I used to wash anything that had touched skin after one wear (eg socks, underwear and blouses/T-shirts/woolies). Everything my kids and grandkids wore went straight off their backs into the laundry basket. Skirts and jackets I would take the cleaners after 6-12 wears I guess. But for a number of reasons I have cut right down.
Nowadays I wash knickers and tights after one wear. Everything else when it needs it. I use a visual test and a sniff test. If it doesn’t have obvious marks (eg food stains or mud), and if smells good I just fold it up and put it back in the wardrobe. Kids clothes too, get examined and sorted. PJs, school trousers and jumpers can last a week if there are no obvious stains. Adult skirts and jackets now go for ages without laundering. I brush them down, use lint rollers and steam or press them. I hardly use dry cleaners, not least due to the cost – £5-£10 for one item – that may have cost less than that to make or buy.
For decades I have ignored “dry clean only” tags on RTW goods. I prefer my own skill and judgement. Anything made of natural fibres is washable, and with care so is viscose, polyester and elastane. However I dislike hand washing and have found most things can go in the washing machine. The silk, wool and cold cycles on my machine are excellent. According to the Daily Mail the average family spends £320 a year on dry-cleaning, while those who wear suits to work can spend as much as £640 a year. I find this statistic unbelievable although it must be true if it is in the Daily Mail.
From time to time I machine wash woolen jackets and skirts, pressing carefully afterwards to refresh them if they become grubby or smelly. But some have gone on for ages without a wash or dry clean.
Some will find this revelation disgusting.
Others will admit they are equally “lazy”, “tight” or “green”.
I don’t like making work, or wasting money or damaging the environment but I am not at the extreme end of any of these standpoints. I just think excessive cleaning is a bit of a con. Like the idea of daily shampooing of hair, this is based on social anxiety about dirt, grease, animal secretions, slime, mould, decay, dandruff, BO and squalor, rather than any objective filth.
A seamstress has an advantage over a member of the public
- we have knowledge of fibres and fabrics
- we know how our garments are constructed eg with iron-on or sewn in interfacings
- we know how to press, and the impact of water or steam on our fabrics
- (if we have too much washing to do, especially if there are lots of towels and bed linen we know we can take it to the laundrette for a service wash – £30 for a huge bag that will be washed, dried and folded).
This means we don’t have to accept the myth that we will be socially unacceptable if we don’t launder daily.
Until the 1950s washing clothes was a major palaver. I can remember “blue”, green soap, yellowish soap for collars and cuffs, a scrubbing board, a boiler, tongs, a plunger and a kind of big stick, a mangle, a washing line, pegs, peg bags, and a sort of wooden stick to push the washing line up with (was it called a prop?).
Monday was washing day and it took lots of time to get the washing done. Unsurprisingly, apart from sheets, shirts and underwear, not much was washed. The domestic washing machine was invented in 1937 but when I was young (1950s, early 1960s) my mum was still using old-fashioned techniques. When we got a machine it was a top loader and had a rubber lining and a kind of central stick around which the clothes circulated.
A little further back less was washed, and less often. The laundry process took several days. The “Great Wash” took place every few months and may have involved hiring professional washer women to help. According to a book published in 1860 the washers would prewash in cold water, rising until the water runs clear, then soaking for 24 hours, further soaking in warm lye (including ashes and soapy agents), heating the water again and again, beating the washing with sticks and finally rinsing, wringing and drying. The labour was so extensive that many clothes, especially the outer garments, were never washed at all.
Today washing and drying at home is largely mechanised. However I don’t have a tumble dryer. Therefore every item has to be hung up to dry on the rack, or more recently as our flat is a bit damp, on a heated rail. The main reason I cut down the washing is that the drying is trying. If we have the heating on the clothes dry but the evaporation makes the air damp and we need a dehumidifier.
Speaking to my friend Amo about growing up in Nigeria she says they just hung up wet sheets and they were dry and fragrant within a few hours.
The sun would also sterilise linens.I guess the damp climate and cold weather has meant the British have always been a somewhat dirty and smelly race, certainly before soap and hot water were widely available.
I was wondering if women’s easier lives in modern societies were down to time-saving devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners. But according to Tim Harford it is the reduction in food preparation and cooking that have changed far more and are actually responsible for women being able to work and feed the family. Again, thinking of life as I have seen it in India and rural Africa much of the women’s time is consumed with procuring raw materials and food preparation, and certainly my own Mum and Grandma spent several hours a day cooking.