A new prefold diaper is flat with two seams running vertically in parallel the length of the diaper. Most have a decorative serge stitch on the short ends, some are even rainbow or plain white. When inspecting diapers for purchase always check the quality of stitching and if the material snags easily. The process of washing and drying diapers puts stress on the stitching and the material, so save yourself the headache and get the good stuff.
Now, new diapers will look shiny and flat, almost too thin to be useful, and you will say, "gosh these are so long, they will never fit on my tiny baby." Prefold diapers are manufactured at around 20 inches long (51cm), which you are correct, would be difficult to fit into a newborn cover. But, these diapers are not meant to be used before "prepping," which alters the dimensions of the diaper and creates the quilting that is the magic of prefolds. Prepping, or washing and drying the diaper multiple times, will shrink the fabric down and increase the absorbency of the material, as well as remove any residue from the manufacturing and packaging process. Once the diapers have been washed and dried 8-10 times you will see the change to the shape, length, and material.
There are a few companies that make shorter diapers to fit different size babies, I find these cute, but recommend investing in a great set of quality premium size diapers from the get go, you can always add on or find deals on the other stuff as you go. You can always fold and tuck, but the small ones do not stretch. One tip I found when diapering a tiny baby is to turn a premium diaper so that the center panel is horizontal before folding. It allows for the diaper to fit well into newborn covers and allows for extra absorbency at the rear of the diaper, because, as we all know, back is best for the tiniest humans.
On to the practicalities of prefold diapers: you can purchase them bleached or unbleached (which refers to the fibers used to weave the fabric), organic or conventional harvest, and Chinese or Indian. In my experience you can find great quality in any of these categories, and price does not necessarily indicate superiority. If you can find a local retailer or cloth diapering parent group, those will go a long way in helping you choose the best product. They will usually be able to show you how to fold the diaper, and will likely not all agree on the best way.
Prefold diapers range in price from $1 each to upward of $20. Buying in a bundle from a retailer that also includes covers is a great way to save a couple bucks. Remember that prefolds are not waterproof on their own. I discuss in Affordable Cloth Diaper Option, the total cost of this system compared to other cloth solutions.
Prefold diapers can be used with a variety of other products
1. To increase absorbency:
doublers, absorbent pads that can be folded into or placed on top of prefolds
inserts, larger than doublers and usually inserted into pocket diapers
flats, single layer absorbent material that can be folded
fitted diapers, absorbent layers with snaps or velcro fasteners
2. To create a waterproof diaper:
waterproof covers, a waterproof layer that requires additional absorbent material
pocket diapers, waterproof covers that require an absorbent layer
training pants or underwear
If you are onboard with giving these diapers a try, I recommend practicing your folding techniques on a doll or stuffed animal (we used a Curious George monkey). You can fold them to sit inside your covers, or, if you want to be able to fasten the diaper without the cover, you will need either pins (my least favorite option), a snappi (which are awesome), or a boingo baby fastener. You may find that different solutions work for you and not for others, or may work now but not in 6 months, so keep an open mind and a calm head.
Here are a few links to excellent tutorials folding and fastening.
This West Coast Mommy
Mom Loves Best
Video on folding
I am a highly opinionated and sassy mother of three and wife to one. I hope you enjoy reading about my efforts to tackle the infuriating obstacles of life using straight talk and humor. If I say it, I mean it, or maybe I am being sarcastic. I like to focus on topics from my everyday life: parenting, cooking, crocheting, and a whole list of other things that inspire my rage.