Figuring Out Laundry

In her Paris Review Daily essay, “This Is The Way We Wash Our Clothes” Sadie Stein looks back at how the great Sisyphean task of laundry figured into her childhood, and how her family, especially her mother, lived with and around it:

It was not until I went away to college that I realized how much laundry my mother did. I don’t mean that my family of four generated an unusual amount—none of us changed more than once a day, or had especially extensive wardrobes—or that she stood around an industrial-sized cauldron like Mrs. Buckets in “Cheer Up, Charlie.” Rather, at any given moment, some step of laundry-washing was in process. If the washer or dryer wasn’t running, clothes were being sorted. Large piles of lights and darks littered the hall floor. There was a wicker hamper of some description, in a nook under the linen closet, but things either didn’t make it there or were sorted with such dispatch that they never reached its limbo. And always, always, there was the folding. My parents’ bed was generally covered with a large pile of clean clothes; anyone who happened to be sitting on the bed watching TV would either fold a few napkins in the course of a show (me) or sit atop a mound, occasionally knocking clothes onto the floor (my brother.) Then there was the hand-washing, or those pieces my mother had deemed too delicate for the dryer: there were usually a few of these hanging damply in the bathroom. She did not work full-time back then; one wonders how all the laundry might have gotten done if she had.

I love hearing about how other people do chores, especially the strange emotional significance of them, and the negotiations we make, and the space we let them take up in our lives.

Growing up we also always had towers of folded and unfolded clothes, clean and unclean, on top of our washer and dryer and in different places around the house. It was ever-present.

Now it’s just ever-present in the “We should really do laundry tonight” way.

I think I had it mastered once, when I was living on my own and next-door to a 24-hour laundromat with drop-off service, but now I am engaged to someone who thinks dropping your laundry off and paying someone to do it for you is not only way too expensive (fair) but “cheating” (*side-eye*). Because of his radical yet firm anti-drop-off stance, my fiance is the one who is charged with actually taking the laundry to the laundromat and doing it, and then I fold it when he gets home.

This works in theory, but in reality we always end up waiting way too long, saying, “Maybe tomorrow” no less than three days in a row, and wearing our underwear inside out. Finally it will be 11 p.m. one night and he’ll decide now is the moment we’ve been waiting for, and I’ll complain that I don’t want to be folding laundry at 1 a.m. and he’ll say we can wait to fold it until the morning, but then I’ll think of him with his sad wrinkled dress shirts that he is somehow blind to, so I’ll beg him to wait another day, and he’ll refuse and I’ll give in and he will heave that huge yellow laundry bag onto his shoulder and head off into the night. EVERY TIME.

One day, though, we’re going to figure this out.

Photo: coda

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36 Comments / Post A Comment

gyip (#4,192)

Re: fabric softener in the article, it’s just unnecessary. We stopped using it a while ago and our clothes are fine. We also ditched dryer sheets. Our clothes are not staticky coming out of the dryer at all.

Why do clothes need to be softened? They’re fabric!

Beans (#1,111)

@gyip agreed, it’s a total racket. Also, you really don’t want to be using it on any synthetic athletic apparel, because it clogs up the “pores” of the fabric and gets all icky.

Bonnie St. Clair (#2,949)

@gyip Yeah, I don’t understand fabric softener! It just seems like an extra expense/step that doesn’t make much of a noticeable difference. And it can build up in your washing machine – I’ve had clothes end up with big grease spots (that came out with degreaser, luckily) from using a shared machine with fabric softener build-up in the past.

Meaghano (#529)

@Bonnie St. Clair also apparently fabric softener ruins the absorbency of towels? :-O

@gyip I hate to be this person, but the sheets make a difference in my clothes! Without them they’re much more wrinkled and static-y. I just use a Target brand sheet with each load, nothing fancy, but yeah, I notice a difference. And I just air-dry my workout stuff.

@gyip I recently learned from my great aunt that you can use plain old white vinegar as a fabric softener! Just throw in about 1/4 cup with a load of laundry and when they come out of the dryer, your clothes/towels/sheets will be super soft and there is no vinegar smell. Seriously, vinegar does everything.

Bonnie St. Clair (#2,949)

@Meaghano Wtf, fabric softener??

qwer1234 (#4,140)

@Vodka Queen YES vinegar everything. Not only does it soften your clothes, it kills cooties too. Y’know, for the stuff that you can’t wash at a million degrees.

ATF (#4,229)

Growing up my dad was mainly in charge of the laundry. It was right off the living room and I think the basic deal was that he could watch all the sports he wanted so long as he was also steadily doing the laundry. My mother also did loads during the week with the strict belief that it was not her job to fold the clothes. So my siblings and I would get called from wherever we were when the laundry was done and we had to fold it/sort it by person/and put away our own/give it to the owner to put away.

Now I have in unit laundry. I do a load a week or so. Usually on the weekend. My boyfriend waits until his clothes are threatening to smoother us in our sleep before doing it. But so long as it’s in the hamper, I really don’t care.

andnowlights (#2,902)

Oh, laundry. It is my least favorite chore. I LOATHE it and I’m so glad my husband doesn’t mind doing it. I do all the cooking, he does all the laundry. I feel like it’s a fair trade! Mostly because cooking is less work and I hate it less. Edited to add: he also has way more free time since he’s still in school.

jfruh (#161)

I work at home (and we have a washer and dryer at home) and so I’m the designated launderer for our two-person household. We can go pretty long between laundry (usually a couple of weeks) but when I finally do it I usually end up with two loads of sheets/towels and 4-5 loads of actual clothes (a load of lights, 2-3 loads of darks, and a load of clothes I segregate out because they don’t go in the dryer and I don’t want to sort through a pile of wet clothes). Despite doing laundry 20+ times a year, I sometimes manage to always forget that I get maybe half as much work done on laundry day as I do on regular days. The folding is in fact the hardest part. I try to fold them as as soon as they get out of the dryer, but sometimes I just leave them in a pile on the guest bed for as much as a day, especially if that last load comes out of the dryer late at night, as it sometimes does.

On the emotional side, I put away all my clothes as soon as I fold them and leave my wife’s for her to put away, and often she takes several days to get around to it, which I always vaguely resent even though I know it’s totally irrational. The clothes aren’t hurting anyone or affecting our lives in any way (well, I do have to keep the guest bedroom door closed or otherwise the cat will sleep on them). But I do sort of feel like “I did this whole chore and you only have to do this one thing at the end and you HAVEN’T DONE IT and it won’t be done until you do, argh”, which I’m trying to work past.

ceereelyo (#3,552)

@jfruh – i am the opposite of you and your wife – I put all my clothes away the minute I get them back into our apartment,whereas he will keep his in the basket and use that as an extension of his dresser/closet which drives me insane, and yes I feel the same way you do – I did all of the laundry but you can’t even put your clothes away? Also, my husband is a fan of doing bits and pieces of laundry as opposed to all his running clothes or all the underwear/socks/undershirt, etc. It drives me insane. When I do laundry I will do a load of ALL the one type of thing or I just end up doing all the laundry.

We have laundry in the building next door and there’s only two washers and two dryers so I’ll try to do it on the weeknights when it’s less busy. I wish we had our own washer/dryer, I feel like I would not have so many clothes/towels/sheets/etc. Our bathrugs are looking a little gross and so I’m contemplating buying another set so I can swap it out and put the dirty ones in the hamper. My parents live in the next town over, so on occasion if there’s a lot of laundry I will load up the car and hang out there and get it all done. I just feel like I have to plan spending at least half a day there, and bring something to do, whereas if I was at home I could clean or like craft and do something like that. UGH hate laundry so much – I feel really accomplished when the hampers are completely empty.

honey cowl (#1,510)

@jfruh This is our situation, complicated by the fact that I am a female partner to a man, and I work at home. That, for me, raises the resentment factor, as it means I’m contributing to traditional gender roles and perceptions of women and the wage gap…… all because I happen to have a job that makes it more convenient for me to do more housework. And I love my partner and I don’t resent HIM but I resent the SYSTEM, bro.

heavyrotation (#4,261)

” but then I’ll think of him with his sad wrinkled dress shirts that he is somehow blind to”

THIS. I have infinitely (it feels like) more work-clothes options than my boyfriend strictly because my office is so lax about its dress code. His lack of options, especially because he is so stubborn about laundry/dry cleaning, make me incredibly upset on occasion. I just want him to have ENDLESS CLEAN SHIRTS IS THAT SO MUCH TO ASK FOR????

lemur_niemer (#3,125)

When I was a kid, every Saturday was laundry day. We were responsible for getting our clothes into the laundry room, but my parents sorted it – until we got old enough to do that. It was usually about 4-5 loads I think, and I almost wish I had enough clothes to justify the system my parents used. Hot/white/with bleach (white towels, undershirts, etc.) Hot/no bleach (colored towels, socks, etc.) Bright/regular/warm, Dark/regular/cold, Light/gentle/cold, Dark/gentle/cold. Now I still do laundry about once a week, but only two loads – gentle and regular. I could hold out for longer, but I generally wear the same baselayers to bike in every day, and those get pretty sweaty. The most recent time I did laundry it was finally a one-day process – usually the clean clothes sit in a basket for a day or two.

ETA: Now that I’ve lived in a rental with a free washer/drying in the basement, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to go back. (We pay gas, electric, and water.)

Beaks (#3,488)

@lemur_niemer Your family’s system is pretty much what we do, except every two weeks instead of weekly. It works great- all the laundry gets done regularly, you don’t need to think about whether it’s time to do laundry, and while the machine is running we clean the rest of the house. 5-6 hours later the house and our clothes are clean, and we’re pretty much set for the next two weeks (minus maintenance cleaning- dishes, kitchen counters, general picking up, etc.)

dotcommie (#662)

drop off service is SO WORTH IT. especially since my place is $0.65/lb.

Meaghano (#529)

@dotcommie THANK YOU. Please tell this to username @theunread on twitter. Haha.

@dotcommie At my old apartment, laundry was $5/load ($2.50 wash, $2.50 dry). So dropoff wasn’t much more expensive. That got me started.

Not having to ever match socks again keeps me hooked.

annpan (#3,219)

My mom would wash, dry, and fold my clothes in my early childhood, leaving me only in charge of putting the clothes away. I hated that task so much, that I would dump the (clean!) clothes back into the hamper to go through the laundry cycle again after they sat on my dresser for about a week.

The day that my mom found out, when I was 6 or so, was the day she marched me downstairs to the washer and dryer, taught me what the knobs and buttons did, and said “you’re on your own from now on!” and honestly never did my laundry again. An early initiation into laundry independence!

lemur_niemer (#3,125)

@annpan Oh my god kids are evil geniuses. But I can only imagine how mad your mom was. Props to your mom.

annpan (#3,219)

@lemur_niemer SERIOUSLY. She was so great. I was such a buttmunch.

cawcawphony (#2,990)

Thinking about childhood laundry gives me the bad feelings. My mom did all the laundry, and when I was in 5th grade she had what I later learned was a mental breakdown and was in a facility for awhile- at least a month, I think. My memories are pretty vague. Before she left she wrote down all the steps to doing laundry, which my father then had me do. I still have not forgiven him for making me do the family laundry at 10 years old. He still doesn’t know how to use a washer or dryer. Luckily his second wife is as pliable as my mother was before therapy.

Speaking of stepmothers, she is deathly afraid of a fire starting from not cleaning out the lint trap. Legitimate. But my mother always cleaned the trap before starting a new load, while stepmother apparently does it as soon as a load is dry. It is a hard habit to break, and there were a few instances of fear-yelling at me and my sister.

ANYWAY. Now I live alone in a building with laundry in the basement. I do not use fabric softener or dryer sheets, and rarely separate anything besides delicates. (And sheets from towels- thank you Jolie!)I am also cheap and often air dry clothes instead of shelling out $1 for the dryer.

CaddyFdot (#2,686)

I love laundry! Folding is the best part; you take a big messy pile of clean clothes and 5-10 minutes later it ends up in nicely organized stacks to fit into the dresser. But, I only have my own laundry to do at this point, so I probably do a whole four loads per month. I imagine if I had endless dirty child clothes to wash, it would be less soothing.

When I was a kid, my father did the laundry (both parents worked). Apparently it became his chore because she got sick of dealing with his socks, which were always inside-out!

KittyConner (#3,108)

MrConner places a very high value on clean clothes and an empty hamper at least once a week. I do not and never did and endless piles of laundry haunt my memories of childhood.

His office/mancave is across from the laundry room and every Sunday, without fail, he will wash all of the clothes. Not so much the sheets or towels or dishrags or other effluvia needing to be laundered, but once a week ALL of the clothes are clean.

And so reader, I married him.

Madeline Shoes (#1,324)

I’m manic about the laundry because our apartment is so tiny that even in a lidded hamper it will start to smell like sweaty workout clothes if I don’t do it every week. I usually do 3 loads a week – darks (with dark detergent), brights and sheets/towels/whites (all our sheets and towels are white). I don’t use dryer sheets/fabric softener, but my mom gave us these awesome dryer balls shaped like hedgehogs and they go a long way to getting rid of static and keeping things soft.

I always do it on Sundays while my boyfriend is teaching. It takes about 2.5-3 hours depending on how vigilant I am about running downstairs to switch it, but mostly it’s an excuse to stay home and veg and watch tv – “Ohhhh I’m so sorry I have to miss expensive brunch I can’t afford – I’m in the middle of laundry!!”

I line dry basically all our clothes except underwear/socks/workout gear, so Monday nights I do a ton of ironing and steaming while I watch TV.

I love doing laundry and I love ironing – I find it to be really soothing and repetitive.

amyfrances (#1,522)

The comments on this post are INVALUABLE market research for me, so thank you, Billfold!

I’m working on figuring out a way to open a super nice laundromat/cafe space. I’m gonna need about five thousand million trillion more dollars in savings, so I’ll be at my office job for a while, but a fancy laundromat with reclaimed wood laundry crates and soothing colors and nice drinks and board games and bingo nights is my ultimate dream/life plan.

@amyfrances I would totally ditch my in-unit washer/dryer to go somewhere like, PROVIDED there was space to air dry things! (at least until my dryer load/board game was done, I’m not gonna leave my stuff overnight). The worst part about the laundromat was the pile of wet jeans/bras/workout gear I had to hang on to until I got home.

missvancity (#146)

@amyfrances Ooh, what a wonderful idea! My lottery idea is to open a fluff ‘n’ fold that does hang drying!

LocalGirl (#2,800)

@amyfrances When this happens, you let me know. I will move to where you open your business.

amyfrances (#1,522)

@LocalGirl Minneapolis, and thank you! Lots of financial groundwork to lay before this is even a remote possibility, but I want to! Maybe I should Kickstarter-it.

Ellie (#62)

I, too, love doing laundry. Washing, folding, ironing etc. I find it really relaxing, it is by far my favorite household chore.

I genuinely cannot understand dropping your laundry off for someone else to do. How do you give up that control to someone else! How do you know they will follow the care instructions?!

hungrybee (#73)

@Ellie Exactly! I have seen how they do the laundry at drop off places, and no thank you. Drop off might be more convenient but they ruin things!

Megoon (#328)

@hungrybee @Ellie Ha, *I* don’t follow the care instructions, so I don’t care what they do at the drop off! I just know that in exchange for like 2% more money and the occasional lost sock, I get to spend my Saturdays however I please. To me, it’s worth having to replace my undies slightly sooner.

Emma M (#3,765)

Laundry is odious. The single biggest drawback to our otherwise awesome living situation is the lack of on-site laundry. We made a pact that we would never go alone, and the laundromat is next door to a Chipotle, so after we put stuff in the washer we go split a burrito. But still. Ew.

honey cowl (#1,510)

So, so, so glad our unit has free in-unit laundry. Never moving to New York y’all. Smaller (but still big) city for the win.

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