Tag Archives: laundry

Laundry for the revolution

If we take the solution of moving back to hand-washing as the greener solution, what happens? We use less water, less electricity and we have to use milder chemicals or we trash our hands. That’s a step down in terms of environmental impact. I’ve been doing this for a while. There are three of us, and none of us has continence issues, which makes it viable.

I was laundering this morning, thinking about how much time it takes. If I had some busy, well paid, high powered job it would be tempting to hire someone else to do the scrubbing for me. Someone less busy whose time is worth less money than mine. This is the great British solution to energy and work – servants. Take away the labour saving devices, and paying someone else to do it for you is the next logical step. Actually that’s not very comfortable.

Once you start paying people to be substitute washing machines, you’re going to start thinking of them as an underclass. These are the folk destined for drudgery, for the work that is beneath you. Thus we create our untouchables. The most essential work is often the least well paid and the least respected. Where would we be without waste collectors and toilet cleaners? What assumptions do we hold about the people who end up with those jobs?

Historically there’s been a lot of gender politics here, too. Laundry has been women’s work. It is women’s quality of life and freedom of time that has been most affected by labour saving devices in the home. It is still the case that women do the bulk of the domestic work, even where both partners also have employed jobs. Take away the washing machines, and there’s every reason to think this trend would continue, forcing women back into unpaid, time consuming, exhausting work.

Turning the clock back is not the answer to any of our modern issues. There is simply too great a risk that you bring back the ills that went alongside the previous solution, rather than making actual progress. In the case of laundry, the attendant ills are gender disparity and class divide. That’s a hefty risk to run with the issue of who is sorting out the underwear.

The way forward has to be about getting smarter, more efficient, more joined up in our thinking. I want a washing machine. I want it powered by a static bicycle. Currently people drive to gyms in order to use static bikes where nothing is done with that energy. I want places were static bikes sit next to washing machines and spin driers. Slow pedalling for the less athletic, while your hyper-fit gym bunnies run the spin driers. More fun and efficient than scrubbing by hand, no underclass and no gender divisions.

But for now I’ve got some wringing out to do.


(Anyone worried that I am living in a patriarchal scenario that means I get an unfair share of the domestics, I should mention that Tom does all the toilet and cat litter related stuff, it is an entirely workable trade-off!)

Ancestors and Laundry

Picture hand-washing, and you’ll probably either get the ancients scrubbing their clothes alongside streams, or the more Victorian image of copper boiler, mangle, and a whole Monday given over to the job. We’ve got washing machines because laundry is dreadfully hard, time consuming drudgery that working class women had to bear for centuries.

It’s not that simple, but I realise firstly that most people do not handwash, and therefore that most people will not have a realistic sense of how much easier modern handwashing is than the Victorian image of it. Washing machines use a lot of electricity and water. If you are struggling to make ends meet, handwashing may help you. If you want to be greener, this is also a consideration, water use being one of our many unhelpful ways of impacting on the environment. The carbon footprint of clothes has more to do with how you wash it than where you got it, I believe. Come the zombie apocalypse, you may be glad to know it’s easy to rinse out your knickers…

Ancestral laundry involved very different fabrics. Cotton, linen and wool predominated in the historical wash. These are not easy to clean, and are really hard to dry. Modern synthetics take a lot less effort (I have handwashed both). They dry far more rapidly, even if all you do is wring them out. Modern cleaning products, even the eco ones, are a good deal stronger and more effective than what the grandmothers had to work with, this again makes the job easier. Unlike our grandmothers, we have hot running water (for now, at least). Heating the water, and getting the fuel to heat the water was a big contributor to making the job hard and lengthy. We don’t have that problem. We can cheat a bit and get a spin dryer to shake the worst of the water out and still come in with a far lower water and electric use than the washing machine.

Our ancestors were, for the greater part, labourers. Even the wealthy were outside a lot, using horses to get around, and obliged to walk down muddy streets. History was a much dirtier place. Washing a miner’s clothes must have been really intensive work. Farm labourers, sweating in the fields all day must have required some serious scrubbing. We just don’t get as dirty; mostly washing means getting the dust and a modest amount of sweat out, maybe the odd food stain from children. Unless you go so far as to handwash nappies, you’re never going to meet anything on the scale our ancestors had to contend with unless you are washing for a manual labourer, and there’s not so much of that about and it’s not as dirty as it used to be.

Washing machines aren’t actually great for heavy soiling anyway. If I do an epic walk and get the hems of my trousers covered in mud, and throw them through a washing machine, the odds are a lot of the mud will still be there when they come out.  Scrubbing with a brush may take more effort, but I find I often get things cleaner by handwashing. Handwashing a couple of items is no less efficient, while throwing two shirts in a washing machine is a huge waste of power. There are all kinds of advantages to doing it the old way. It does take more effort, and more time, but not an unviable amount, for most of us. Obviously if you have three toddlers to wash for, this may not be for you.

Part of what locks us into our modern, unsustainable behaviours is the belief that there are no alternatives. We’re convinced that life without certain key gadgets, would be unbearable. I do not have many of the key gadgets. I’m fine. My energy bill is nothing like as crazy as most people’s, I do not spend my entire time scrubbing things, and nobody has died. It is worth questioning everything we take for granted, because there are so often viable other ways.