It was a bit surreal to see lawmakers, enviros and national “right to dry” activists gathered on the Statehouse lawn last week hailing the passage of a new law that assures Vermonters the right to hang their wet laundry out to dry. Granted, encouraging people to line-dry their linens is a laudable goal — after all, the average gas- or electricity-powered clothes dryer represents the big toe of each American’s carbon footprint. It accounts for as much as 15 percent of domestic energy bills.
Still, one can only imagine what our Depression-era forebears would say about the need to legislatively protect clotheslines and drying racks. It’s akin to the federal government running public service announcements urging children to go outside and play for at least an hour a day. (Oh, right. We do that, too.)
Turns out your grandmother knew best after all: Simple is cheaper, smarter and safer. So, in honor of this week’s Fashion Issue, here are a few “old-fashioned” laundry tips that are kind to the wallet as well as the earth.
The first one comes from my wife’s Grandma Teresa. Instead of using store-bought fabric softener, add between 1/4 and 1/2 cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle in your washing machine. Not only does vinegar soften clothes naturally, it also breaks down the laundry detergent faster to get the clothes cleaner. Plus, vinegar has a hypoallergenic effect for people who have skin allergies caused by laundry detergents. And, ounce for ounce, it’s cheaper.
Freaked out by the idea of your laundry, and you, smelling like Italian dressing? Not to worry. The vinegar smell dissipates once the clothes dry, especially if you hang them outside on the line. A word of caution, however: Whether you’re using it in the laundry, washing windows or wiping kitchen counters, always clean with basic white vinegar, which is typically sold by the half gallon. Not only are red, balsamic or gourmet vinegars more expensive, they can also leave behind a sticky — and stinky — residue.
Another laundry staple worth keeping beside the washing machine: borax. Usually sold under the brand name “20 Mule Team Borax,” this white stuff can be used for everything from whitening whites to getting the funk out of moldy towels. It’s cheap, nontoxic and safe for washers, plumbing pipes and septic tanks. Plus, it contains no chlorine or phosphates, so it’s friendly to Lake Champlain. Use it to pretreat stains, or add a quarter cup to your laundry instead of bleach. It’ll reduce the amount of detergent you use per load, too.
Apparently, borax can also be used for making your own laundry detergent at home. I’ve never tried this one personally, though I found recipes in a few yellowed home-remedy books I came across recently in a used bookstore. You can also find recipes online. One common concoction calls for combining 1/2 cup of borax, 1/2 cup of washing soda and 1 cup of grated Fels-Naptha soap. As little as 2 tablespoons of this cheap mixture is enough to clean one heavy load of laundry.
If you’re bummed about missing out on those comforting and colorfully named scents in your store-bought laundry brands — “summer pine,” “desert bloom,” “ocean mist” — add a few drops of essential oils to get that Biz, Bold or Fab-ulous fresh fragrance.
Here’s another ultra-basic laundry staple: salt. That’s right, the Morton girl isn’t just helpful on eggs and margarita glasses. She can also be put to work removing stains and restoring yellowed or faded fabrics. One recipe, from Howstuffworks.com, calls for boiling yellowed cotton or linen fabrics in a mixture of water, 1 tablespoon of salt and 1/4 cup of baking soda. Soak the fabric for one hour. (Not recommended for dry-clean-only items.) Adding 1/2 cup of salt to your wash will also prevent new colored fabrics from bleeding or fading.
If you’re still using the clothes dryer, here’s a money- and energy-saving tip from the archives of Good Housekeeping: Throw a dry towel in your dryer before adding your wet laundry. The dry towel will soak up the moisture, and dry itself in the process, drying the entire load more efficiently.
The website Helium.com takes that idea one step further. It recommends soaking the towel in a bowl of liquid fabric softener first. Wring out the excess, then let it dry. Then, toss the towel into the dryer instead of a dryer sheet. Reportedly, this trick can be used for as many as two dozen loads.
Of course, there are a few obvious penny savers, both for at-home or Laundromat washing: Don’t run a washing machine until you have a full load, and then use cold water only. Also, clean the lint trap on the dryer after each load to help it run more efficiently. Running one load right after the other will keep the dryer hot, using less energy for the next load. Finally, if you do buy dryer sheets, cut them in half, or else use them more than once. FYI, those sheets are also great for dusting and cleaning TV screens and computer monitors.