Friday, September 20, 2013

Don't Do Anything A Machine Can Do

Drop spindle photo courtesy Flickr

Seeking domestic advantage, it seems obvious to automate basic tasks. The process started long ago: the contemporary drop spindles in the illustration were replaced by the spinning wheel hundreds of years ago. It in turn was replaced by the spinning jenny. Carpenters designed the tools of early industrialization.

The title occurred to me as I was finishing the latest of many batches of hand laundry, my current area of experimentation. I ran across a no-rinse detergent at the friendly local weaving supply I pass several times a week. My knitting habit is under control, but now and then I stop in to browse. The new detergent is very expensive, but seems to be worth the price and is kind to the hands. It has slashed utility bills.

Being married to an archaeologist encourages fooling around with low-tech procedures. I have yet to pound bones with a large, fractured pebble, but a flat-sided rock is more efficient for crushing crackers in a zip bag than the grinder that fits onto the kitchen helper stand mixer. Grabbing the rock is faster and easier on the back than setting up the machine. Some months ago, I realized that it would be far easier to carry a two and a half gallon bucket of water than a fiver, not that I was lugging water here and there at the time. Scaling down the weight and bulk of the burden opened my mind to potential uses of an ancient vessel.

Some years ago, archy looked at the ceiling of a Peninsula antique shop and spotted a one gallon brass Hudson's Bay trade bucket. Intact buckets are rare, because the tribespeople would rework them as bracelets when they wore out. The bucket came home with us and serves as a splendid ice container for parties. I isolate the contents from the lead in the brass alloy by leaving them in their plastic bag. Simply handling the bucket now and then has taught me much about design: it suits the body beautifully. I am not much taller than a s'Klallam, and the bucket has taught me to play with the alternative to running water: it's like a grown-up version of a child's sand bucket.

I washed a silk scarf in the bucket using the new detergent. The process was so simple-I just dumped the contents of the bucket into the spinner half of my twin-tub portable washing machine-and the result so good, that I have gradually shifted all my laundry into the ancestral copper boiler. Duct tape seals the pin hole that turned the boiler into a firewood holder. A local silversmith can do a proper repair if the system pans out.

In 1957, a neighbor who was married to a career Navy man told me that their previous post had been in Italy. She had been surprised to observe that the local women washed the family clothing in their bathtubs. I work in my clawfoot. A non-skid safety mat sits in the tub topped by two legally acquired commercial-grade sixteen quart dairy crates set upside down. The boiler rests across the crates at a convenient height, to protect my back. I fill the boiler with the telephone shower that is fitted to the tub. I filched a brass washboard from the music room, but haven't had to use it. If this gets to be too much, I can revert to the machine or a local laundromat.

Back in the day,  washing clothes was such an ordeal that French farmers did it in June, no kidding.  SOP was to start by soaking things overnight in cold water. One has to be careful soaking outside of a machine: if there were young children in the house, I would do so only if I could lock the door of the laundry room. Forgetting a soaking load of laundry is a recipe for squalor, so I only wash when I will be housebound for the day. Light manual labor is a good way to loosen up laptop shoulders.

With running hot water, a telephone shower, power spinner, and no-rinse washing agent, doing laundry by hand is trivial. It takes less time than using the machine, uses a fraction of the hot water, is infinitely kinder to textiles, and, most valuable to me in this dense neighborhood, is kind to the ears. The turnaround time for dirty clothes is overnight, so the house smells fresh, dirt does not have time to set, and our wardrobe inventory can be small and current. Now and then I use conventional detergent and bleach for a load of bedding, wearing disposable nitrile gloves to protect my skin. An intermediate vinegar rinse improves the result for cottons and linen. Adding a few drops of dishwasher rinsing aid reduces the amount of any detergent needed for a load. Old housekeeping manuals read like beginning chemistry class, referring to washing products as "reagents".

Compared to hand laundry, a machine is clumsy and wasteful. Hand work makes sense for our circumstances. Our wardrobes are chosen with travel in mind, and travel clothing is designed to be washed in a sink. As I was putting the latest load to soak yesterday, I realized that the washing machine's Monday revolution might be due for another rotation. Originally, the laundress still had to fire the water heater with solid fuel and carry water to the machine. The machine saved labor by thrashing the clothes in the bath of soapsuds that did its best none too well. Washing with soap requires huge inputs of heat energy and huge volumes of water to get a good result. The washing machine brought meaningful change to the domestic work load at a time when nuts had to be shelled, chickens plucked, every stitch ironed, and carpets brushed on hands on knees.

The real labor of hand laundry with detergent is wringing the result, and the spinner makes short work of that step. Spinning twice with a conventional machine will greatly shorten drying time, whether on a line or in an appliance. An old school wringer works well, too, but it's hard to mount in a contemporary situation and costs the same as a freestanding bathing suit centrifuge. The Shakers still sell a $400 manual twin-tub washer with wringer, and if I lived in the right situation, I would cheerfully acquire one, or two to set up a sequence of water baths like the famous old Shaker commercial laundry designs.

No-rinse detergent and old school containers have displaced the noisy, expensive bulk of an automatic washing machine in this small household. The machines that count for me now are the ones that manage information, clean the air, cut the grass, and carry me here and there in town.

Both the old bucket and the wash boiler have ideal hydrodynamics for dunking textiles in a load of suds. The shape of the containers works with wet clothing rather than against it. I have hand-washed the odd sweater and napkin over the years, and twentieth century sinks, dishpans, and buckets inevitably splash the front of my shirt. This current experiment with hand laundry has proved the value of low-tech design that works with deep knowledge of body mechanics.

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More after the jump.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Cool Weather Clothing

Photo courtesy Flickr


This morning's broadcast story about an Indonesian alternative beauty pageant reminded me of the superbly efficient clothing of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a period that preceded central heating. This is the time of year when I shift the contents of the closet toward staying warm rather than staying cool. In Seattle, the difference is a subtle one, and ordinarily just breaking out a cashmere cardigan, light quilted jacket, and a set of wool underwear will do the trick.

I travel by bus between one urban village and another that houses many middle Eastern and south Asian students. The academic bookstore is, unsurprisingly, a good place to shop for beautiful, affordable scarves. Over the last ten years I've fooled around with numerous outfits that approach traditional offshore fashion. It was a revelation to discover that a knee-length smock worn over trousers and under a generous scarf is phenomenally efficient insulation and very practical to wear while working. I couldn't quite bring myself to dress according to a someone else's piety, though.

Today's footage showed numerous contestants clad in long skirts that could have come straight out of Godey's Lady's Book. My great-grandmother's second day dress made a splendid, comfortable costume for a pre-graduation high school dress-up day. Its generous ankle length skirt, tight bodice with peplum, and leg o'mutton sleeves, all cut from good  wool gab, were everything but waterproof. I could happily dress like that every day I don't have to wrangle a motor vehicle. 

The turn of the Anglo twentieth century was influenced by Ottoman design. Dressing to conserve energy connects Middle East and West in a gentle and productive collaboration.

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More after the jump.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Hiding The Clothesline

"Sheila" photo courtesy Flickr 
Note stove pipe slanted for maximum heat distribution.
Saturday I discussed the politics of laundry with a couple of veteran housekeepers. We agreed that air drying clothing in plain sight of the neighborhood is a legitimate issue. We also agreed that younger folk are likely never to have witnessed the fine craft of hanging clothes to dry. Setting things out with deliberation and care, ensuring that the grain of the fabric is squared off, is a part of producing well-finished laundry, which should look like new. Even easy care fabrics look their best when handled this way, and things last forever. Cheryl Mendelson's Home Comforts has a section about clotheslines that is sheer poetry. If you're even thinking about line drying, read this book as a guide to righteous management.

When electric clothes dryers came on the Seattle market in the early Fifties, my mother couldn't wait to buy one. This, to put it mildly, is not an ideal climate for hanging clothes out to dry. Even in July, a basket of wash is likely to mildew before it dessicates. Clothesline resistors have good arguments besides the slattern factor: security and privacy are obvious considerations, allergens and air pollutants accumulate on things dried outdoors, and sun (a fragile bone of contention in Western Washington) damages fibers.

There are many more subtle ways to air dry clothing than outdoors on an assembly of lines, however. Any Seattle basement of a certain age will have at least the holes of the hooks that held clothesline pocking the  joists of the first floor. String plastic-covered cotton clothesline with a turnbuckle to keep it taut, and wipe it with a clean cloth before hanging things up. Drying in a basement close to the furnace guarantees that the house will be adequately humidified during heating season. I dislike working overhead, though, and prefer to dry on a rack or hangers set on a pole.

The ancient Greeks invented the attic, as in Athens, specifically to dry things. My antique attic is ideal for drying clothes and came with a nail in an obscure corner that's obviously placed to hold my vintage ironing board. The west window, with its view of the Sound, is a good spot to iron, if necessary. Catch things when they're just tender-dry. 

Traditional housekeepers of Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, dried clothing flat on the roof. Drying flat is very kind to textiles.

I use a folding hardwood drying rack that I mail-ordered from the Manchester Country Store. I used to set bamboo poles in the lattice corner of the back porch, and an Asian friend told me that was how her family managed drying in the old country. A large diameter pole dries faster than a line. Hanging bamboo poles in the basement worked well, as did hanging a rarely-used window washing pole in the attic. One classic strategy is to set poles across the backs of two chairs. Flimsy folding plastic sawhorses would work, too.

I set a spring-loaded shower curtain rod across the basement stairwell and hang clothes and bed linen on plastic hangers to dry in the subtle current of rising air. Even leaving an incandescent light bulb on in the stairwell is enough to stir the air effectively. Friends have a generous laundry room whose high ceiling is fitted with a big-bladed fan. I often hand wash kitchen laundry after breakfast, spin it thoroughly in the little centrifuge that is half of my portable twin tub washing machine, and set things to dry on the long towel rail that runs the full length of the sink section of the kitchen. The sink is old school, open underneath, and an incandescent night light set in a wall outlet is enough to beat mildew in the wet wash.

It's easier to line dry small batches of clothes, so I wash frequently. Doing so keeps the house smelling remarkably fresh-try it no matter what system you use. Washing frequently also keeps soil from setting in fabric. I find that gentle handling is enough for anything this household is likely to generate. In fact, I now wash everything by hand, but that's another post.

I heat the house as little as possible, and a heated towel rail in the bathroom is the key to living with dignity in a cool interior. The rail is ready to dry anything I want in a hurry or the odd cotton knit that's slow to dry on its own. Any fiber dries faster than cotton. I can also set a stack of barely dry things on a radiator to finish when nobody's looking.

If you wash with a conventional machine, put things through an extra spin cycle to speed line drying.

My great-grandmother had an "outdoor room" in her garden, a twelve-foot square hedged with laurel with a narrow opening through which one could slip. My guess is that the rotating clothes drier lived there when the children weren't playing in the space or someone wasn't sunbathing. In a perfect world, the laundress has a rosemary hedge to dry linen flat and bleaching in the sun.

In my experience, there are only two really burdensome aspects of  doing laundry when one has access to running hot water. One is wringing the wet wash, and a spinner of some kind or an old school wringer protects fine motor skills. The other is coping with the half-informed bullying of one's fellow washerpersons.

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More after the jump.