Blowin’ in the Wind

Laundry steaming on the winter line
Laundry steaming on the winter line
I think I’ve mentioned once or twice that we’re having renos done. Our renos involve not having our washing machine and dryer hooked up, and we’ve been without them for I think close to two months now. I think I’ve also mentioned once or twice that I really enjoy doing laundry, and that from time to time, I really enjoy doing laundry by hand, the “old-fashioned” way – the way my grandmothers used to do laundry. I could have sworn I had a post on here about how to boil your whites on the stovetop and the difference between the boiled whites and machine whites…it then went on (as I recall) to show a comparison of hand-done laundry versus machine-done laundry as they hung on the line, but bugger me backwards if I can find it.

Ah. I see the problem. I posted all of that on the Twitters. (If you’re interested in seeing the original posts, they start on about 25th March. But I’m pretty much going to repeat all of that here.)

The bottom line here is that a few times a year, I gather up our undies and socks and dishtowels – anything that would normally go in the “whites” warsh, and I boil the ever-loving shite out of them. Quite literally. One of the things we don’t realize now that we have modern conveniences like washing machines and showers is that we don’t ever have to *see* our own filth. I’m sure we’re not that far off of someone designing a poop-sucker-outer so that we don’t actually have to face any of our waste.

But seriously. When was the last time you stopped a load of laundry and inspected the wash water? Probably you don’t do that because only weirdos like me do that and have been doing that since we were four and Granny’s washer was on the fritz so she did all of her laundry by hand in the sink. Or the time Gram’s washer was on the fritz and while she waited for the repairman, she did a load of laundry in her old wringer-washer and told you about how before your Da was born and when he was “a wee bairn” (she said), she took in other people’s laundry to make ends meet because the farm certainly wasn’t a revenue-generating procedure all year ’round at the time, and that before she’d had the wringer washer, she had a galvanized tub, a washboard, and lye soap, and an old wooden wringer that clamped to the top of the tub. And that she worked all day boiling the whites and scrubbing the work clothes and how the best thing she ever saw in her life was that electric wringer washer (sadly, it’s the one thing she got rid of). Or maybe you remember when you lived with your Nama and she told you about doing her family’s laundry when she was “about the same size you are now” (you were five) and how she still to this day boils undies because she’s a nurse and she knows the kinds of things that live in those undies, and that she boils the dishcloths and never washes them in the same wash as the undies because …gross. And that if you do one thing – one thing – in the kitchen, it should be to boil your dishcloths.

Well. I spent a lot of time looking at wash water. The one thing I’ve never liked about my front-loading high-efficiency wash machine is that I can’t just open it up and check out how clean things are getting. I have to trust that it’s cleaning my laundry. And, really, I know it isn’t. It isn’t cleaning my laundry to my preference, nor to my specification, but it’s easy and it’s convenient and you can throw laundry in there and forget about it and not have to touch it or to sink your arms into black water to scrub the jeans.

I am not being hyperbolic. Here are two pictures of the wash water from when I boiled my dishcloths on the stovetop last spring:

Black laundry water from boiling the dishcloths
Black laundry water from boiling the dishcloths
Black Laundry water with suds
Black laundry water with suds – boiling the dishcloths

What I want you to know about these photos is that 1) they are not retouched or edited. This is what the water looked like when I was done boiling my dishcloths for half an hour; 2) I don’t use commercial soap any longer because of these pictures (the suds you see in the photos are residue from commercial detergents – commercial eco-friendly scent-free phosphate-free vegetable glycerine detergent…when I boil the dishcloths, I only use borax and washing soda) – I make my own laundry soap from washing soda, borax, and handmade natural soap flakes; 3) there *were* a couple of dishcloths in this load that had black stripes on them, and some of that dye does boil out into the wash water. But wait. There’s more.

The majority of the grodiness that comes out when you do boil your whites is, in order: residue from detergent; skin mites, skin flakes, and dandruff; sweat; dirt; grease and body oils; other stains. Seriously, if you did your sheets by hand, you would only want to sleep on rubber for the rest of your life. Now, by comparison, here is the wash water from a load of shirts that have been washed by hand, with a washboard, using homemade soap, for the past month:

Wash water from a load of dark shirts
Wash water from a load of dark shirts

This was a load of black shirts. You can see that the boiled dishcloths water above (95% of which were white) is actually darker and more disgusting than the wash water from an entire load of black shirts that were soaked and scrubbed. The shirts were worn for 2-3 days (or were slept in), because we’re wearing our laundry a little longer than normal now that I’m doing the wash by hand. The biggest difference between these two loads is that in the previous photos, we had been washing the dishcloths in the wash machine with commercial detergent (I do not, as my Nama recommended, boil the dishcloths every week. Although I may start).

I’m going to post a photo of some whites I boiled and hung beside some whites I washed in the washing machine. And I’m going to point out that these shirts were *the exact same colour* when I started the loads. I just didn’t think to take “before” pictures. It’s important because the machine-washed shirt looks grey. But it isn’t; it’s white. There were no darks or colours in the load in which it was washed. I do not use bleach. This load was not done with bluing, although I will be adding bluing in future washes.

The three shirts on the right were boiled; the one on the left was washed in the machine.
The three shirts on the right were boiled; the one on the left was washed in the machine.
These shirts were the same colour before being washed in two separate loads.
These shirts were the same colour before being washed in two separate loads.

I know most of us are willing to trade in quality for convenience and comfort. I’ve been doing our laundry by hand, in the tub, with the washboard and handmade soap, for about two months (this means every couple of days I do a small load, and about once a week I do some bigger loads) and hanging it on the line to dry (yes, laundry dries on the line in the winter; no, you don’t have to bring it in to ‘finish it’ if you don’t want to). I don’t know that I want to continue at this – for the rest of my life, but I don’t know yet. I don’t know that I’m willing to trade convenience for quality when it comes to my dishcloths, sheets, and whites.

My point is this: I enjoy doing this, and one of the things I really like is seeing the progress as all the crud comes out of our clothes. I have a sick fascination with this, I suppose. I love how the laundry feels (it’s softer than my clothes ever were back in the day when I still thought fabric softener worked). I love how it smells (it smells like outside), even if it’s not dried on the line outside. I love how clean it stays (our shirts and trousers stay much cleaner when they’re done by hand, considering they’re not work clothes).

First rinse from the load of dark shirts. A little dye still leaking out of a new shirt colours the water bluish. But. No grime.
First rinse from the load of dark shirts. A little dye still leaking out of a new shirt colours the water bluish. But. No grime.

And then there’s this: would you like to guess what holds dirt, sweat, skin bits, mites, and other crud the best? Polyester/Nylon/Rayon fabrics. Non-cotton/linen/wool/silk, in other words. The natural fabrics (ones that are primarily natural, at any rate) absorb water faster, the soap repels the dirt and crud faster and more completely, and they dry faster. The worst article of clothing I have washed is non-cotton-based pyjamas. It took four days to dry on the line outside (two days indoors), and I had to drain the wash water and start again after it went in. It was disgusting. I’ve also been pretty jazzed about how our clothes come cleaner in less time now that they’re being cleaned thoroughly in every wash.

I mean, if I wasn’t convinced before that natural fabrics and natural soaps are better for you, I certainly am now.

And that is my story about being in love with throwback laundry methods.

cenobyte
cenobyte is a writer, editor, blogger, and super genius from Saskatchewan, Canada.

2 Comments

  1. Oh. My. God. It makes me want to throw away all my clothes and start fresh.

    As for the dye coming out of stuff, I have heard (but not tried) putting vinegar in the wash, and it will stop that. I assume white vinegar was meant. My former mother-in-law told me this, and I’ve heard it elsewhere since.

    1. Yes. White vinegar will help. But not when you’re boiling the laundry. It does help the colour bleed in colours and dark loads, and as an added bonus, it removes stink! If you soak an article of clothing in vinegar or a vinegar solution before you wash it, the stink should come out!

      In fact, when my mum was dying, she became incontinent but nobody knew for a few days and so her mattress ended up becoming urine-soaked. I was able to dry out the mattress, but the room stunk. I put an open bowl of vinegar in the room, and the stink disappeared after a day.

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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