May 17, 2017

Wash Day, Part One

A little hummer helps me with the laundry.
Some of my favorite memories are connected to Wash Day... as a military brat we lived in base housing for a short time in New Jersey. There was a huge courtyard surrounded by four apartment buildings. Most days the courtyard was a gathering place for moms and a playground for kids, but on Wash Day the courtyard was transformed into a sea of multicolored laundry flapping in the breeze. There were no bikes allowed on wash day and the kids were supposed to find other places to occupy their time, but of course, the best place in the world for a tea party is under a canopy of freshly washed sheets! In the Zona Maya, Yucatan I hung laundry in the sultry heat with a friend as we caught up on news, on a breezy hilltop between Waxhaw and Monroe, I hung laundry with my dearest  friend, silently shaking and pinning, careful not to break the enchantment of  birdsong, breeze, sun and wet clothes... then there was learning to do laundry in the rain forest of Costa Rica where Wash Day is an all day occupation. There clothes are hung under cover, not out in the sun, since it rains even when the sun is shining. A strong breeze blew on our mountain all day long, but there was so much moisture in the air that getting clothes dry is a real challenge. So I would spend all day going down the line of clothes, testing for "dry enough"to take off the line, then immediately fold it and put it in a snap top tote to keep it dry.

These days Wash Day is at our house in Waxhaw, where I am hanging laundry off the back deck on a line that stretches from the back corner of the house to a spot way up in a tree out in our woods. It is not as exotic as Wash Day in foreign lands or as dreamlike as hanging clothes with my bestie, but it has it's own kind of magic. The birds sing and the trees whisper to me as the breeze ruffles their leaves. An anole male scurries along the railing, pausing to show off his bubble gum pink dewlap before he reaches the rose trellis, where he can watch me without worrying about Skittles, our cat. Yep, I love Wash Day...

As a prepper it is important to understand how difficult washing clothes can be without modern conveniences. You will need to have thought it through and made plans before you get caught with a load of soaking wet clothes in the washer and no way to get it dry... Having lived in places where the wash was done in the river, beating clothes clean on the rocks, wringing out the water by hand and spreading clothes on bushes and other vegetation to dry, or in a place where there is so much moisture in the air that clothes always smell musty, no matter how hard you try to get them dry,  I have learned a thing or two about doing the wash in rustic conditions.
In Costa Rica, "The Bodega" as we called it served many purposes. It was our laundry area, potting shed and outdoor eating area when it was raining.
Doing laundry by hand is hard work. Often it will take all day just to get one load of clothes done to dry and folded. Secondly, there are some clothes that are just too much trouble to launder, like blue jeans... you can work yourself to death trying to get a pair of jeans washed and dried. When we moved to Costa Rica we brought jeans with us thinking working in the jungle it would be safer and they would be more durable. It wasn't long before we regretted that decision. We remedied the jeans problem by requesting a shopping trip for people coming down to visit us... Choosing clothing for a grid down scenario is counterintuitive, one would think tough and durable, when actually clothing should be lightweight, breathable and quick drying. Cotton is a no-no, it takes forever to dry and in inclimate weather can actually be dangerous, since it gets cold and stays cold, sapping your body heat and paving the way hypothermia or illness. It is also heavy when wet and will chafe and get musty leading to skin irritation and fungus. If it is cold, choose silk long johns and wear multiple layers, but stay away from heavy fabrics. The first time you have to try and wash and dry a pair of blue jeans by hand will cure you from choosing heavy clothes; your knuckles will be raw, the jeans won't be clean and they will take two days to dry if wrung out by hand. You may end up wearing them wet and dirty; believe me it is miserable to do heavy labor or a lot of walking in wet, smelly, dirty pants.

Then there is the problem of getting clothes clean at all. In Costa Rica, it took me awhile to successfully get the clothes clean and dry in the same day. In the meantime we were having to wear damp, mostly dirty clothes... I felt like a homemaking failure, but before long I learned from my mistakes and we were cleaner and drier. A grid down situation may require it to be somebody's full time job at least one day a week, to keep the clothes clean. It could actually take two people for some parts of the tasks, like wringing out a pair of pants to get enough water out that they will dry in one day. It will be frustrating and time consuming, a task that nobody really wants to own, but if someone doesn't know how to do laundry "the hard way", everyone will be sorry. I would suggest that you start practicing now so that it isn't a total shock if it becomes a necessity. Much like any other aspect of "rustic" living, figuring it out before hand will reduce stress and save time, energy and drama later.

When water, time and other resources are thin in the ground, everyone will have to resign themselves to wear the same clothes for as long as possible. While in Costa Rica we had work clothes that we wore long past the time they failed the sniff test, (for these clothes it was time to wash them when they were so dirty they stood alone...). We would just come off the farm and hang these clothes under cover next to the knee high rubber boots, to air out in the breeze.The next morning we just shook them out and put them back on before going back out on the farm. Our "around the house" clothes we changed into after washing up. These clothes stayed cleaner since they weren't worked in and were washed when they failed the sniff test. We usually changed under things daily and wore everything else for a week before washing.

Here are some things I have learned about washing clothes without the aid of modern conveniences:

Put the soiled clothes on to soak the night before Wash Day, this will give the fibers a chance to release the soil and will save a lot effort when scrubbing. Soap can actually do more harm to laundry than good. Soap is used as a surfactant, to help soil release from the clothing, but can also, if not rinsed very well, irritate the skin and cause the clothes to get dirty faster. I shave a very small amount of Fels Naptha soap bar into a cup of water and let it melt then I pretreat really soiled areas. When I put the clothes onto soak I swish the treated clothes around in the water first and that will put enough soap in the water to help float out the oils and dirt but not add so much soap that it won't rinse clear.

Since water conservation may be an imperative, rinsing clothes may be a luxury you can't afford, so you may have to forego soap altogether. In this case, soaking and scrubbing is the best thing you can do to make sure your clothes get clean. It is possible to make lye soap, but soap making is tricky even with a lye calculator, and making lye from wood ashes is risky business and will not give you a consistent result. If you are thinking about making lye soap, you should practice your soap making skill now, there is a lot to learn.

 Skip the handy dandy plunger washer thingamabob... they don't work very well or last very long. Instead find a real live washboard. It will save your knuckles and you will have some chance of getting your clothes clean. Check out the Lehmans catalog, and if money allows invest in a good wash board and a hand clothes wringer. Purchase good heavy peg pins and and some spring pins, but the spring pins are really a luxury since they break so easily. Peg pins will last a lifetime. Lay in a supply of clothes line. It stretches and get soiled over time. If you can find the galvanized wash tubs they are worth their weight in gold on Wash Day and can work the rest of the week doing other chores.

If you can afford to waste water on rinsing the clothes, then adding 1/4 cup of white vinegar to the rinse water will help to soften clothes that will be line dried. If the smell of freshly line dried clothes isn't enough for you and you want to scent your clothes, spray them lightly just before they dry with a few drops of your favorite essential oil in a small bottle of water. I pick lavender and other herbs from my garden and layer them with my clothes in the drawers and linen closet. It will impart a lovely scent and help deter cloth eating critters.

To get your whites white, soak whites in boiling water, then wash with just the tiniest amount of soap, (or none at all). When it is time to dry them, spread them out on the grass or bushes. The chlorophyll in the plants will interact with the sun naturally whitening your whites. It is really pretty amazing how white this will get your whites!

Part Two of this Wash Day post will cover drying clothes. There are several things that can be done to make line dried clothes your favorite way to dry clothes. Line drying will save costs on electricity, be healthier and make your clothing last longer. So until next time, enjoy a day outside and try your hand at doing laundry by hand!

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