Avoiding the washing

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I’ve been experimenting lately with reducing my carbon footprint.

Encouraged by the endless rain, I have been trying something of an experiment lately – not washing my clothes. 

I was alerted to this concept by a comment in Lucy Siegle’s book To Die For that mentioned Friends of the Earth would prefer people to wear their jeans seven times before washing in order to reduce their carbon footprint.

Eewugh, I thought – also the reaction of most of my friends when I mentioned I was doing this – but the truth is, my clothes don’t get all that dirty: why am I washing them all the time? 

It’s a given, for instance, that you shouldn’t wash your swimwear at all – the polyester and polypropelene fabrics of which most of today’s are made won’t stand up to the rigours of detergent. I just rinse mine thoroughly and leave them to dry. And, as many people may have discovered on holiday, or if they ever worked in a smoky office, fresh air and sunlight act as pretty powerful cleansers on all kinds of clothing without the use of soap and water. 

Have we, I wondered, just been sold a pup by the makers of detergent, who would love us to wash our clothes every five minutes so they can make more money? These are the same people, after all, who make vaginal deodorant, anti-perspirant, artificial air fresheners, toilet cleaner and many other things that are entirely surplus to requirements.  

Here are my circumstances: I live in the country (no smog, soot or traffic filth), I work indoors, my body is clean (squeaky bleach-clean three times a week because of swimming in a chlorinated pool), I use an alum-stone deodorant, and I have a sedentary job. When I walk the dog or do the garden, I wear specialised clothes, and when I cook, I wear an apron. My normal, everyday get-up is jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt, topped with some sort of fleece or jumper.

And here’s what I’ve found, after three weeks of seeing what I could get away with. 

* Jeans do indeed last a week without washing, provided they are dark, unless you get them muddy (most of which brushes off when dry) or you drop something on them, in which case, they’ll take a spot clean pretty well. At night, turn them inside out to air.

* T-shirts, surprisingly, last a good couple of days, again provided you turn them inside out at night and hang them up so the armpit area is exposed to air. Dark colours and stripes do better than white ones. 

* Knickers, obviously, need to be changed every day (this would be a step too far for me…) but socks, I find, will do two or three days, as I tend to have dry rather than smelly feet and also wear Crocs, which allow a free flow of air to your skin.

* A bra will last a week.  

* A jumper or fleece will also last a week, provided it’s dark in colour, before getting grubby around the collar. My tees are all long-sleeved, so my sweaters are protected from sweat in any case (the principle, incidentally, of most clothing until mechanisation made washing easier – no Tudor or medieval person of any status wore their outer clothing next to their skin – it was always protected by a layer of linen, which was absorbent and easy to wash). 

Total washing at the end of the week: seven pairs of pants, three pairs of socks, one bra, four t-shirts, one sweater, one pair of jeans = 17 garments. Because my tees tend to be white or pale, my jeans tend to be dark navy, and I tend to alternate my clothes every day, this means I can go two weeks before washing one lot of lights and one lot of darks.

That’s a massively reduced consumption of detergent and water compared with my usual: seven pairs of pants, seven pairs of socks, three bras, seven tees, half a dozen sweaters or fleeces, seven pairs of jeans = 37-38 garments. And it also reduces the wear on the clothes themselves – the washing process is harder on them than the wearing process. 

The exception I didn’t note is nightwear. Due to menopausal night sweats, my nightwear needs washing every day, but I am now doing this by hand, separately from the other washing, because the delicate wicking fabric won’t stand up to the washing machine.

It IS, I admit, a bit boring dresing like this, and I’m not sure how applicable it is to, say, a city-based worker who’s sweating like a pig in an overheated office all day, but it gives me confidence that in the future I will be able to downsize my wardrobe still further.

I have not, however, so far, persuaded any of my friends to try this idea because the idea of washing everything after one wear has become as deeply ingrained in most women as daily full-immersion bathing and hairwashing (both of which activities, incidentally, were also weekly events when I was growing up).  

Time for a change? 

For those unwilling to make this experiment, you can still switch to a plant-based wash powder and wash on 30 degrees or cold, or make your own powder from this recipe:

1 part borax

1 part washing soda

1 part plain soap

Whizz all the ingredients in a food processor until powdery and use as normal wash powder.  

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