It holds the wetness very well, but lets the baby butt breathe.
The trick is that wool is more of a pain to wash, in general. I wash mine in the sink in lukewarm water (or on the handwash cycle on my washer) with a woolwash I make myself. I heat up water, squeeze some lanolin (that I got for my nipples for early breastfeeding) in to disolve it, then add a little Dr. Bronner's type lavendar soap and add it all to the wash. But you can buy wool wash that would make life easier, no doubt.
Night diapers are so bulky if you have a heavy wetter that I had trouble with stretched out pajama bottoms with ds in the winter. So I made him wool diaper pants (called soaker pants). In other words, the diaper cover was also his pajama bottoms.
I'm not much of a sewer (though I'm reasonably crafty) and I could make a pair of pants easily in one evening, hand sewing. This is what I did:
1) Bought a largish cashmere sweater at a thrift store.
2) Washed it on hot to shrink/felt it some.
3) Cut off the sleeves along the seam (ithe seam is at an angle) to use as legs.
4) Cut an equilateral triangle from the front of the sweater, with the ribbed collar as the base of the triangle, to use as half the waist/crotch of the pants.
5) Cut an indentical triangle from the back of the sweater.
6) Sewed the edges of the bases of the triangles together (couple stiches), so the collar of the sweater was now the waistband of the pants. The waistband has a triangle hanging down on the front and back.
7) Sewed the points of the triangles together. This is the crotch of the pants.
8) Sewed one sleeve to each of the newly created openings as the legs. Since I had a cuffed sweater, the ankles were snug and could be rolled up.
9) Folded over the waistband and sewed it down to make a space for elastic.
10) Threaded the elastic in and sewed it together.
Okay, I hope that wasn't too confusing. Hard without pictures.
Information overload? sorry.
Questions? ask away!