Airing the Dirty Laundry

Well now - Campbell's bed and Campbell's pyjamas...Tuesday's washday so they've had a week's use.
Dorothy L Sayers, Five Red Herrings 1931

When I was a little girl one day in every week I would come home from school to find the sheets on my bed changed and fresh with clean pyjamas under the pillow. I loved going to bed between clean sheets wearing clean pyjamas.

I was rather baffled as a new mother to discover that babies and toddlers can't go for a week between pyjama changes. I thought that new weekly pyjamas were a sort of rule of nature, like the seasons. But my toddlers tiresomely covered their pyjamas daily in pumpkin and weet-bix just to spite me. However, they eventually grew out of it around the age of seven or so, and now the universe has returned to its proper round of once-a-week pyjama washing, as noted above during the investigations of Lord Peter Wimsey.

The other things that get washed weekly like a religious ritual (you know, except if something else more interesting happens instead) are towels and sheets. Now that we are a family of four I wash the clothes twice a week, instead of the former three times a week when we were six. However I have been thinking that once a week would be sufficient, because except for gardening days, we really aren't that dirty.

Why am I spending so much thought on the washing? Because I have recently discovered that Other People wash a whole lot more than I do. I became acquainted with a family of five who cannot use their towels more than once without washing them. That is a load of towels a day, and thirty five towels in a week! My girls both wear adorable tartan school uniforms in winter. Some Mothers apparently wash these once a week (a very small minority I might add, because they are murder to iron, with all those pleats). I wash our girls' skirts once at the end of each winter. Also, apparently Some Children take all their clothes to the laundry basket after each wearing, and have clean pyjamas every day.

Clearly, some parents just love doing laundry. Which is fine, each to his own, BUT what is the cost in energy to wash all those clothes every day? And no doubt tumble dry them as well? What about the wear and tear on the clothes? Our clothes would all last so much longer if we didn't wash them so often, and tumble drying absolutely kills clothes - all that lint collected inside the drier? That is another layer of fabric skimmed off the clothes.

In the days of our great-grandmothers wash day was once a week and everything got done all on the one day. Monday morning the copper was fired up, and often the oldest girl was required to stay home from school and help. The white sheets and towels were boiled, then the sturdy white clothes, then the coloureds, and the delicate things were hand washed. All of the wash was fed through a mangle and hung out to dry on the line. Oh, they must have prayed for sunshine on Mondays, those grannies of ours. I must say I do rather love my marvellously reliable highly technical front-loader washing machine which does most of that hard work for me, and because I don't have to light a fire under the boiler to do the washing, it is very easy to throw a load on at sundry moments on various days - but I don't, because that is the way madness lies. I have tried that technique before, and it resulted in me never seeing the bottom of the laundry basket. For the past few years I have had two days devoted to sheets, one day to towels, and two to doing all the clothes in the laundry basket right down to the bottom, including the delicates and the odd things that end up in laundry baskets like library bags that the dog weed on. it is very satisfying to have nothing more to wash, I must say.

However the most significant thing I have learned from thinking about the washing techniques of my great-grandmothers is the Importance of Airing. There are often whole pages devoted to the subject in old housekeeping manuals. Airing is how you manage to go a whole week between laundry loads. The essentials of airing is hanging up clothes somewhere.. well, airy, when you take them off. If my clothes are clean when I get home from work, I hang them on a hanger from the handle of my wardrobe door. Then the next morning I put them away when I take out my next work outfit. This is reasonably easy as I have two skirts and two dresses which I wear all winter, which is very vintage of me:) Luckily I have various tops to go with the skirts, but even so there is not a lot of variety. This does not bother me at all, because it is extremely easy to decide what to wear, and also because I am very boring and don't like thinking about clothes much. Or washing, or ironing, so this system works very well for me:)

I generally work between two and four hours a day, and so if I change my clothes as soon as I get home and hang them up to air I can get several weeks' wear out of the dresses, and, confession time, I haven't washed the skirts all winter. One is a lovely fitted tweed from the op-shop, and the other is a circa 1965 tailored, lined skirt gifted by a friend. And honest, they smell fine, slight aroma of lavender from all the sachets my girls make to hang in the wardrobe! And if I had washed them every week they would probably be ruined and shapeless now. Excessive zeal for cleanliness is not always a good thing.

I try to chivvy the girls out of their school uniforms after school too, and sometimes I even succeed. In winter they get by on two or three school shirts a week, plus a couple of sets of casuals, and I wear my winter uniform of jeans, long sleeved top and polar fleece every single day when I am not at work, and that doesn't need changing every day either unless I get very dirty in the garden. So with all of the airing and rewearing I am thinking I can go to once a week laundry. Which will save all the energy - both the electrical kind, and my own.

Tell me about how often you wash. Are you appalled at my rewearing policies? Do you have teenage boys? Then ignore all of the above. How did our grannies wash for teenage boys once a week? Imagine the smell of the dirty laundry after seven days..


Unknown said…
Yes, i have a very smelly teenage boy despite showering daily. Phewey!!

All those pheromones all over the house. Sorry but this is one boy that wears fresh clothes daily, or else!! My hubby on the other hand (English) can go all week without changing his clothes. Me, im somewhere in between.

I remember the old copper, the wringer and the blue rinse. I must be really getting old.

Yep, im still not a robot.
Heather F said…
Ugh. My husband's mother washed all her family's towels daily. I can't even imagine. This is a hotspot in our marriage, because he thinks that is the norm. I say the towels are used for drying us off after we are all washed and clean, so they are basically clean themselves. We reached a compromise where I replace his towel every other day (when I remember) and then store his "dirty" ones by the washing machine until I wash the rest of the family members' towels after a week or (gasp) two. California is going through a horrible drought right now, so washing our towels daily would just be wasteful.
Growing up I had weekly baths and wore my pajamas a whole week between washing. I do induldge in daily showers now, but I often wear my clothes many times between washings. It is harder to do that in the summer, though, since it gets very hot where I live, ie sweat.
Anyway, laundry is not my favorite chore so I don't mind no doing it everyday ;)
narf7 said…
I lived for a period of time (between the ages of 5 and 10) on a 100 acre farm that had no piped water (we had 3 enormous water tanks) a big wood stove and a copper. Mum had to set a fire under the copper to do the washing. I remember the big stick (I think it was an old axe handle!) she used to stir the washing around in the copper with. As hard as it would have been to do the washing she used to occasionally say "nothing got your whites as clean as that copper and a bottle of dolly blue" (which I think you can still buy in supermarkets today). I guess I am getting old too Lynda D ;). I admire your washing ethic. Stevie-boy and I don't wash our clothes daily either. I think the act of washing daily is a way to get people to use more washing products and buy more clothes as they wear out more quickly. All about keeping the laundry business in moolah than anything to do with actual sustainable clothes management.
Treaders said…
Oh, I remember the old washing kettle and dolly blue too (and the mangle). AND worse - the washing line with the prop that would occasionally collapse ruining all my mom's hard work.

When I my boys were little I did a lot of washing but since I was lucky enough to have friends with older sons most of their clothes were second-hand anyway.

Now I certainly don't wash things after just one wear and also hang clothes up to air. And even though I have a drier I don't think I used it once last year. You can't beat the smell of freshly dried washing being brought in from the garden (ok occasionally a bit of bird poop too but hey that comes off easily too).
yes, i too remember the day when i found out 'other houses' washed towels daily! My my my no wonder some people complain about endless washing! Thankfully BF and I are from the same side of the coin with weekly washes (Who am I kidding - his gets washed when i detect it's effecting the feng shui and smell of the bathroom, which is FAR less often than weekly. I just change when 'manky smell' is overwhleming).
Anonymous said…
Isn't it awful when you share with others and they find out that you are a "filthy pig"
I think the sane thing to do is be like Basil Fawlty and don't talk about the war...err! I mean The Wash.

OK Jo I'm only telling you my dirty secrets
Once a week wash, 2 loads, bedding every 2 weeks,I rarely take showers just a wash at the sink. We wear the same clothes all week (addendum; I do wash my knickers every day)Towels last the week.
We don't use the dryer we hang outside in summer in the basement in winter. I don't iron, yes the wrinkles will smooth out eventually.

However we are both retired, so no work clothes, and we are both homebodies so no one to notice the wrinkles.

I think you do well for having the girls and yourself and a once a week wash
Linda said…
I agree with you that many folk today wash things far too often, so unnecessary. Our towels are changed twice a week, the sheets every fortnight. In between I usually change the pillow cases on the top pillows ( ones we put our heads on, not the under pillow!) and as I use a top sheet the duvet cover only gets washed when it's looking tired! We both re-wear clothes, there is certainly no need to wash the living day lights out of things. As a result bed linens, towels, clothes etc last us years. And of course we save on the cost of electricity, water and washing powder. I haven't owned a tumble drier for about ten years and manage well even here in the UK where our weather can be changeable. I dry outside whenever I can or in the utility room using a 'Sheila maid', a pulley style airing rack attached to the ceiling. Works well although the towels are harder than if they are dried outdoors.
I agree with so much that you and your readers have said! these people who wash towels every day - don't they have anything more meaningful to do with their lives?! I like the satisfaction of doing the laundry, but every day? no way! I agree too that it would wear clothes out - especially modern clothes that aren't made as sturdily as vintage clothes are.
my work clothes - I sit in an office - are aired when I get home. skirts and dresses and trousers are washed once, maybe twice a season. knitwear and tops are worn hopefully three times before I whiff under the arms and think, phooo-ee, time to wash. and I handwash a lot of my delicate or precious knits to be kinder too them (I enjoy the sense of caring for my clothes).
summer clothes are washed more frequently, because one gets a bit hotter, sweater and smellier at that time of year.
I am lucky though, I am a single gal, and the dirtiest I ever get is with weekend gardening, and that, truthfully, is never hardcore dirt either.
Jennywren said…
I solved the towel dilemma by giving all 5 family members "their" own colour. They had their toothbrushes, washer and towel in their colour, so I only had to change the washer and towel once a week. This saved me heaps of unnecessary laundry.
Jo said…
Mm, Lynda, teenage boys. Mine left home, and lordy knows the state of his house and laundry. And he lives with two other mates from school.. luckily they are far, far away..

Heather, yes, it always irks me that in droughts here in Oz we gardeners are penalised for watering our gardens, but nobody suggests not washing the towels so much..

Fran, absolutely all this cleanliness insanity stems from making us buy more products. Let's just ignore the whole industry and go back to blue bags and soap flakes! I love your washing in the copper story. Brilliant!

Anna, the clothes prop! I see it in various English books but can't quite work out why you wouldn't tie the line up to something solid - why not put another pole in instead?? I'm with you on the dryer - I still have one on the wall in the laundry, but I haven't used it for two years now. I think it might be time to send it away..

Sarah, yes, the towels certainly tell us when it is time to wash them:)

Marieann, you are so brave airing your dirty laundry!! Yes, I wash my bedding fortnightly as well - being a single person in a double bed, I just swap sides after a week:)

Linda, I LOVE crunchy air-dried towels - I think they dry better. I am thinking of pulling out my dryer and replacing it with one of those pulley racks as well. It's on my list..

e, I love your phrase 'I enjoy the sense of caring for my clothes'. I think this is the key to thrift. Caring knowledgeably for what we have, which means we choose well-made things, and make them last as long as we can.

Jenny, I love your coloured towel solution. Now that's thinking. But did you have to have two sets of each in case one didn't dry in a day?
Linda said…
Regarding the English clothes prop. Both my mother and mother in law used them. Reason was that because they had a set weekly laundry day the washing line was put out that day and taken down as soon as the clothes had dried. We had a long garden at home, which was on three levels. Mum's washing line was in the centre section, running the length of that area- quite a long line. There was a post at each end of the section but because of the length and the weight of the wet laundry two clothes props were needed at intervals down the line to lift the clothes clear of the ground, distributing the weight. To have had another post in the middle would have spoilt the garden as either side of the path where the clothes line ran was beautiful lawn. Dad was a wonderful gardener and our garden was his pride and joy. My brother-in-law said it was like the town park as Dad had all these formal beds of lovely plants, put in each year. We had winter/Spring flower beds, then all that came out and the summer/Autumn planting went in. Marvellous!
Anonymous said…
I have a proto-teen (he's not quite a teenager, but has little flurries of teenager-ness every now and then). He's just got to an age where he thinks he doesn't need to shower every day, but you can certainly tell when he doesn't! Steenky teen boy hair. Peee-uw.

As for washing - well, I work every day, so I only do the washing on the weekend. I tell you what, if I allowed people to have fresh towels every day, I'd never leave the house on weekends. We get a fresh towel on Saturday (Reg had a stinky job, so I'd freshen his towel on Wednesdays as well in summer.) We each have a colour so I know who's who and which towel is missing (yep, steenky boy!) Sheets get washed every second week and doona covers every four weeks (I have a ridic complex system to ensure everyone's sheets and doonas get cleaned reasonably regularly).

I'm a fan of airing of the bottoms. I have collected a few work skirts now, and they get cleaned once a winter each, two pairs of winter work trousers that get cleaned once a winter, when I get them really wet or I spill stuff on them (pure wool, fully lined... not awesome in the rain). But I have a clean shirt every day. The small boy has clean uniform every day, because he's a small boy mostly. The Steenky one has a clean undershirt every day, and I don't know what he does on top. Reg just hands me a pile of clothes at the end of the week and I wash them. I still end up with 8-10 loads of washing each week, which is ridiculous - but it never seems to be less than that. I have to confess to using the dryer ALL THE TIME. Because winter. Living in a building site. Wonky clothesline. Lazy. All of the above.
Anonymous said…
At our place we switch to "around the house" clothes as soon as we get home from work, so we don't get cat hair on our work clothes! Also a fan of airing out the work clothes and re-wearing them. Air out shoes and boots outdoors, too! I wouldn't even like to say how seldom jeans and black trousers are washed. Once a week for towels unless they absorb cooking odours when they are damp! And once a week wash day.
Bek said…
I too am a fan of the house clothing and work clothing being removed and re-hung. Typically I wash skirts (I rarely wear pants to work) once or twice over the season, and jumpers every 3-5 wears I would guess. T-shirts, undershirts are 1-2 wears, pants the same. But I generally wear pants when out and about on weekends so I think they get dirtier more quickly than work clothes. Maybe I am just grottier on weekends in general?
Towels once every week to two weeks, bed sheets the same.
I think obvious dirt and any smells is the trigger for me. Really, why wash clean items? I think there is something in cleaning product companies encouraging excessive cleanliness to sell more product. If it looks and smells clean to me then I call it clean.
Jo said…
Linda, now I understand the clothes props. I love the description of your father's garden, it sounds glorious! I wonder if clothes props were much used in Australia? I have never seen so much as a photo of one here. Anyone?

Miss Maudy, I hear you on the trials of living in a building site. My dryer got quite the work out the year we had the Somme for a back yard..

Dar, I have never thought of airing shoes outside. What a good idea!

Bek, yes, exactly. Why wash clean clothes?

My dears, I am loving the delicious airing of dirty secrets here, and most encouraged to know I am not alone..
Anonymous said…
I sort of air clothes. Piling them on the butler stand and around the bath until I have time to put them away. Mr S and I use the sniff test my youngest is an over washer of clothes; my eldest an under. So it evens out.

Like you I eschew too much washing for water and energy reasons. And it wears out clothes. I wash my bed sheets weekly. Who knows when the kids do! As to towels, we wash less frequently in winter because there's a cent from the ducted heating under the towel rail so they dry and thus don't get smelly. In summer we have to wash them more frequently.

With our less frequent than others washing, I still struggle to stay ontology the folding and putting away. And occassional ironing. Not that I do any one else's. Only mine. The kids on the other hand leave the washing basket full of clean clothes in the sunroom until I shout and scream as I run outfoxed baskets.

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