Hard Water and Dark Laundry

Dear Home Ec 101,
I am very careful about how I wash my darks in order to avoid fading – washing them only in cold water, air drying or drying on the lowest setting. Despite this I feel my darks are fading much sooner than they should. Any suggestions?

Dull in Duluth

Heather says

I wrote back to Dull in Duluth and asked her a couple of questions:

Q: What detergent do you use?  Do you have hard water or soft?

A: I have 3 boys ages 4, 2 and 11 months so I use Dreff for everything – their clothes as well as ours. We have hard water.

Winner, winner, chicken dinner, I know exactly why her dark clothes are fading more quickly than expected.

In addition to the faded appearance of the dark clothing, jeans will feel stiffer and even soft cottons may feel scratchy.


Hard water mostly contains calcium and magnesium ions, but other fun minerals and chemicals can get in on the game, too. Hard water is measured in grains per gallon and the unit grain is about a kernel of wheat. (I just learned that little factoid and had a major duh of course it is moment).

Slightly hard water starts about about 1 grain of minerals per gallon with very hard water containing 10.5 or more grains. (Areas with very hard water also tend to have more problems with kidney stones -looking at you Tennessee).

If your water contains less of hardness per gallon, you may find that using more detergent per load may help. Once you hit the 15 grains point, you simply cannot add enough detergent to bind the minerals AND clean your clothing. It’s time to start looking at non-precipitating water conditioners and household water softeners.

Non-precipitating water conditioners grab the minerals and make it so they can’t attach to your clothing, they stay in solution. (When particles in a solution are no longer able to stay in solution they precipitate)

The problem with this type of water conditioner and automatic washers -which I imagine you use, but feel free to correct me if I’ve found one of the few people who chooses to use a wringer style washer- is that while the conditioner doesn’t precipitate the laundry detergent does. The foam resulting from the combination of minerals and detergent is sticky and can cause buildup in your washing machine and lines which over-time can cause clogs.

Consider investing in a water softening system for your home or the laundry room alone. (Water softeners can add sodium content to the water and those with heart conditions and circulatory issues will need to take further steps and filter the water they intend to use for drinking and cooking.)

Soft water doesn’t leave residue on shower doors, in your toilets, or tubs. You’ll find your hair rinses cleaner and your skin feels less dry when using soft water to wash.

Without the residue left by minerals, your laundry’s colors will stay brighter, the dark colors won’t appear to fade as quickly, and your whites will stay… whiter.


Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com

Get Clothing Clutter Under Control

Dear Home-Ec 101,

I have a dilemma. I find my bedroom becoming cluttered very quickly with clothes that are “too clean to wash” yet “not clean enough to put away”. I was a single mom for many years, going to school or working, sometimes more than one job, and as a result, I didn’t want to spend more time on laundry than I had to. I’d wear clothes until they were visibly dirty, overly wrinkled, or they became… umm… odiferous.

When I was a single parent, that didn’t take as long as it does now! Now, I’m married and have one teen at home (who is responsible for his own laundry). I work at home caring for my elderly parents, and the piles of “not clean, not dirty” clothes are overwhelming. In our bedroom and my parents’! Sometimes, items in the pile have to be washed simply because they have been there so long, they’ve become wrinkled.

What do other people do with their clothes? Do they wash every item, every time they wear it? Do they wear the same thing until it needs to be washed? Do they hang up or fold and put away slacks and jeans and tops that have been worn but aren’t dirty?

Help me get out from under this heap! If you need something cleaned, I’m your girl. I’m not a very physically organized person, and “stuff” is my great foe.

Clothes Horse

Heather says:

I’ll let you in on a secret, I’m a bit disorganized, too. Ok I struggle a lot with organization, but I do try.  I tend to be a perfectionist control freak -no comments from the peanut gallery, thank you very much- about my own space, which in a weird cruel twist of fate means stuff often piles up as I wait for the “right” time to take of something. It takes a huge amount of -wait for it, I’m about to say a dirty word- self-discipline for me to do the daily upkeep that  organization requires.

When I read your dilemma my first thought is that perhaps you have too much clothing.

Generally speaking those of us who live in relatively affluent Western cultures have too much stuff and that stuff causes misery. If we aren’t careful we tend to enter a cycle where we work to buy things and then work to take care of our things and then work to buy more things to replace the things that fell apart due to neglect. I’m tired just thinking about it.  (You all know that this is where some people are going to tell me that they live with exactly 3 pieces of clothing not including their underwear and that they have no idea what I’m talking about, right?)

So outside of those people who claim to have 3 items of clothing, what are you to do?

Don’t pile your clothing. 

Piles are the enemy.

Hang everything you possibly can, ESPECIALLY the items that have been worn but aren’t ready for washing. If you can’t hang everything, then you must find storage for out of season clothing and I don’t mean a pile in the corner of your room. Space saver bags, a box under the bed, a box in the attic, anywhere except a pile that’s going to get knocked over and them trampled on.

Hanging allows clothing to dry thoroughly, preventing that musty now I have to wash it condition.

Go into your closet(s) right now and hang everything backwards on the bar.

As you wear items and wash them, hang them the normal way on the leftmost side of the bar. Just keep shoving the stuff hanging backwards toward the right. Over six months or a year (depending on your climate) you’re going to get a better idea of the clothing you actually wear. Donate or consign the rest and do not feel guilty about it.

Just let it go. Someone else needs that item much more than you.

Don’t hang onto items for “when I lose ten pounds” and certainly don’t hang onto items “in case I gain ten pounds.”

Just let it go.

While you’re undergoing the great clothing weed out, do not buy more clothing. If there is an item you cannot pass up, something in your closet has to leave the house before that item can be introduced to your wardrobe.

This isn’t an overnight fix, but  over time you will notice a significant reduction in the amount of laundry done in your home.

Good luck!

 Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

Laundry and the Great Diaper Blowout

Dear Home-Ec 101,

I’m a brand new mom and I need to know if it is okay to wash clothes that have suffered through a diaper leak with the rest of the baby clothes. How do I make sure that poop (sorry!) doesn’t get all over the washer and the rest of our stuff without resorting to throwing away the outfit?

Pooped in Pooler


Heather says:

Babies. Sometimes it’s a really good thing we are designed to find them cute, because they can cause us as caregivers to deal with things that we would normally cause us to lose our lunch over.

This won’t be the last poopy outfit you deal with.

I guarantee at some point during the next two years, you will throw at least one outfit away, maybe even something of yours, due to a diaper blowout.

One of my kids’  first real explosion was on the way to the photographer’s for baby pics. So I changed the baby, bagged everything up to deal with at home, and congratulated myself for being so prepared.

Guess who exploded again, but this time in the waiting room?


So guess who has first baby pics in a clean diaper and not much else? That kid. Guess who was a hot mess of I’m never going to get this right? This mom.

Airports, car seats, man oh man all the car seats, the crib, the carrier, the carpet… there isn’t really a baby safe surface that hasn’t had this contamination. You sort of become immune to it at some point.

Anyhow, enough story time.

Baby clothes are tiny and unless you overload your washer they can agitate freely in the wash tub. Rinse as much of the solid matter as possible out of the clothing. If you aren’t running the load immediately go ahead and soak the item with a tiny bit of mild dish detergent (or liquid laundry detergent) applied directly to the stain in cold water.  Give it a good swish, wash your hands and wash it with the next load of laundry.

Rules for running the load of laundry with the casualties of a diaper blowout:

  1. RINSE the items involved thoroughly
  2. SOAK the item if time allows in COLD water
  3. Do not overload your clothes washer
  4. Use the largest load possible for your machine
  5. Inspect the item after washing for residual stain. Spot treat with additional detergent and rewash if stain lingers.


1. This removes as much solid particulate matter as possible. Detergent works by surrounding particles and bringing them into solution (the water in your washing machine.) Pre-removing what can simply be rinsed away reduces the amount of particulates that have to be suspended in the water by a limited number of detergent molecules

2. This gives the detergent time to work into the stain and surround those remaining particles.  Cold water prevents any proteins from denaturing -changing into a structure that may be impossible or exceptionally difficult to remove.

3. The clothing articles needs to be able to move freely so the water and detergent molecules can move around and between the fabric’s fibers.

4. The more water the more movement opportunity for the clothing items AND the more particles that can be brought into solution and not left on the clothing. Think about stirring salt into water. There comes a point where the solution is saturated and no more salt can be dissolved. This is the same with detergent and the particles it is trying to bring into solution. The issue is trickier than the salt in water solubility as detergent molecules are sticky and will cling to your fabric and yes, the inside of your washer if there is not enough solvent to keep it in solution.

5. This circles back to item 2. and 4. You don’t want any leftover protein molecules to denature -change structure – in the heat of the dryer. There may not have been enough detergent available to completely remove the stain, it could have been so deeply embedded in the fibers that it needs another run through the wash.

Unless someone in the house is ill, the clothes washer and dryer are enough “disinfecting” for the average home. Obviously wash your hands well after handling soiled clothing.

Enjoy the new minion.

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

Do you remember when we talked about freezing jeans?

Heather says:

Do you remember when we talked about whether or not freezing jeans was a practical solution?

I’ve actually come across this twice now in the last month. The first was a speaker at a conference, he mentioned this as an aside, talking about how he expects the jeans -when he washes them in a year- to show the wear on the knees from playing with his child and then, just now in an interview of Levi’s CEO. (You don’t have to watch the whole thing it’s definitely on the dry side, but the point starting around 9:15 about sustainability is relevant)

I get what they are trying to say, but I wish, for everyone’s sake that they clarified what they mean. I don’t think Levi’s CEO is talking about your mowing the lawn, chasing toddler, bathing the dog jeans. I think, he is referring to that nice pair of super dark jeans that one saves to wear somewhere nice.

I think he may also mean the jeans you may wear to a casual office, where there is air conditioning and not a whole lot of heavy lifting.

I wish people like, Mr. Bergh, would remember that use case matters.

I don’t think he means the jeans worn by construction workers or field laborers.

Spot cleaning won’t work for line cooks.

Spot cleaning won’t work for anyone who lifts and bends and stretches their way through the work day.

And to act as though we -those who wash their jeans because we must- are wasteful is really rather clueless.

Wash your jeans when they need it. The less you do, the longer they will last. It’s that simple. We don’t need to offend people on the bus just because some guy thinks not washing our pants is the way to save the earth.

Another Case of Musty Odors

Dear Home Ec 101,

The problem in our family is confined to specific cotton undershirts and one specific dresser drawer. It does not matter how we wash the shirts. We’ve soaked, used vinegar, borax, triple rinsed, air dried for a week, used the gas drier and everything is fine until the shirts are put in a closet or that one drawer. Note, nothing bad has ever been in this closet or drawer. We’ve had them since brand new. After the clothes are confined there for a few weeks, they develop a strong odor that spreads to other clothes which would otherwise not get smelly. We’ve had to resort to banning that one drawer and going through the closets looking for cotton undershirts to re-wash (no other kind of cotton shirt is affected, even though they are usually worn against the skin without undershirts, so it’s not from body odor.) This only happens to some undershirts. Not even all, just some, even though they can all be in the same laundry load together. It seems to me that we will have to gradually separate the smelly from the non-smelly shirts then throw away the bad ones. I will never put anything in that one drawer again though. Nobody has ever had a clue about what could cause such specific smelliness. I look forward to your opinion.

Mystified by Must

Heather says:

I had an email exchange with this reader a few months ago. And admittedly, I dropped the ball in getting her a satisfactory answer.

We went back and forth for quite a while on this topic.

I think this is a case of false pattern recognition.

Why? Human beings are designed to recognize patterns, it’s part of the way we are wired, a bazillion -technical term- years ago it helped us find food, remember which cave or clearing was our home, and to learn, over time, cause and effect things like, I didn’t feel well after eating that, perhaps I shouldn’t eat it any more.

What is probably going on here?

I think at some point there was a particularly funky shirt that caused a faint odor in the drawer. This caused an association: stinky shirt came from this drawer. Have there been other stinky items from other drawers, probably, but this one was noteworthy. And the next time a stinky item came from that drawer the conclusion was – AH HA the clothing put in THIS drawer becomes funky.

Eh well, probably the damp items put in this drawer have the potential to become funky and it happens sometimes.

Almost every one of us is guilty of putting away slightly damp clothing at least once in a while. This isn’t a huge problem with clothing hung in closets as there is more air flow within a closet than a drawer. Damp clothes, in a pile, in a drawer are pretty much the perfect storm of mildew growth.

So even if the problem isn’t the drawer itself, how do we prevent funky shirt smells in the future?

Empty the drawer, dry it thoroughly. Maybe let it dry fully in the sun for an afternoon. Sunlight is great at killing mildew spores. I’d probably play it extra safe and do the same for the drawer above and below, just to get any lurking time bombs.

Treat the shirts like you would musty, mildewed towels. If they smell super funky, you aren’t going to wear them anyhow -we hope- so try not to stress about the possibility of fading.

If there is any deodorant or anti-antiperspirant build up on the clothing, be sure to remove it.

Finally, ensure clothing is completely dry before placing it in drawers and consider adding a bar of your favorite soap or a sachet in the drawer. It can’t hurt.

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.