Laundry: The Home Comforts Book of Caring for Clothes and Linens

Laundry: The Home Comforts Book of Caring for Clothes and Linens

by Cheryl Mendelson


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For Cheryl Mendelson laundering is the best part of housekeeping. It's full of physical pleasures — the look of favorite clothes restored to freshness and beauty, the tactile satisfaction of crisp linens in beautifully folded stacks. Good laundering preserves things you love and protects your pocket book. It doesn't take much time or effort. What it takes is knowledge, and Laundry is the comprehensive, entertaining, and inspiring new book on the art of laundering.

Culled from the bestselling Home Comforts, with revised and updated information and a new introduction, Laundry is an indispensable guide to caring for all the cloth in one's home: from kitchen rags to bedding, hand-washables, and baby clothes to vintage linens. Mendelson offers detailed guidance on when to disregard labels, removing stains, making environmentally informed choices, sewing, and storing clothing and fabrics. A much-needed antidote to the standard-issue how-to manual, Laundry celebrates the satisfactions of ironing, folding, and caring for clothes and linens. Both pragmatic and eloquent, Mendelson provides beginning and veteran homemakers with a seamless combination of reliable instruction, time-tested advice, and fascinating personal narrative.

As a farm girl in Pennsylvania, Mendelson — who is a philosopher, lawyer, and professor, as well as a homemaker, wife, and mother — received a classic domestic education from her grandmothers, aunts, and mother. Laundry combines the best of the traditional lore they taught her with the latest in technical and scientific information. Writing with infectious love and respect for her subject, Mendelson is sure to instill in readers a newfound affection and appreciation for the art of laundering.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743271462
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 10/01/2010
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 484,065
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Cheryl Mendelson is a Harvard Law School graduate, a sometime philosophy professor, a novelist (Morningside Heights and Love, Work, Children), and a homemaker by choice. Born into a rural family in Greene County, Pennsylvania, she now lives in New York City with her husband and son.


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

August 6, 1946

Place of Birth:

Jefferson, Pennsylvania


B.A., University of Florida, 1968; Ph.D., University of Rochester, 1973; J.D., Harvard University, 1981

Read an Excerpt


The Home Comforts Book of Caring for Clothes and Linens
By Cheryl Mendelson


Copyright © 2005 Cheryl Mendelson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0743271459

Chapter One: Gathering, Storing, and Sorting Laundry

Laundering at home vs. sending out the laundry...Reducing the amount of laundry in your home...Scheduling; how often you should launder; laundry day...Deciding when clothes need washing; clothes hampers...Why we sort before laundering...Care labels; the rules of sorting; sorting by washing method, color, level of soil, potential for damage; compromises in sorting...What counts as white; more about sorting colors; bleaches...How to test for colorfastness...Pretreating and other prewash preparations

The automated home laundry is a great boon to comfort and happiness. Yet more and more people, caught in the terrible time-squeeze of the modern home, think of it only with abhorrence. I suspect they have not thought through the drop in their standard of living that would follow if all the fabrics in their home had to be sent out for laundering. In any event, like so many other kinds of modern housework, home laundering is much more a matter of knowing than of doing a lot. Once you know how, home laundering is little trouble and provides great benefits.

Should You Send Out the Laundry?

Centuries ago, well-to-do city dwellers sent their laundry to the country, where there were rivers to wash it and fields in which to spread it in the sun for drying and bleaching. Aristocratic French families at the end of the seventeenth century sent their soiled linens all the way to the sunny Caribbean for laundering. By 1900, the custom of sending the laundry out (or sometimes of having a laundress come do it) had been adopted by other classes and was widespread. This system had some inconveniences -- lost or poorly laundered clothes, damage, stains, clothes and linens that could not be used because they were away being laundered -- but these were overridden by its great benefits. One hundred years ago, laundering was highly labor-intensive and required elaborate facilities for washing and drying, including boilers, wringers, and mangles, a whole collection of irons and ironing equipment, drying contraptions of various sorts, and ample space indoors and out. Few city families could supply all this muscle power, time, equipment, and space -- or know-how -- so out went the laundry, or, in some cases, in came the poor laundry women.

Then came automatic washing machines and other improvements for home laundries, and the private home again took on sole responsibility for the job. Commercial laundries disappeared by the hundreds. That is why some feminists who wish to relieve women of the burdens of housekeeping have bitterly complained that home laundering is a case of a battle once won and then lost again. The calls for once more giving up home laundering, now that women have gone out to work in such numbers, have become louder and louder. In my view, home laundering is so easy, convenient, inexpensive, and successful that it is here to stay for most of us. For some, however, sending it out would be the best thing to do.

If you are single and working long hours or are part of a two-career family with children, you may sometimes find that this is a good choice for you. I know from experience that when you are tired and stressed from work, nothing cheers you up like someone delivering bundles of crisp, clean laundry. I also know from experience, however, that commercial laundries do not do nearly as good a job as you can at home, cause much faster wearing and fading of clothes and linens, and will rarely give the individual attention to cherished garments or expensive linens that you will. Commercial laundering means that you have to give up either having especially nice things or trying to keep them looking good, and you suffer the same inconveniences it caused a century ago. The garment you desperately need for a trip cannot be retrieved from the bowels of the laundry establishment until the appointed day, and even then maybe not. Special sheets or extra towels unexpectedly needed for company may be gone. Cracked buttons, discoloration, fading, and loss are still common.

The greatest problem for most people, however, is the large expense of sending the laundry out. It costs much, much more than doing the wash at home, even when the laundering services are mediocre. To have it done with anything approaching the delicate attention to individual garments and laundry problems that can be offered at home costs more than most people, even some who are relatively well off, can afford. (Because dry cleaning costs even more than commercial laundering, most of us choose some kind of laundering over dry cleaning whenever possible.)

Many people can afford the occasional use of good commercial laundries, however, and taking advantage of this possibility when you must work extralong hours or when you or your children are sick or when there is a series of meetings you must attend at the time when you would ordinarily be laundering, can be such a boon that it is worth dipping into your emergency nest egg for this service now and then. Using commercial laundries only occasionally rather than regularly has the additional advantage that it causes less overall wear and tear on your clothes than habitual commercial laundering. Another option is to use commercial laundering services for some portion of your laundry; dress shirts are the classic choice here because they almost always require heavy ironing. Just sending out the shirts saves a significant amount of time and causes a minimum of inconvenience. (But be sure to stock more shirts in the wardrobe than you would find necessary if you were doing them at home.)

You can also have someone come to your home to do your laundry, but you must take care to pick a conscientious person who knows how to do it, for the damage caused by sloppy or ignorant laundering can be immense. You might try asking the prospective employee to describe his or her laundering procedures. Questions about care labels, bleaches, permanent-press cycles, and drying temperatures tend to smoke out areas of ignorance. Even when you hire someone who understands laundry basics, however, you cannot expect the same kind of knowledge and attention you would give the task yourself; nor can you expect to pass along everything you know -- about your clothes, linens, and fabrics as well as about laundering -- especially if you have limited time to devote to training someone. And if you are going to sort, pretreat, and do a few hand-washables yourself, you are not going to save much time by having someone else do the rest, which, after all, does not take much time. What it takes is your being at home for a few hours at a stretch so that you can change loads and remove loads from the dryer. You can be doing many other things while the laundry proceeds.

Reducing Laundry

You can reduce the amount of laundry you have to do each week by taking any or all of the following steps:

Hang towels to dry carefully after each use.

Instead of putting lightly worn outer garments in the clothes hamper, spot-clean them (if necessary), let them air, and hang or fold them neatly.

Wear T-shirts, dress shields, camisoles, or slips under shirts, blouses, and dresses.

When you clean, cook, or do other messy jobs, protect clothing with smocks or aprons.

Use good bed manners to save laundering of bed linens and blankets: Avoid lying or sitting on the bed wearing street clothes; and always wash at least your face and hands before getting into bed. Make up your bed in the traditional way described in chapter 15, "Beds and Bedding," pages 213-20.

There are many people who truly cannot manage to be at home for a few hours. More often, however, the hours are available, but doing the laundry is felt to be a strain and a bother in a busy life. When this is the case, the cause is often a lack of experience and know-how combined with the absence of a routine that includes laundering. Habitual conduct takes the least effort, and doing what is habitual soothes rather than stresses. Know-how reduces the amount of attention a task takes and the amount of annoyance you experience in carrying it out, which enables you to focus on other things. Know-how in laundering also enables you to make the things you care about look good and last long.


"Ain't no use havin' soap an' water if you ain't got my ingredient....I'll whisper it....It's...dirt....Get it?...D-I-R-T. Dirt."

-- Uncle Baldwin in Walt Kelly's Pogo

Laundry Day: How Often Should You Launder? In most households, doing laundry only once or twice a week is more effective and efficient than doing a load or two every day, and that is because the first step in preparing to do laundry is to accumulate an adequate stock of dirty clothes and linens to wash. It is inefficient and ineffective to run washers and dryers with very small loads; clothes come cleaner if washed in medium or larger loads and if articles of different sizes, large and small, are mixed loosely together in a load. (See chapter 4, "Laundering," page 56.) This sort of mix will also help prevent the load from becoming unbalanced. (When the load becomes unbalanced, the washing machine may automatically shut down or dance wildly across the floor.) Clothes dry faster, too, if the dryer has at least a medium fill. Moreover, if you wait until a good stock is accumulated, you will have fewer temptations to give some items improper treatment by washing them with a load of dissimilar items.

On the other hand, the accumulation of laundry should be small enough to be completed in a reasonable amount of time, and each laundry day should be fairly close in time to the last one -- a week or less. The longer the dirt stays on fabrics, the harder it is to remove. In many instances, articles should receive interim treatment to prevent permanent staining or discoloration. Dirt, particularly perspiration and many food stains, also weakens fabrics, causing them to deteriorate, fade, or turn yellow. Mildew and odor are more likely to develop if laundry sits unwashed for a while; mildew can permanently discolor fabrics. And, of course, the sooner the laundry is washed, the sooner the clothes and linens are available for using again.

Choosing one day a week when most of the laundry is always done will go far toward making laundry easier to do while keeping life pleasant and orderly. One may choose to do a smaller wash of similar items on a second washing day -- say, toddlers' clothes or towels and linens or other items requiring relatively uncomplicated treatment.

Households in which all adults work full-time out of the home may prefer to have two laundry days (or evenings), a major and a minor one, or in households with lots of laundry, two roughly equal laundry days. If you are going to have two laundering days, you may help yourself to stay organized by doing a different kind of laundry on each day -- for example, towels and linens on one, clothing on the other. Cleaning day, when you strip the beds and put out fresh towels, is also a good day to wash towels, sheets, tea towels, tablecloths, and other household linens. Clothes may be better done on a separate laundering day from linens and towels because they are usually more complicated to sort and tend to. If you do any ironing, you will find you stay more organized, and the clothes stay fresher, if you do it as soon as possible after washing, or even while you are washing.

It is possible to do small amounts of laundry several times a week or every day. This system actually tends to work best in large, highly organized households, particularly those in which someone stays home to keep house. But it also tends to be adopted as a kind of default system in more disorganized households where no one stays home. Frequent laundering geared to the needs of the day makes it hard to get properly sorted and balanced loads. Besides, this method never gives one a sense of repose, freedom from an accomplished chore. Nor does it lead one to form expectations and habits in accordance with what clothes and linens will be available for use at a given time. And because it requires you to attend to the laundry so frequently, it is a system that tends to break down, creating disorder and crisis and more frustration. The system of doing laundry once or twice a week depends on having a stock of clothes and linens that will last a week and be adequate for occasional emergencies as well -- but this is usually a condition easily met in the era of inexpensive fabrics. Some people manage to have even fewer, but longer, laundry days by stocking extra-large quantities of clothes and linens, a satisfactory procedure so long as proper stain-removal procedures and pretreatments are used on stored soiled clothes. Centuries ago, the difficulties of laundering meant that in some large, wealthy households linens were washed only annually or semiannually. These households held astonishing stores of linens, dozens of sheets and tablecloths, for this was necessary to get from one rare laundering day to the next. (See chapter 15, "Beds and Bedding," for a discussion of adequate stocks of linens in modern households.)

Cloth Care Routines

An overall routine for the care and cleaning of clothes, linens, and other fabrics in the home might or might not resemble the one below. Use anything that works for your home, and ignore the rest.


Put soiled clothes in hamper and hang up or fold worn but still wearable clothes

Put out fresh kitchen linens (dish towels, dishcloths, tablecloths, napkins) if necessary

Check bathroom towels and change if soiled or not fresh-smelling


Change bed linens and bathroom towels

Do laundry

Do one minilaundering (in households that prefer two laundering days)

Iron (if you iron)

Send out and pick up dry cleaning

Monthly, Seasonally, or Intermittently

Change and launder underbedding (mattress covers and pillow protectors or under-covers) and washable covers, comforters, quilts, and blankets that you leave on the bed while you sleep

Dry-clean nonwashable spreads and covers

Wash or sun and air pillows

Briefly straighten up closets

Semiannually or Annually

Dry-clean nonwashable blankets, quilts, comforters, and spreads (or more often, as needed)

Remove out-of-season clothing from closet, clean and store it, replace with seasonal clothing (in spring and fall)

Give or throw away or make into rags unused or worn-out clothing, linens

Shampoo rugs, upholstery, and throw pillows

Wash or dry-clean curtains and draperies

Gathering and Storing

When Do Clothes Need Washing? All new clothes, sheets, and other household fabrics that are launderable should be washed once before they are used. After this, wash launderable clothes, linens, and household textiles when they look, feel, or smell dirty. Even if they look fine, you should launder them if you know that they have accumulated dirt and dust, because particulate dirt and dust will contribute to wearing them out. Particles of dust cut into cloth like tiny knives, weakening it and rendering it susceptible to holes and tears. Perspiration, food, and other substances that get on clothes during wear cause deterioration or discoloration in many fabrics.

On the other hand, because laundering and dry cleaning also age cloth, you should avoid resorting to them too frequently. Most of us today do tend to over-launder simply because laundering is so easy; children find it much easier to deposit a barely worn garment in a laundry hamper than to hang it nicely for airing or fold it neatly for the shelf. Of course, if you have perspired heavily in a garment, you must wash it before wearing it again, and what used to be called "body linen" -- underwear and other intimate clothing -- always needs washing after just one wear. But if you get a spot on a fresh garment, try washing or cleaning off just the spot with plain water or a commercial spot remover or a cleaning fluid (unless the garment is a silk or other fabric that may water-spot or unless the spot cleaning may leave a ring or faded spot -- test your procedure first in an inconspicuous area). And rather than throw the shirt you wore for an hour into the laundry hamper, put it on a hanger and let it air, then replace it in your closet for wearing again. Brush and air clothes and blankets, especially woolens, after use. Sometimes you can simply wipe down wools and synthetics with a barely damp, white, nonlinting cloth to keep them clean longer. (If you do this, be sure to air them until they are absolutely dry before replacing them in drawers or closets.) Wear T-shirts under dress shirts, and use camisoles, slips, or dress shields under blouses and dresses. By these means, you can often keep launderable garments free of visible soil and heavy perspiration so that they remain fresh enough for two or more wearings before laundering. If you are on a tight budget, all this is even more important for clothes that must be dry-cleaned.

Clothes Hampers. As clothes and linens become soiled through regular use, collect them in a clothes hamper or other receptacle. Let towels and other damp articles dry before you put them into the hamper, and place the hamper in a dry room, not in the bathroom (unless you have a bath suite with a dry room separate from the shower and tub). Stored damp laundry may mildew or become malodorous, and the odor can taint the air in the room where they are stored. Gathering soiled laundry in an airy container, such as a wicker or woven basket or hamper, will help avoid this problem. (You can sprinkle baking soda in a hamper to deodorize it as well; the soda can go right into the washing machine, as it is a gentle detergent booster.) Lidded baskets of wicker or similar material with a polyurethane coating are a good choice for hampers; air can enter through the interstices, and the smooth coating protects clothes from being snagged and the container itself from being damaged by moisture.

Very greasy, muddy, or heavily soiled clothing should be stored separately if there is any danger of the soil getting on other articles in the hamper. Fine and delicate items should also be stored separately for laundering so as to avoid their coming into contact with soil, odors, snags, or anything else that might harm them. A smooth cloth sack that will breathe and can be hung in some convenient place (not your clothes closet) works best. Later on, these items are laundered separately to protect them from harsher cleaning methods that they will not easily withstand.

Sorting the Laundry

The laundry-maid should commence her labours on Monday morning by a careful examination of the articles committed to her care, and enter them in the washing-book; separating the white linen and collars, sheets and body-linen into one heap, fine muslins into another, coloured cotton and linen fabrics into a third, woollens into a fourth, and the coarser kitchen and other greasy cloth into a fifth. Every article should be examined for ink or grease spots, or for fruit or wine-stains.

-- Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, 1861

Why Sort? Sorting is the process of separating soiled clothes and linens into heaps or piles such that all the articles in a pile can safely receive similar laundry treatment -- similar washing methods, washing products, water temperature, washing vigor and duration, and, usually, drying methods, times, and temperatures. Sorting the laundry has become more complicated than it was for Mrs. Beeton (who wrote what became the bible of British housekeeping for more than half a century) because there are new fibers, finishes, and fabric constructions to deal with. Even care labels may seem to complicate matters instead of simplifying them. I recently counted ten different sets of laundry directions included on the care labels of the clothes included in one medium-sized load (out of three loads washed that day in my home). Drying instructions add even more complications. If you tried to obey each care label to the letter, you might end up with thirty or forty laundry loads on every laundry day. As a result of these complications, a kind of minicrisis of sorting has developed in which the old rules no longer seem to work, and the standard consequence of a breakdown in rules and values has ensued: the youth have become skeptical and nihilistic. They do not believe it is possible to figure it all out. They do not sort their clothes for laundering, and they sneer that sorting makes no difference.

But they are wrong. You can still figure out how to sort, and if you don't sort, over time your clothes will suffer the subtle or not-so-subtle bleeding of dyes that turns all light-colored clothes dull pink or dingy gray, along with shrinking, pilling, tearing, and other problems. Damage can be mild or immense. The bad effects of undesirable laundering habits are often cumulative and long-term. You will not necessarily see them at once; they may appear over weeks and months. Some people know very well what is the cause of their pink undershorts and towels and sheets of uniform dinginess, but they believe that their time is so short that bright, attractive colors, good fit, and unpilled knits are luxuries that they cannot afford. Doing laundry well, however, takes little more time than doing it poorly, and endless shopping to replace goods that prematurely look bad or function badly takes far more time in the long run. Besides, when you find something you like, you want it to last. Most of us cannot afford to buy whatever we want whenever we want it, even assuming that another shirt just like the ruined one could be found.

Care Labels. Chapter 2, "Carefully Disregarding Care Labels," tells you how to interpret and follow care labels and provides explanations of terms and symbols used on care labels. Sorting clothes properly requires knowing what their care labels say. The care label warns you against procedures that will likely do damage and tells you a safe way to clean the garment. If reading a lot of care labels seems onerous and you are not accustomed to it, be assured that as you gain experience, you come to know your own clothes and linens. Eventually, you will read care labels only when you first buy and launder things, as you get into the habit of keeping this kind of information in mind. If you, like me, choose to second-guess care labels, it is virtually guaranteed that sooner or later you are going to wreck something. Ignoring care labels has led me to turn a crisp linen suit into a limp rag and to shrink a chic rayon/acetate crepe dress so severely that I was unable to pull it on over my shoulders. When this happens to you, be prepared to shed philosophical tears and blame no one but yourself. And consult chapter 2, "Carefully Disregarding Care Labels," for suggestions on reducing the risks of care label defiance.

Rules of Sorting. Once the laundry has been gathered, sort it into piles according to these five rules:

  1. sort according to the appropriate wash cycle or procedure based on fiber and fabric type,

  2. sort by color,

  3. sort by level or kind of soil,

  4. sort according to whether some clothes will cause other clothes to pick up lint, snag, tear, and so on; and finally

  5. make sorting compromises, as necessary and safe, to create a reasonable number of good-sized loads.

Wash pairs and sets (socks, gloves, sheets, pajamas, etc.) in the same load. If you wash one piece of a matched set without the other, you will end with unmatched sets because items fade differently and subtly alter in color depending on what other items are in the load they are washed with and how often they are washed.

First, Sort According to Wash Cycle or Procedure Based on Fiber and Fabric Type. Separate washable clothes and linens, in accordance with their fiber and fabric type, into four piles corresponding to the four basic laundering cycles or procedures: regular, permanent-press, gentle machine-washing, and hand-washing. As you sort, follow Mrs. Beeton's advice: look for stains and spots and pretreat them. Note that although there are four basic procedures, most of us use only one or two on any given laundry day. Thus this step in sorting typically, but not always, amounts merely to separating out a few items that need some sort of special treatment. The basic procedures are explained more fully in chapter 4, "Laundering," but here is a summary of which clothes get which treatment:

Regular machine-washing. Normal or regular washing treatment is appropriate for sturdy white and colorfast cottons and linens that have not received antiwrinkling treatments or other finishes that need special protection. Close plain and twill weaves and sturdy knits, such as T-shirts and underwear, diapers, towels of all sorts, wrinkly sheets, work clothes, play clothes, and sportswear ordinarily receive laundering on the regular cycle of the machine. (See "The Regular Cycle," pages 52-53, in chapter 4, "Laundering.") In my experience, many, if not most, households still wash most of their clothes on the regular or normal setting.

Permanent-press machine-washing. Permanent-press, wrinkle-resistant, durable-press, or "easy-care" cotton, linen, and rayon fabrics, together with blends of these, get washed on the machine's permanent-press cycle, as do most garments made of some synthetics: polyester, nylon, some spandex, and blends containing such fibers. (See "The Permanent-Press Cycle," pages 53-54, in chapter 4.) Generally speaking, when laundering blends, choose the most conservative laundering treatment required by any of the fibers present in the blend.

Gentle machine-washing. The gentle cycle is used for fine cotton knits, machine-washable silk, wool, acrylic and modacrylic, some spandex, triacetate, some washable acetate, viscose rayon, and blends and items with linings containing them. Laces, netting, fringed items, embroidery, fine lingerie, loosely knitted or loosely woven articles, and other fine, sheer, or delicately made articles of any fiber need gentle washing. This cycle is also proper for sheer weaves such as cambric or lawn; satin weaves and other weaves with floats (these will snag and abrade easily), irregular surfaces, low yarn counts, or open or loose weaves of any sort in which there are spaces between yarns (because these are prone to snagging and shrinking); washable laces; articles with fragile or loosely attached trims, ties, or decorations that might get pulled off in vigorous washing; anything unusually susceptible to abrasion, pilling, or snagging; and many specialty items, including nonwoven materials or those bonded with various adhesives. (See "The Delicate or Gentle Cycle," pages 55-56, in chapter 4.)

Hand-washing. Hand-washing is usually best for some washable acetate, washable delicate acrylics, silks, wools, rayons, some cotton knits, and especially fragile, old, or other delicate articles. The difference between this group and the previous one is only a matter of degree. Especially delicate fibers and fabric constructions and fabrics that have become fragile through age should be hand-washed. Panty hose and stockings are safest washed by hand, too, but you can try putting them in the machine on the gentle cycle in a mesh bag if you are willing to risk occasional snags or runs. (See "Hand-Washing," pages 61-64, in chapter 4. Machine "hand-wash" cycles are also discussed in that section.)

When sorting by fiber content and construction, do not forget that some washable garments are made of two or more fibers or constructions that might ordinarily get two or more different treatments. If so, always choose the more conservative. For example, if a dress has a delicate, sheer top but a sturdy cotton skirt, give it gentle treatment. If a shirt is a cotton/polyester blend, wash it as though it were polyester. Pay attention to linings, trim, buttons, and similar parts of a garment that might require treatment different from the rest.

Remember: Although there are four basic laundry procedures, you may use only one or two of them on any given day. I rarely use more than two -- regular, and either gentle machine-washing or hand-washing.

Second, Sort by Color. Once you have sorted your laundry into piles according to the cycle or procedure best suited to its fiber type, divide each of those piles into color-compatible groupings. The basic color groupings are these: all white, mostly white (prints with a white background, towels with a colored stripe at the border), and light, medium or bright, and dark colors. As much as possible, wash things of the same hue together. Separate out bleeding colors for separate washing or for washing with like colors, as necessary. You should also divide the color piles into those that will and those that will not receive some sort of bleaching. Generally speaking, white and colorfast colored articles made of bleachable fibers are the components of the wash that can benefit from bleach of some sort.

Third, Sort by Level and Kind of Soil. Separate out of the foregoing piles any extra-heavily soiled articles or those with heavy grease, mud, or other soil. If you live in the city, as I do, you will have to do this very rarely -- perhaps only when your child has a muddy day at the playground or if you have cloth diapers to wash. Articles with heavy or unusual soil and stains, particularly greasy or oily ones, must be washed separately from clothes without such soil (and sometimes from each other) for two reasons. First, there is a danger that the heavy soil will be redeposited on more lightly soiled clothes or that serious stains will spread to other items in the wash. White and light-colored clothes are particularly susceptible to turning dingy, gray, or yellow if washed with heavily soiled items. Second, heavy and unusual soils usually demand special, more vigorous treatment to which you may not wish to subject your ordinary wash. Stronger treatments cause faster wearing and fading and are inappropriate for many fibers and fabric constructions. Diapers should be laundered only with other diapers, using a presoak and sometimes a double wash as well.

If you have serious infectious illness in your home, you may also wish to wash the clothes, towels, and linens of the sick person separately. I know elderly women who tell me that in their day you would also have separated handkerchiefs, bed linens, and body linens from table linens; it would have been considered unsanitary to mix them up. No one does this anymore. Only diapers still are (and should be) washed separately as a routine matter. But keeping germ-laden materials separate when a household member has a serious infectious illness is not a bad idea.

Get off as much of the soil as possible before inserting the clothes into the washing machine, scraping it off with an old table knife if necessary, or rinsing briefly by hand in a separate basin or laundry tub. Scrape or rub off mud from garden clothes and gloves. (On washing cloth diapers, see pages 126-27.)

Fourth, Sort According to Whether Any Items Will Cause Other Clothes to Pick Up Lint, Snag, Tear, and So On. Separate out of each of the foregoing piles any clothes that might mechanically damage or spoil the appearance of other clothes in the load. Again, if your laundry is at all like mine, potentially damaging and linting articles are rarely a problem (at least since my son disdained buckled overalls and I gave up my chenille bathrobe). This category includes items that produce lint or pick up lint easily and those with heavy buckles or clasps, zippers that might catch lace or ribbons, or other features that might cause damage. What is dangerous is relative to the other clothes in the load. A buckle or clasp might tear chiffon, lace, net, or other open weaves but not denims. Clothes and linens that produce lint include some towels and other terry-cloth items, especially when they are new; flannel; chenille bedspreads or bathrobes; and rags or fabrics that are fraying. Clothes and linens that will attract or hold lint include those that develop static electricity (polyester, acrylic, nylon, and other synthetics primarily) and pile fabrics like corduroy and velvet. Linting fabrics should be washed separately from any of these that would show the lint badly. For example, dark clothes will show white lint far more than white or light ones will. Note that household furnishings such as washable draperies, small rugs, and slipcovers often produce lint and should almost always be washed separately.

Fifth, Make Compromises! After you have completed sorting by the foregoing rules, you may find yourself with one or more loads consisting of a single item or too few items to make up a good load. In that case, make compromises. Compromises are occasional choices made in the interests of efficiency. Engaged in too often, they will eventually spoil your clothes and linens. If you have time and hand-washing would not be too difficult, consider separately hand-washing one or two items -- the shirt that bleeds, the one unbleachable white item -- that do not belong with a load according to the foregoing criteria. Here are some guidelines for making effective sorting compromises:

  • Combine bleach-fast, nearly-all-white prints with pure whites (excluding orlons and nylons) and treat all as you would the pure whites. But see the discussion of whites, colors, and bleach below.

  • Wash synthetic and natural-fiber whites together, giving them all permanent-press treatment. Synthetic whites that receive permanent-press washing can usually take bleach, even if they do not need it. So if you would have used bleach on the natural fibers and you can confirm (by checking labels or testing) that the synthetics can take it, use bleach.

  • If color, colorfastness, and soil type do not preclude it, include items that can take more strenuous treatment in a load that is to receive less strenuous treatment. For instance, colored cotton T-shirts that are only lightly soiled could be given permanent-press or gentle treatment now and then, even though ordinarily they require stronger washing techniques. Or put nylons and polyesters that you would ideally give permanent-press treatment in the gentle cycle to wash, making sure you use a cold rinse (and adjust the drying treatment too).

  • When an article is not heavily soiled, combine it with any color-compatible load that is to receive milder or less vigorous treatment.

  • Wash light coloreds with bright coloreds, or bright coloreds with dark coloreds. Watch out for bleeding dyes.

More About Whites, Colors, and Bleach;

Testing for Colorfastness

Whites and Nearly Whites. What, for sorting purposes, counts as white? "White" means white. Off-whites and creams are not whites, and neither are mostly white prints. Whites are best washed only with other fabrics that are all white. For the sake of making up a load, however, you may occasionally compromise this principle according to the guidelines sketched below. White or light nylons and orlons -- orlon has not been made since 1990, but some is still in use -- will pick up any faint hint of color in the wash water, even the all-but-invisible taint of pastels, and may become dingy or gray. If this happens, it may be quite difficult or impossible to restore their original whiteness. With other fibers, however, such an accident is often reparable. (See also chapter 9, "Common Laundry Mishaps and Problems," page 136.)

If you have a number of whites with an occasional touch of color, it is best to wash them in a load made up of other such items. However, washable articles that are white except for some colorfast colored trim may often be treated as whites for sorting purposes -- for example, men's athletic shorts made in white cotton with colored piping, sheets or pillowcases with edges sturdily satin-stitched in colored or black thread or with colored embroidery, or white dish towels with a band of colorfast color at each hem. Any color on such items is almost always fast to detergent and water; if it were not, there would be no way to launder it without tainting the white with the color of the trim. (Unfortunately, you may occasionally find that you have purchased just such a ridiculous item. I once bought a child's bathing suit, marked "Machine-washable," whose red stripes, after being immersed in ordinary chilly lake water, proceeded to bleed enthusiastic-red on its blue stripes and on white beach wraps and continued to do so after any number of immersions. Such an article should be returned to the retailer or manufacturer.) Other items that may occasionally be treated as whites for sorting purposes are colorfast prints that are mostly white with a little color -- a white shirt with fine pinstripes, a sheet with pastel flowers, or white pajamas strewn with colored balloons. But test all of these for colorfastness to detergent and water before adding any to a white load. (Testing is explained on pages 21-22.)

Bleaching Whites and Mostly Whites. The appearance of whites and mostly whites can sometimes be dramatically improved with the use of bleaches. Almost all colors that are fast to detergent and water are also fast to oxygen bleach, which can practically always be used safely. For more information on using bleaches, see "Bleaches" in the Glossary of Laundry Products and Additives at the end of chapter 4. When mostly white items (white with a colored border, piping or trim, or mostly white prints) are also fast to chlorine bleach, they usually benefit from an occasional bleaching with chlorine bleach or an activated oxygen bleach. (Use the tests for bleach-fastness on pages 21-22. Remember that the color in a white-background print might be fast to hot water and detergent but not to bleach.) In my own household, almost all such fabrics are chlorine-bleachable, including towels, children's print cotton knit undergarments, pajamas, and shirts. Remember that low labeling (care labeling that prescribes more conservative treatment than is necessary) is common on white and mostly white cottons and linens. On most washdays I use bleach, including chlorine bleach, on several articles whose labels proscribe it, without the slightest damage, and many of these have been receiving chlorine bleach now and then for years. However, using any kind of bleach when the care label says not to is risky; some all-white fabrics should be bleached neither with chlorine bleach nor with all-fabric bleach. You must always test. Even when your test shows no damage, you must think about the long-term effects and possible forms of damage that will not show up right away; there are many reasons (besides the possibility of causing the colors to run) why such an instruction might be included.

Even if you use a chlorine bleach on articles with bleach-fast colors only occasionally, you may nonetheless notice over the long run that this makes the colors fade more quickly than they otherwise would. This result may be acceptable in many instances or, at least, it may be preferable to the alternative of dingy, yellowed, or grayish-looking clothes. If you are not prepared to accept any degree of increase in fading, do not use chlorine bleach on these articles. Try an oxygen bleach instead.

Off-whites and pastels will lighten if you regularly subject them to chlorine bleach, and they may eventually turn white. Never bleach one piece of a matched set and not the others. Nonetheless, you can occasionally wash very light bleach-fast pastel or cream-colored cotton sheets or an off-white cotton blouse that has become dingy or gray with whites that are being chlorine bleached. This treatment usually helps remove the dinginess. But do not do this if you would object to a lightening of tone in pale colors. And do not include white nylon or orlon in such loads.

Light, Bright, and Dark Colors. When you sort colored clothes for laundering, divide the loads initially by color intensity, separating the laundry into light and pastel colors, medium or bright colors, and dark colors. Even clothes that are theoretically colorfast may lose a tiny bit of color each time they are washed. That tiny bit of color from, say, a navy blue shirt will be invisible if deposited on a forest green skirt but it could muddy a pastel yellow one. Hue matters too. You will keep colors most clear and true if to the greatest extent possible you wash like colors together -- oranges with reds, bright blues with purples, navy with black, light tan with cream. This is a principle that must be compromised to some degree each time you wash.

Separating Out Clothes Whose Dyes Bleed Color. Care labels that say "Wash separately" or "Wash with like colors" should be taken very seriously; articles that lack care labels should be carefully tested for colorfastness before washing. Instructions of this kind indicate that the dyes in the articles are likely to bleed during laundering and give an ugly, unwanted coloration to all the clothes washed in the same load. The story behind the labels, however, is slightly complicated. Some dyes that bleed will do so to some extent -- sometimes greatly -- every time they are washed; others will bleed only very little, but visibly. Those that bleed greatly should always be washed separately. Those with dyes that visibly bleed very little should be washed only with like colors. Many other items, such as towels, have dyes that bleed the first two or three times they are exposed to water, or to water and detergent, and then stop. These items are actually colorfast; the fabrics are simply giving up excess dye on the first few washes. (A good manufacturer will make this clear on the label by instructing you to wash the article separately or with like colors for two or three washes only.) If your care labels simply say "Wash separately" or "Wash with like colors," be observant. Retest the garments after two or three washes to see if they are still bleeding color.

Denim, madras, and fabrics dyed with vegetable or "natural" dyes are among those that bleed color their entire lives. Fluorescent colors, too, tend to pose problems. (You should not treat fluorescent dyes with stain removers unless you have first tested them.) Blue denims, whose notorious fading is sometimes valued and sometimes deplored, depending on the current fashion, continue to bleed a little color even if they are "stonewashed" or "prewashed" when you buy them. New blue jeans that have not been prewashed or faded should be washed only with very dark blues and colors darker than the jeans -- deep brown, charcoal, black. You may safely wash blue jeans that have faded to light blue with medium-color loads, always keeping in mind that the more closely you can match the colors of any colored load, the better -- that is, it is best to wash the blue jeans with medium purples or grays or greens.

Madras garments are supposed to fade, and one is supposed to prize the changes in their looks as the different colors in them fade and merge over time. They must always be washed separately.

If you have a garment that will bleed or if a care label advises you to "Wash with like colors" and you lack any like colors, you are going to have to wash it alone; this may mean by hand if your washer cannot accommodate a very tiny load without coming unbalanced or wasting too much water and energy (something to think about when you are buying clothes and linens).

Remember that many dyes tend to fade more over the lifetime of the garment when you use hotter water, stronger detergents, and stronger bleaches. Preserving color and getting the cleanest wash are goals that have to be balanced.

If you have a washing disaster involving dyes that bleed, try the suggestions on page 136 in chapter 9.

Bleaching Colored Clothes. For dinginess or grayness in colored clothes, use an "all-fabric" or oxygen bleach. Many colored clothes, especially prints, are also fast to chlorine bleach. Test first to ensure that all articles in a load are fast to whatever bleach you are using.

Pretreating and Other Prewash Preparations

Once the laundry is sorted, final preparations for washing are done as follows:

Pretreating. Pretreat stains, spots, and heavily soiled areas either while you are sorting and making loads or, if the problem is likely to be hard to remove, as soon as possible after the garment becomes soiled or stained. Pretreatments are often especially useful on cuffs, collars, the undersides of sleeves that have rested on desks or papers all day, and the area at the waist that leans against a table or desk edge. Pretreatments are particularly important for oily stains and areas that take up body oils on synthetics, and the cooler the wash temperature to be used, the more important they are. (See "Pretreatments and prewash stain removers" in the Glossary of Laundry Products and Additives at the end of chapter 4.)

To pretreat, rub a little liquid detergent or spray or rub a pretreatment product or stick on the soiled area. You can also rub the area with a paste of detergent and water or pure bar soap (one that contains no moisturizers, medications, or dyes); dampen the area first when you use either of these treatments.

If there is any question as to the safety of a pretreatment substance, it should be tested on an inconspicuous area of the garment -- on the wrong side of a hem or on a seam allowance. Simply apply the pretreatment product to the test area, wait ten minutes or so, and then check for ill effects: staining, fading, bleeding, or other problems. If you have done a good deal of pretreating, you may not need as much detergent in the wash water as you would otherwise have used.

Preparing the Clothes. Some commonsense precautions are necessary to prepare the clothes for the machine or washtub:

  • Turn inside out any blue jeans or other articles that may fade or whose color may abrade (if you wish to prevent that); also turn inside out articles made of synthetic fibers, knits, and other articles prone to pilling or that have poor abrasion resistance. The creases of cotton fabrics that have received resin treatment to prevent wrinkling are particularly vulnerable to abrasion. Turn corduroys inside out to avoid wearing down the pile and to reduce lint. Heat-transfer, pigment, or other prints that might rub off will also be safer turned inside out. But remember that turning a garment inside out can make it hard to get heavy soil or stains off the protected right side; sometimes you will want to omit this step for the sake of a cleaner outcome.

  • Check pockets, cuffs, pleats, and folds for coins, keys, crayons, pens, tissues, papers, lint, and so on. Hard objects, such as coins and keys, can damage the smooth surfaces of the washer and dryer tubs, leaving rough places that might snag, tear, or abrade clothes. Crayons and pens can mark much of the load. Tissues, paper, lint, and the like will adhere to the laundered clothes and prove troublesome to remove.

  • In a mesh bag, place hosiery, articles that tear and snag such as lace, articles with fringe that might fray, tangle, or become detached, and small items that might otherwise get lost. A zippered pillow cover or a pillowcase with the opening secured can be used in place of a mesh bag. (Contrary to what you may have heard, small items like baby socks are never actually sucked down the drain pipes, which have filters to prevent this; they disappear into sleeves, pant legs, and dresses and are folded, unnoticed, into towels and sheets.) Hosiery can get twisted or knotted or can snag on almost any rough surface. Heavily soiled pieces may not wash clean, however, in a mesh bag. You may have to hand-wash them.

  • Pins should usually be removed before washing because of the possibility that they will rust or that the pinned fabric will tear. Cuff links, buckles, and other metal attachments pose the same dangers -- and the additional danger, according to washing machine manufacturers, that they can damage the enamel inside the machine -- and, if possible, should be removed. Buckles on sturdy fabrics that will not be harmed by pins could be fastened inside pant legs instead. Or, if you can, place such potentially hazardous items in mesh bags for laundering.

  • Tie together sashes or other long pieces that might knot and tangle the wash. Button long sleeves to each other or to shirt fronts to prevent them from tangling. Fasten bras. Pin things together only if you are certain that the pin will not rust and that the fabric around the pin will not tear during the wash. Some people like to pin little items to a bigger one, such as a towel, to be sure that they are not lost, but do this only if you are sure that it will not tear. Again, the easiest solution is to remove sashes and similar items and tuck them into a mesh bag for laundering.

  • Mend tears and tighten loose buttons before laundering. Tears will grow larger and buttons may come off and be lost in the wash.

  • Remove detachable decorations, linings, buttons, and other trim or attachments on a garment that are not washable. Of course you can do this only if you know how to reattach them. If sewn-in linings are not washable, few of us are up to undertaking to remove them and sew them back in later; such garments should be dry-cleaned. If you are astonished to learn that someone might go to the trouble of removing and then resewing a delicate button or piece of lace trim for the sake of laundering something safely, the perspective of the nineteenth century may help. Good washing practice then called at times for taking a dress apart entirely for washing or other cleaning and sewing it back together later! Removing collars, buttons, or lace for laundering was commonplace.

  • Check each load for matching: does it contain any pieces that belong in sets? If so, add the missing pieces, even if they are clean, so that all will fade to the same degree. Always wash sock mates together, too, or they may become different colors.

Testing for Colorfastness to Laundry Products

When you are worried about an item's colorfastness, you should usually test its fastness to any substance with which you plan to launder it: bleach, boosters, pretreatments, stain removers, and even detergents if they contain bleach or other additives that raise questions in your mind. Some dyes will run or fade in a solution of water and detergent but would not be affected by plain water; some will bleed when you use hot water but not warm. Some will bleed in a pretreatment solution or in bleach but would not run in a solution of mere detergent and water. Test with hot or warm water if you will be washing in hot or warm water; the action of oxygen bleaches and some other laundry additives is greatly increased in hotter water.

Pretreatments and stain removers sometimes have special ingredients that can cause some dyes, especially fluorescent dyes, to run, so be particularly careful to test neon pinks, electric blues, and other fluorescent colors.

Choose an inconspicuous area for testing, such as the wrong side of a hem or on a seam allowance, so that if your test leaves a spot, it will not show. Be sure to lay the cloth in such a way that the solution does not penetrate through to visible areas.

Recipe for testing fastness to detergent. Follow the directions on the product. If there are none, mix one teaspoon of dry or liquid detergent in a cup of warm or hot water (whichever you will be using). Apply enough solution to soak a small hidden area of the garment and wait for a few minutes. Then press the area with a clean white cloth, tissue, or paper towel to see if any color comes off. If color comes off or if you perceive a color change on the garment, it has failed the colorfast test. If you perceive nothing, rinse and let dry, and observe again (because it may look darker while it is wet). If you see no color change, it is colorfast to your detergent at the temperature of the water you will use.

The quick, easy, less reliable way to test is to make a cup of water of the proposed temperature, add a teaspoon of detergent, and dip a corner of the fabric in it. If the water turns color, the fabric is not fast to the detergent in water of that temperature.

Recipe for testing fastness to chlorine (sodium hypochlorite) bleach. Use the method recommended on the product. Or add one tablespoon of chlorine bleach to G cup water. Apply the solution to a hidden area, and wait one minute. Then blot the spot dry with a clean white cloth, tissue, or paper towel. If color comes off or if you perceive a color change on the garment, it has failed the colorfast test. Look for yellowing and other changes as well. If you want to be very sure there has been no color change, rinse the item and wait until it dries to draw conclusions, as sometimes it is hard to tell while fabrics are wet.

Recipe for testing fastness to oxygen bleach and other wash additives. Follow the instructions on the label for testing. If there are none and if the product is not a liquid, mix it with enough water to get a solution somewhat stronger than the one you will have in the washing machine, making sure that all of the product is dissolved. Apply enough solution to soak a small inconspicuous area of the garment. Or, if the product is a liquid, simply apply a little, undiluted, to an inconspicuous area of the garment. Wait ten minutes and then look for any changes of color, fading, bleeding (press a clean paper towel to the area), or other damage. Then rinse and let dry to be completely sure there is no change.

When testing an activated oxygen bleach, be sure to read and follow the manufacturer's instructions, which may specify a more concentrated testing solution and a longer exposure time than is usually called for.

Copyright © 1999, 2005 by Cheryl Mendelson


Excerpted from Laundry by Cheryl Mendelson Copyright © 2005 by Cheryl Mendelson.
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