Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Laundry Pile: Materials, Meanings and Mundanities of Everyday Life

How much thought do you put into your laundry routine? Do you carefully separate clothes by colours and fabrics, following the instructions on the care labels, or do you just shove everything in the washing machine and hope for the best? Do you hand wash, dry clean, spot clean or forgo cleaning altogether? Professor Kate Fletcher from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion has put together a book: Opening up the Wardrobe: a methods book exploring the lives of our clothes after purchase, and the book launch was accompanied by a pop-up exhibition and panel discussion.



Although I trained as (and now work as) a costume maker, I also worked in the wardrobe department of three different theatre shows over a period of several years. Aside from altering or mending the costumes and assisting with quick changes, our main task was laundering or cleaning all the costumes on a regular basis; everything from organising specialist dry cleaning once a week to separating smalls and putting a wash on at the end of every performance. We used a mixture of hi-and low-tech approaches; from top-of-the-range washing machines to a twin tub (very useful for washing Swarovski-embellished tights!) and a washing-up bowl and scrubbing brush (a bar of Vanish soap and good old-fashioned elbow grease is the best remedy for make-up on a shirt collar). After establishing an efficient routine, a laundry shift became something I'd do physically while thinking about something else; listening to the radio or chatting to whoever was working with me. I left theatre wardrobe because I found costume making more interesting, so I was fascinated to find out about the existence of this book, and feel like I might have been a bit dismissive about my former job. With 50 contributors from anthropologists to performance artists, it promises to be a thought-provoking read.




The pop-up exhibition in Lila's Laundrette managed to fit a lot into a small space that also still had to function as a business. Kate Fletcher's 'Local Wisdom' photo series documented much loved but never washed items of clothing (before you recoil in horror, be honest with yourself; you probably own at least one garment that falls into this category, I know I do!) while Jade Whitson-Smith's photo series documents the laundrettes she has seen on her travels. She had also produced a mini-zine about her experience of living without a washing machine for a year, as well as samples of fabric dyed with waste-water from hand washed clothes. Emma Rigby had studied the wear patterns on garments and designed prototypes that would accommodate the movement of our bodies. Performance artist Emma Hoette had brought along a selection of clothes from her wardrobe that she hadn't worn for a year, and re-acquainted herself with them, testing out the range of movement in each garment with a graceful physicality. 




The panel discussion, chaired by Andrew Brooks from Kings College London took the form of a question and answer session, the questions read from slips of paper that had been hidden amongst the washing-line of clothes that hung behind the panel. The questions were great starting points for members of the panel to give their unique perspectives on our laundry routines. As well as Professor Kate Fletcher, we also heard from Dr Alexander Papiez, a Development Chemist at IDEAL Manufacturing, Professor Rosie Cox, from the Department of Geography at Birkbeck, Dr Victoria Kelley, a lecturer in Cultural Studies at Central Saint Martins, and Dr Thomas Roberts, a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Surrey. I'll try to give a summary of what I learned:

Q: how can we change our laundry practices to make it less damaging to the environment? 
Thomas had spent a lot of time talking to individuals and families about the way they do laundry, and realised that we do huge volumes of laundry because we are erring on the side of caution. We don't have conversations about how much laundry we do, or what an 'acceptable' level of cleanliness is, so if we broke down this taboo we could all find ourselves doing less laundry! 
Victoria had compared advice literature for housewives concerning laundry, from the late 19th and early 20th century, with memoirs written around the same time, and often found discrepancies between the two! The commercial pressure to sell more cleaning products was often framed in terms of morality, with cleanliness linked to good moral character. 
Rosie echoed this: it is often the case that we are informed by laundry detergent advertising rather than scientific fact when it comes to washing our clothes, and it is easy for companies to sell more product by making us feel guilty. Laundry practices are different in different communities around the world, so we could learn from those areas where the environmental impact of laundry is lowest.

Q: What environmental impacts are associated with laundry detergent use?
Alexander explained the 'primary' and 'secondary' problems: the manufacture of the cleaning products themselves, and their release into the environment. There is the possibility of depletion of raw materials, contamination of water supplies and the build-up of toxins in the food chain. 
Victoria gave a historical example of the ways environmental and social issues are linked: Sunlight Soap originally used palm oil from West Africa, contributing to colonialism and the exploitation of local people. 



Q: how does gender affect laundry processes?
Kate shared some of her research: women were three times more likely to wash clothes by hand, whereas men were more likely to go to a dry cleaners. A dataset from Unilever also suggested that men were more likely to wash clothes at high temperatures..
Tom also shared some of his findings: in households where laundry was done separately by each person, the washing machine was used more frequently and less efficiently, but in a household where only one person does the laundry, that person is almost always female. 
Victoria added the historical perspective that in the U.K. laundry had traditionally been a woman's task, with female children being expected to help out from a young age. However Rosie pointed out that commercial laundry services were often run by men, and in the case of businesses set up in the U.K. and US in the early 20th century, these were usually men from immigrant communities.

Q: how are lifestyles and life stages reflected in individual and collective laundry practices? 
Kate shared her personal experience of having to do much more washing after she had children, and also reflected on her Nan's habit of changing into 'at home' clothes after she had been out to reduce the amount of washing she had to do. 
Rosie also suggested that people who don't do their laundry themselves generate more washing, as they don't have to take into consideration the time and effort it would take to do the laundry

Q: What research processes can we adopt to improve the way laundry is done?
Emma Rigby spoke about her research doing 'laundry probes'; giving people a garment and asking them to document and reflect on how they took care of it.
Kate mentioned a scientific version of the 'sniff test' to see if clothes need to be washed or not; research indicated that synthetic fibres hold on to the smell of sweat, whereas wool fibres are unlikely to smell at all. She suggested a radical re-thinking of the fabrics we consider 'suitable' for certain types of activity.
Alex also suggested that feedback from people on the shop-floor of commercial laundries would be really valuable, as it could help manufacturers to create better cleaning products.





Q: What's in the laundry pile? 
The discussion once again focussed on the unsuitability of synthetic fabrics for sportswear, with Kate making an impassioned plea for more wool clothing! Victoria described the traditional methods of laundering 'underwear' (petticoats, chemises and shirts made from cotton), while outer garments made from wool would be brushed and cleaned but not washed.

The audience Q&A brought up some interesting topics, and we learned about Brazilian laundry etiquette, the Norwegian way to wash our woollens, and how changes to daily dress codes would be a way to reduce the amount of laundry we do in the long term. We were also reminded of the importance of doing a 'service wash' with our domestic washing machines (running the machine on the highest setting with only white vinegar or soda crystals in the drawer every 50 washes, to ensure the machine is running efficiently).

The panel ended on a lovely note from Victoria: laundry practices have originally been relationships of care between us and our clothes, or us and other people; perhaps we could extend that relationship of care to be between us, our clothes, other people and the environment.

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