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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