It’ll Come Out in the Wash

clothesWhile I haven’t set aside the time to comment upon it these last months, I have been continuing with the sustainability experiments. One of the challenges to writing about them, however, is that the social scientist in me wants to hold off on reporting conclusions until I make sure I have gathered sufficient data. Thus, in “Choosing Dark,” not only did I commit to a month without lights, but I extended the month to almost 7 weeks so that the period would completely cover one entire metered period of electricity usage. That way I could see what impact my choices had not only on my behavior and life patterns, but on my bottom line as well. For the record, I think I saved about 78 cents over the same period from the year before. But as my post on the project details, those dynamics are a little slippery since other life patterns had changed as well–light bulb usage was down, but stove and oven usage was way up! One of my experiments, that I didn’t want to disclose until I’d had ample chance to deviate from it, is hand-washing my clothes.

This one didn’t get me quite as many tilted heads and squinty eyes among friends as deliberately sitting in the dark did, but it was probably close. And, in my own head, I imagine that the delayed reactions were from people who were trying to subtly detect whether or not I stunk and they just hadn’t yet noticed! Inevitably the first set of questions I’d get had to do with time: “how long does that take?” “You must have a lot of free time on your hands.” “I wouldn’t have that kind of time.” These were difficult reactions to engage with but they were rhetorically dismissive from the get go. But doubly difficult because I didn’t have a snappy response. The truth of it is, we measure the task of “doing laundry” in time spent and number of loads done. Those metrics don’t translate smoothly into the language of hand-washing. For one thing, the most time-consuming part of doing laundry for anybody is folding–and you have to do that either way. But more importantly the size of a load isn’t determined by how much fits in your washer or dryer. In my case a load is defined by how much drying space I have available. In the winter, that’s pretty limited. The drying rack I have probably holds about a third of what would constitute a standard-household-washer-sized “load.”

Generally speaking I would make a trip to the laundromat twice a month, every two weeks or so–but I could probably make it three weeks if circumstances required it. And the whole enterprise would take me about two hours. That included gathering everything up, loading it in the car, driving the couple of blocks to the laundromat, loading, transferring, folding, packing, and returning home. Within that two hours, just like for anyone doing laundry in their own home, was time for reading or grading papers, returning emails, or even sketching out an outline for a blog post. The actual handling time was pretty limited until it came to the folding part. Even in cases where I’ve had a washer and dryer in my home, one load still took about two hour’s time, beginning to end. There again, it didn’t take the whole of two hours to do it, but it was being done over the course of two hours. Also, I might do four loads at the laundromat in the same time that I could do only one at the house. While people disagree mightily with me on this, I always found the laundromat enormously entertaining–and you can’t put a price on that! For one thing, it had a TV when I did not. It was at the laundromat that I discovered that competitive cupcake making was a thing! Only once have I been turned away from my laundromat because it was on lockdown by local police.

Comparing a task like laundry using the imperfect calculus of time and loads is kind of silly when it comes down to it, but understandable given that it speaks to metrics to which we can all relate. Hand-washing one drying rack’s worth of clothes takes me a little under an hour. I run enough cold water into the bathtub to cover the bottom with about 3 inches of water, adding the soap and the clothes as I do. Then I let it soak for a bit–doing the same things I would do at the laundromat while I wait. Then I spend about five minutes or so scrubbing or “agitating” (to use the machine parlance) the clothes. I leave it for a few minutes while the soapy water drains out. Then I refill with cold water and a bit of white vinegar as fabric softener. I let the clothes soak a couple more minutes and then rinse each article, wring it out, blot it with a towel, and hang it. This is the step that takes the most time, and exactly how much has a lot to do with what I’m actually washing. Wringing out jeans, fleeces, and sweaters is exactly as much fun as it seems like it would be!

That being the case, I do notice, much the way I did while sitting in the dark, that I’ve adjusted some patterns of behavior to accommodate different choices. The contours of doing laundry by hand have reshaped what I decide to wear and what clothing I decide to keep around, donate, or otherwise unload, and how I think about the clothing I will purchase. Where I used to reach right for the bulky, cozy sweater, now I focus a bit more on layering–so that the inside layers of lighter clothes will be washed routinely (routine in terms of frequency and labor intensity), but the outer layers won’t require attention as regularly. By doing that and including one outer layer and one pair of pants in each “load” I can stay on top of my laundry with only one load per week. As such, I don’t need as many clothes. Part of being able to make it three weeks between trips to the laundromat was having enough clothes to make it three weeks! But if I’m going to have to wash every week anyway, I can get away with having much less. How to replace the cultural education and entertainment value of the laundromat is a far more complex question.

Clothing, beyond its most basic functions of providing warmth and whatever concealment is required to maintain societal acceptance, has never much interested me. I’m sure I unwittingly absorb a general sense of what is fashionable and not, but I don’t spend a lot of time pondering the cut of pants, the width of ties, or the size or shape of collars. I have a pair of black shoes and a pair of brown shoes for occasions when sandals or hiking boots aren’t appropriate. And I have both a black and a brown belt. Beyond that cheap and comfortable tend to be my primary considerations when selecting clothing. I have begun, as a tangential experiment in sustainability, to procure my clothing, when possible, second hand. One of the nice things about living in the land of LL Bean is that you find a lot of their clothes at the Goodwill. I have begun to favor more muted colors because I realized that much of what I am washing out of my clothes every week is just dye. Even in cold water washing a red shirt bears an alarming resemblance to a crime scene. So my wardrobe has become smaller, largely second-hand, and rather monotone.

soapOne of the other things people will ask is whether or not the clothes actually get clean. This strikes me as a similarly imprecise and subjective target. As long as I define clean as an absence of grunge, grime, stains, and stink, then, yes, my clothes get clean. But then again, I am neither a farmer nor a landscaper, so I rarely come home looking particularly grubby. The clothes I wear for hiking I don’t wear for much else. When I first started out over a year ago I used some different kinds of detergents for hand washing. I used up the last of the budget liquid laundry soap I had had on hand for the laundromat. Then I used up a bottle of Woolite that had been gifted to me (at the laundromat) by some RVers nearing the end of their journey, and off-loading unnecessary supplies. I did some reading up on homemade detergents and cleaners that could be used but most of them seemed like a more intensive chemistry project than I was up for, and I decided that buying the supplies I needed would probably cost more than just buying a more earth-friendly detergent. So now I use Seventh Generation. It seems to work adequately and I haven’t been banished from anyone’s company for stinking. The question of clean, though, I think also forces us to consider whether “industrial clean,” particularly at the laundromat doesn’t accelerate the degradation of the clothes. How much of the fibers of our clothes wind up in the lint trap? How much different a lifespan can we expect of them if they are washed more frequently but less violently? That’s hard to say.

The down side of hand-washing? As I mentioned, heavier clothes are labor intensive, and drying space is limited, especially in the winter. As such, bedding is a problem. And dog hair is a problem. And dog hair on bedding is a big ol’ problem! So in the year that I have been hand-washing I have made two laundromat trips to attend to comforters and flannel sheets. Regular sheets I can deal with in the summertime when there is adequate outdoor drying space. But I will readily admit, there are some clothes (fleeces and flannel especially) that I just cannot get the dog hair out of. But in fairness to my hand-washing, the industrial dryer doesn’t get it all either! But part of sustainability I suppose is a mindful consideration of those things we’re willing to live with. While the dog hair is burdensome and can get overwhelming at times, the source of it is far more important to me than anything washable. Seriously, what kind of an idiot expects to wear black fleece with a white dog anyway?

AsaBedI guess the final consideration within the realm of sustainability has to do with resource usage and expense. Each trip to the laundromat used to cost me about eight to ten dollars, not including the cost of detergent and fabric softener. I’ve replaced dryer sheets with white vinegar, which is a substantial savings and I’m saving the sixteen to twenty dollars a month that I would have spent. Am I using a bit more water? Sure. But each “load” uses a fraction of what a shower would. And because I’m using cold water there is no additional electricity usage. Considering that a good chunk of my $20 was being used to offset the electricity and water usage, I think I can proclaim that not only am I saving myself the direct costs of resource consumption, I am also just using less.

So the time spent hand-washing clothes is structured a bit differently, but not measurably greater than home machine or laundromat washing. The practice of doing it has forced me to think a bit more actively about what I wear and why, and maintain a smaller and less colorful wardrobe. I reinvest some of the money saved on a kinder detergent. The clothes I wash seem to bear the essence, if not the actuality, of “clean.” Drying them inside also helps keep a bit of additional humidity in the indoor winter air. Like my other experiments, the metrics are unimpressive, and likely the only certifiably positive outcome is just living a bit more deliberately with a keener sense of what is and is not important to me. For now that will have to do.

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