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.

Signed,
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?

Thanks,
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?

Yup.

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.

Why?

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.

Signed,
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.

 

The Hard Water Headache

Dear Home-Ec 101,

I was visiting my MIL recently and she told me that they have hard water, so she had to put a lot of extra soap in the washer because otherwise she didn’t get any bubbles and it wouldn’t clean the laundry. This confuses me because I always thought you weren’t supposed to have a lot of foam in the washer. I’ve read articles recently saying that most people use way too much laundry detergent. Also, the man who installed our new septic system told me that I should use liquid soaps because they didn’t foam and foam would not build up in the septic system (which is apparently a bad thing).

I suspect that my MIL simply doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but I would never say so to her. If I’m wrong, please correct me- or at least just clear this up so I can think about something else!

Signed,
Biting My Tongue

Heather says:

You are both partly right.

Laundry detergent isn’t just one thing, it is a blend of ingredients in either a solution or powdered form. Some of it is soap, some detergent, some surfactants, water conditioners, and then we get to the perfumes and dyes.

Hard water is water that has calcium and magnesium in solution and these dissolved minerals cause a lot of headaches in laundry. If they are not suspended in water when the wash water or rinse water is drained, the magnesium and calcium can cling to clothing causing fabrics to feel stiff and dulling the color. Think of it a bit like looking through a slightly dirty window, usually you can’t focus on the dirt, but your view of the outside world isn’t as bright and clear due to the slight film obscuring the view.

It is often necessary to use more laundry detergent in hard water.

When laundry detergent is added to hard water, a number of the detergent molecules -which I’ve been describing ad nauseum of late- get used up binding the calcium and magnesium. This simply means that all conditions being equal, there will be fewer detergent molecules able to trap dirt in hard water than in soft water. Soap molecules that come in contact with minerals form our nemesis soap scum which is difficult to remove from wherever it decides to cling.

In chemistry we often talk about something called the saturation point. When something is saturated, it can’t hold any more. In your laundry, this is the point at which no more detergent can be in the wash water. Whatever cannot be in the water falls out as precipitate. (Remember it like this, when it rains, it’s precipitating, the cloud cannot hold any more moisture so it falls out of the sky.)

Water can only hold so much soap, even if that detergent is busy holding minerals like calcium and magnesium in solution -the clusters of soap around oil or dirt are called micelles. So there is a point at which too much of anything is going to precipitate out of solution. Where that precipitate (dirt, oil, gunk micelles) goes depends on its density, it may sink or float on top of the water in a scummy layer.

As consumers we tend to associate soap suds with laundry detergent doing its job.

Foaming and bubbles occur when when air your washer agitates, splashing the water around and trapping air. Bubbles and foam are actually two layers of soap sandwiching a tiny film of water. Air gets trapped in this film creating bubbles, as more air is introduced through splashing, you create the foam and suds we are all familiar with.

For the most part, suds aren’t coming in contact with the clothing and when the water drains, the suds leave a sticky film of soap behind. If there isn’t enough rinse water to bring everything into solution, those deposits will stay on the fabric which pretty much defeats the entire purpose of doing laundry.

People who live in areas with hard water do have a few tools at their disposal.

Heat improves solubility.

 

Approximate Temperatures of Wash Water
Cold Water Warm Water Hot Water
65°F – 75°F 80°F – 105°F 120°F – 140°F
18°C – 24°C 27°C – 40°C 49°C – 60°C

In general, higher temperatures allow more soap or detergent to be in the water at a given time.

Additionally, please note that most laundry detergents aren’t going to be very effective at temperatures below 60°F or 16°C. If this is the only option, try dissolving powdered detergent in a small amount of hot water before adding it to the washing machine. This will help prevent those white powdery streaks caused by undissolved detergents.

Water conditioning

Those looking to improve the effectiveness of their laundry detergent in hard water can give conditioning their water a try. Water conditioning is the process of getting the calcium and magnesium out of the water where it won’t use up the detergent. This is typically done by exchanging the calcium and magnesium ions with those in salt (sodium and chloride).  Now kep in mind that some laundry detergents already contain ingredients, known as zeolites that condition the water.

Point of Use Water Conditioning

If you are looking to soften your hard water only in the clothes washer, be absolutely sure to purchase a non-precipitating water softener. Non-precipitating water softeners work best when added to the water before the detergent, this prevents the detergent from beating the water softener to those pesky ions. Yes, this means you will have to be more attentive to your washing machine when doing laundry.

Precipitating water softeners will cause the minerals to fall out of solution where they will likely cling to clothing and the inside of your washing machine, completely defeating the purpose.

Whole House Water Softening

Water softeners are a fairly common solution that also works by switching out the calcium and magnesium with the ions in salt by passing the water through a chamber of resin beads. These beads have to be recharged with salt on a regular basis. There are some environmental concerns with choosing to use a water softening unit and you should do your research thoroughly before making the investment.

Do not waste your time with a magnetic water softener.

You are not going to get the results you desire slapping a couple of magnets around a pipe. It’s a scam.

So for the TL/DR crowd to answer your initial questions:

1. Yes, you need more laundry detergent in places with hard water.

2. Soap suds are not an indication of how well laundry detergent is working and they can leave dirt behind.

Regarding Septic Systems:

Everything you allow to go down the drain affects the chemistry and bacterial balance of your septic system. Your septic system is designed to handle some variations, but if you go too far, you’ll upset the natural balance and end up with big problems.

Use the least amount of low foaming soap possible. The low foaming is critical for septic systems with an aeration chamber. As stated above, suds form when air is introduced to that soap film. Suds will leave behind soap and eventually clog the system.

And those of you who have septic tanks should remember that it is better to spread laundry out over the course of a week than overloading your system and upsetting the chemical / biological balance with a marathon laundry day. If you’re that far behind and the mountain of laundry is threatening to avalanche, consider saving yourself expensive septic repairs with the relatively cheaper laundry mat option.

Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com

Image is linked with an affiliate code to Amazon.com. That image is used as an illustration of the system mentioned in the post, rather than a recommendation of a specific brand. . .