Friday, January 4, 2013

Textile Friday: Understanding The Washing Machine

                Are you excited? It's the first day of our new textile Friday series, taking care of your clothes. First, I would like to focus this month on the biggest contributor to the life of your clothing (or it's death): your washing machine and dryer. When I worked retail, the rule of thumb was that the average person gets 30% of the life of their clothing due to improper washing and dry cleaning use. That's 70 cents of every dollar you spend on your clothing just thrown away. Last year, the average American spent $600 dollars on clothing a year. Wouldn't you like the option to keep $420 of your money this coming year or at least buy better clothes with it? That's an average paycheck for you if you're in your 20s. Of the $420, roughly 30% goes to washing machines and 40% goes to dryers. I hope to save my customers and friends money in the coming year and get better clothing. Because you are awesome.
            So let's take a step back and look at that ugly white (or other bland color) hulking metal washing machine that sits in a back closet or downstairs moldy room of your life. Our modern electric washing machine dates back to 1908. Washing machines were invented to hold between 4 and 12 lbs of clothing (ideally 8) and wash clothes clean between 100 and 140 degrees. European washing machines tend to be smaller and American washing machines to be larger. A smaller machine will always make clothing last better than a larger machine as it is gentler on the clothing as less of them beat against each other in the wash. It is also why European manufacturers struggle in the American marketplace as their clothing is often higher quality in terms of materials and construction, but less durable as they don't realize the fabric itself needs to be twice as durable for the larger washer size. But that's a conversation for another day.
            While you would think that our washing machines would have gotten a lot smarter in the past 100 years, the basic mechanics (and failures) remain the same. Clothes are destroyed in the machine by stains, dye problems (both fading and bleeding), shrinking or warped fabric, and physical damage due to the actual beating motion of the washing machine itself. Let's address each in turn.
             First, stains...we've all been there. Your favorite shirt comes out and it's ruined simply ruined by a night on the town. Stains happen in two ways: you either bring them with you to the washing cycle (red wine you spilled on yourself at a party) or you add them in the washing process (think about the ink stain from your favorite pen you accidentally left in your pocket). If it's the first, stains are always best removed quickly before they set in rather than trying to get them out later. There's lots of magic products, tips, and tricks on the market, I will mention the general basics. Stains are almost always removed with cold (namely water, can also be alcohol or vinegar) inexpensive running liquids to dilute the stain out before it sets and takes up permanent residence in your clothing. Some people blot with baking soda, but that's a personal preference. Afterwards, many people recommend soaking the garment and washing it by itself in COLD water. ALWAYS cold water. NEVER ever wash clothes with stains in them with regular clothes as you don't want to risk ruining other clothing.
                   Alright, so you've managed to protect your clothing to get it to the laundry, how do you protect your favorite shirt or pair of pants from random dyes in the wash? You do your best to limit  dyes from getting into the wash in the first place. You can do that by:

1)Wash your whites and darks separately. If possible, always use cold water
2) Check all your pockets and remove anything in them (That way no pens can break in the wash)
3) Wash new clothing or items separately 3 to 4 times before adding them to the general laundry to remove as much bleeding as possible
                 Now, dye problems. Clothing has been dyed for thousands of years. It is generally done by the addition of dying agents under hot (think boiling) water and/or chemical reaction, often a mixture of both. When you wash your clothes, you do not want to allow garments to dye each other or fade by imitating dye condions. So as much as possible, wash in cold water with the same colored garments (light or dark) and gentle detergent. While I could claim to be an expert on this, I prefer to read on Consumer Reports and let them do the work. Right now Wisk and Target laundry detergent are the top two picks, but this may change in another few decades.
                   Next, we move on to shrinking and warped fabrics. Fabrics normally shrink or warp due to heat or mechanical twisting in the wash. So again, WASH your fabrics in COLD water to prevent them shrinking. Notice a trend on the cold water here? I despise hot water in laundry after I learned how much it shrinks, fades, and generally destroys my clothes. Next, warping. Warping normally occurs when fabrics are twisted or pulled by the mechanical action of the machine itself during the washing cycle. This is generally prevented by actually using your machine in the manner in which is was intended. Most modern washing machines work best around the 8 lb mark for American machines. Yes, you can physically squish more in, but 8-10 pieces of clothing is optimal. If you're a nerd and want to use a computer program to play around to get a feel for this exact number, try the nerdy Backpacking Gear Weight program online for free by Chris Ibbeson. Much like your back, a washing machine benefits from a normal balanced load to do it's best work.
                   Lastly, physical damage. The tried and true method for this has always been to turn your clothing inside out so that it limits trim and buttons from catching on each other or the machine itself. But I find this takes too long. Instead, I've grown to love using lingerie bags (You can buy a dozen on ebay for $10.00.) as they take less time and I only need to place clothing with trim or buttons in them in the bags. Socks, t-shirts, underwear, etc. don't actually go in it. The best part is if a dress shirt loses a button in the wash, I'm not desperately searching for it to sew back win.
                  So there ya go. Now you know the 4 major dangers your washing machine poses to your clothing and how to prevent them on a budget. Happy washing. Check back in next week when we discuss dryers! :-) 


  1. Please address the BIGGEST problem:
    Why only one sock comes out of the drier when a pair went in the washer.

    1. Wow, I totally forgot to add that one as I buy all the same sock color by the dozen every few years. The answer for how it happens is actually pretty simple: during the wash cycle (particularly if you over fill your washing machine), the small light-weight sock will slip over the top of the machine tub and either get stuck in the water pump and afterwards sucked into the drain. Once the sock is pumped into the drain hose, it is often simply carried out with the rinse water. If losing socks bothers you, simply toss them in a lingerie bag every week to prevent their individual small size from being carried off. If you tend to loose socks in the dryer, not the washing machine, then they are disappearing out the dryer vent.

  2. The solution is the same for both problems, put them in a lingerie bag or buy all the same color sock and replace them every few years.