About Laundering

Gathering, Storing, and Sorting Laundry

Laundering at home vs. sending out the laundry … Reducing the amount of laundry in your home … Scheduling; how often you should launder; laundry day … Deciding when clothes need washing; clothes hampers … Why we sort before laundering … Care labels; the rules of sorting; sorting by washing method, color, level of soil, potential for damage; compromises in sorting … What counts as white; more about sorting colors; bleaches … How to test for colorfastness … Pretreating and other prewash preparations
The automated home laundry is a great boon to comfort and happiness. Yet more and more people, caught in the terrible time-squeeze of the modern home, think of it only with abhorrence. I suspect they have not thought through the drop in their standard of living that would follow if all the fabrics in their home had to be sent out for laundering. In any event, like so many other kinds of modern housework, home laundering is much more a matter of knowing than of doing a lot. Once you know how, home laundering is little trouble and provides great benefits.

Should You Send Out the Laundry?

Centuries ago, well-to-do city dwellers sent their laundry to the country, where there were rivers to wash it and fields in which to spread it in the sun for drying and bleaching. Aristocratic French families at the end of the seventeenth century sent their soiled linens all the way to the sunny Caribbean for laundering. By 1900, the custom of sending the laundry out (or sometimes of having a laundress come do it) had been adopted by other classes and was widespread. This system had some inconveniences—lost or poorly laundered clothes, damage, stains, clothes and linens that could not be used because they were away being laundered—but these were overridden by its great benefits. One hundred years ago, laundering was highly labor-intensive and required elaborate facilities for washing and drying, including boilers, wringers, and mangles, a whole collection of irons and ironing equipment, drying contraptions of various sorts, and ample space indoors and out. Few city families could supply all this muscle power, time, equipment, and space—or know-how—so out went the laundry, or, in some cases, in came the poor laundry women.
Then came automatic washing machines and other improvements for home laundries, and the private home again took on sole responsibility for the job. Commercial laundries disappeared by the hundreds. That is why some feminists who wish to relieve women of the burdens of housekeeping have bitterly complained that home laundering is a case of a battle once won and then lost again. The calls for once more giving up home laundering, now that women have gone out to work in such numbers, have become louder and louder. In my view, home laundering is so easy, convenient, inexpensive, and successful that it is here to stay for most of us. For some, however, sending it out would be the best thing to do.
If you are single and working long hours or are part of a two-career family with children, you may sometimes find that this is a good choice for you. I know from experience that when you are tired and stressed from work, nothing cheers you up like someone delivering bundles of crisp, clean laundry. I also know from experience, however, that commercial laundries do not do nearly as good a job as you can at home, cause much faster wearing and fading of clothes and linens, and will rarely give the individual attention to cherished garments or expensive linens that you will. Commercial laundering means that you have to give up either having especially nice things or trying to keep them looking good, and you suffer the same inconveniences it caused a century ago. The garment you desperately need for a trip cannot be retrieved from the bowels of the laundry establishment until the appointed day, and even then maybe not. Special sheets or extra towels unexpectedly needed for company may be gone. Cracked buttons, discoloration, fading, and loss are still common.
The greatest problem for most people, however, is the large expense of sending the laundry out. It costs much, much more than doing the wash at home, even when the laundering services are mediocre. To have it done with anything approaching the delicate attention to individual garments and laundry problems that can be offered at home costs more than most people, even some who are relatively well off, can afford. (Because dry cleaning costs even more than commercial laundering, most of us choose some kind of laundering over dry cleaning whenever possible.)
Many people can afford the occasional use of good commercial laundries, however, and taking advantage of this possibility when you must work extra-long hours or when you or your children are sick or when there is a series of meetings you must attend at the time when you would ordinarily be laundering, can be such a boon that it is worth dipping into your emergency nest egg for this service now and then. Using commercial laundries only occasionally rather than regularly has the additional advantage that it causes less overall wear and tear on your clothes than habitual commercial laundering. Another option is to use commercial laundering services for some portion of your laundry; dress shirts are the classic choice here because they almost always require heavy ironing. Just sending out the shirts saves a significant amount of time and causes a minimum of inconvenience. (But be sure to stock more shirts in the wardrobe than you would find necessary if you were doing them at home.)
You can also have someone come to your home to do your laundry, but you must take care to pick a conscientious person who knows how to do it, for the damage caused by sloppy or ignorant laundering can be immense. You might try asking the prospective employee to describe his or her laundering procedures. Questions about care labels, bleaches, permanent-press cycles, and drying temperatures tend to smoke out areas of ignorance. Even when you hire someone who understands laundry basics, however, you cannot expect the same kind of knowledge and attention you would give the task yourself; nor can you expect to pass along everything you know—about your clothes, linens, and fabrics as well as about laundering—especially if you have limited time to devote to training someone. And if you are going to sort, pretreat, and do a few hand-washables yourself, you are not going to save much time by having someone else do the rest, which, after all, does not take much time. What it takes is your being at home for a few hours at a stretch so that you can change loads and remove loads from the dryer. You can be doing many other things while the laundry proceeds.

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