So I’m running around doing a ton of laundry for our trip – for those who don’t know, little kids can get through a shit-ton of clothes, what with getting wet or pouring their dinner into their pants and such. The only way to get most of the kid’s clothes clean for packing is to do laundry at the last possible minute and pray to the household gods that she doesn’t have a vomiting fit or a Chocolate Incident in the intervening day. (I also have to wash a number of my clothes because in case you hadn’t noticed, I procrastinate like whoa.)

And I love my washing machine. I love it like I love coffee, and only a little less than I love chocolate.

I tell you, you don’t appreciate modern conveniences until you’ve lived without them. And I did live without them – we didn’t get a washing machine until I was in high school, by which time I’d been washing my own clothes for some time. Which is why I’m still a bit lax on the subject of ‘all clean things every day’, because jeans are good for at least a couple of wears and if I’m just hanging around the house who cares if this is yesterday’s t-shirt? I remember so vividly what it was like to wash all my clothes by hand that I have a lingering aversion to making more laundry than absolutely necessary. (Queensland also spent ten years in an increasingly severe drought, so my desire not to waste water is totally responsible, honest)

Jeans are the worst. They’re heavy, they’re awkward, and they abrade your hands after a while. Sheets are a pain in the butt, but at least if you do them fairly regularly it’s just a matter of vigorously sloshing them around then rinsing them out and trying not to mind the deluge of water that runs over you when you try to lift them out of the tub. A nail-brush is useful for scrubbing at spots, and soaking overnight cures many an ill. Always wash out blood in cold water, never hot, and red and blue are the colours most likely to run.

If you are writing any kind of medieval or renaissance-ish setting, here are some things to remember about laundry:

1. Water, and cloth soaked in it – especially thick wools – weighs a hell of a lot. Washing clothes, or anything else, is some seriously hard graft if you’re doing it by hand, even if you can go down to a river and don’t need to haul your water. There’s a reason that ‘muscled like a washerwoman’ used to be a saying – if you want a Deceptively Physically Strong Peasant Lady, make her a washer-woman! Not only has she got muscles like a blacksmith, but washerwomen used to use big sticks for stirring up the laundry tubs and the like, so she comes armed.

2. Truly fast dyes aren’t always guaranteed even now – they certainly weren’t then. Washing a coloured garment in water is a risky proposition, and soap is worse. Tread carefully, and do some research on what dyes were available in which geographic areas. A fancy garment – especially an outer one – may be sponged or steamed rather than being washed, and leather is never laundered – I know there’s a different cleaning process, but I’m not sure what it is.

3. Don’t assume soap! Handmaking soap is likewise a painstaking process. Other solutions like lye (containing urine!) and even vinegar are more common in some times and places. Soap made from animal fat and ash doesn’t smell especially good either, so if your people are a bit well-off they might add herbs – orris root was popular – to the water for scent. Dried lavender, roses or other herbs or flowers might be stored with clean sheets and clothes, too.

4. Anyone doing laundry is going to get pretty damn wet. Trust me, the splashes add up. Long exposure to lye and harsh water will do a number on their hands, too – your washer-woman will have red, rough hands and arms for a certainty, and she’ll be used to getting around soaking wet.

5. In short, laundry is hard work and people didn’t change their clothes or even their underwear every day because doing laundry was hard and painful and time-consuming. Depending on your time-period, clothes might get washed every month or every few months, especially in winter – in colder climates, drying laundry is a pain in the ass in winter, because it has to be done inside by a fire and it takes hours and hours. Ditto for long hair, incidentally, so if your heroine has hair flowing to her knees – or even her hips – she’s not going to wash it much in winter unless she’s rich enough to have a fire in her room, as it will take days and days to dry and be chilly and unpleasant the whole time.





One thought on “Clothing

  1. Wealthier families in the Highlands of Scotland used to do their laundry once a year, I think in May or June, because there were only a few weeks a year when the weather was warm and dry enough to dry clothes outdoors. They weren’t dirty, though – they just had masses and masses of shirts and underwear and enough sheets to change every bed in the house once a week, and then through the year they put the dirty stuff away in chests – I suppose with herbs to stop it going manky – and then had this one big annual washing session which lasted about a week, during which they would spread the washed sheets etc out over bushes to dry in the sun.

    The greatest female muscle is probably that belonging to the women who “wauked” (walked) tweed, as most women in the Hebrides used to do. They would sit round a long table with a great bolt of wet tweed and repeatedly lift up the bit in front of them and hand it on to the woman next to them, thumping it down hard as they did so in order to shrink and felt it, singing as they went. They built up such muscle that even 30 years later they had these huge biceps.

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