How To Do The Laundry Properly and Efficiently Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How To Do The Laundry Properly and Efficiently

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A hand turning the dial on a washing machine.
Please check the washing instruction label before washing. Wash dark colours separately.

Most people, or at least those with access to water and electricity, have, at some time in their lives, had need to use a washing machine. However it is very likely that few have used one correctly, or at least, to maximum benefit. It is hoped that this entry will rectify that by giving guidelines on how to get 'perfect' laundry.

The majority of households have a washing machine somewhere in the property, often in a kitchen or utility room1. Occasionally it is in the bathroom. However this is now illegal in some countries, like the UK, as electricity and water don't mix except, of course, in the case of our friend, the washing machine. Well, they don't mix in the machine, but both are needed to enable the machine to function. Washing machines are no longer permitted in 'wet' rooms as a safety measure, because wet hands and electricity tend to severely shorten life expectancy. Unfortunately there are still many who don't possess a washing machine, which generally means a long haul to the launderette. The first automated launderette in the world opened in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1934 and was known as a Washeteria. The first to open in the UK, was introduced by the Bendix company in Queensway, London, on 9 May, 1949. Despite some variations, most of the guidelines outlined below still apply.

Basic Requirements

The first thing to do is to check that all the necessary items are available to perform a wash. The first is the washing machine, as this is preferable, and a major advance, on hand washing. Next, the dirty laundry, a power source, water and a cleaning agent of some description. There are additional items that may be necessary, such as bleach, conditioner, starch, etc. which will be dealt with later.

The Dirty Laundry

Most households have a receptacle to place dirty laundry in. This doesn't usually provide a means of separating different items. It is therefore necessary to sort the laundry before proceeding to the washing stage. There are a number of ways of doing this. They can be sorted by colour; whites, coloureds, darks, non colour-fasts, etc. by type, such as the fabric; wool, cotton, silk, linen, synthetics, etc. or by temperature. As a rule the separation of coloureds and whites is the first option, thus preventing that rogue red sock getting in with that expensive white designer shirt and giving it a fetching hint of pink, or that expensive set of 'famous brand' red-hot lingerie being turned into a passion-killing grey due to a black top getting into the laundry.

So the first, and easiest, task to perform is to separate the laundry into whites, fast coloureds and non-fast coloureds2. A little tip for those coloureds - when divesting of these garments, turn them inside out. This will reduce fading and protect any designs, emblems or logos, particularly those that are embossed or where the logo could crack or flake. This also applies to whites such as shirts. In most instances the laundry is not particularly dirty, so by turning the laundry inside out, any grime, sweat or scuff marks are now on the outside of the fabric and so are likely to get cleaner, usually without having to pre-treat. Now that has been done, these two piles of laundry need sorting into fabric types. First remove any non colour fast fabrics, woollens, silks, delicates and hand-wash items as these need to be dealt with later. There is now a pile of coloured laundry of coloured mixed fabrics, and one of white mixed fabrics. Time to approach the laundry process and another tip. Having gone through the above, laborious process, wouldn't it be a godsend if the process were made simpler? Well, it can be. Obtain two or three individual receptacles and designate each for the different type of dirty laundry, such as coloureds and whites if only two receptacles, or coloureds, whites and special clean fabrics if three. These receptacles can be anything from proper laundry baskets, to waste bins such as swing or roll-top bins, or even three compartment recycling bins. It really doesn't matter what receptacle is used, as long as it reduces the need to sort the fabrics before laundering.

The Washing

Having sorted the laundry, it is now time to load the washing machine. But which program to use? In the majority of cases, as the laundry is not that dirty, the quick wash program is adequate. This will usually perform a 30/40 degrees centigrade wash within 60 minutes. However it is worth looking at the other programmes to see if there is a better option. Laundry such as cotton bed linen is best washed at 70-95 degrees centigrade. This is to ensure eradication of such horrors as bedbugs, lice or other nasty items that may lurk in the bedding. A mixed load is usually best washed at around 40/60 degrees centigrade depending on the machine and the fabric, as there are a number of factors incorporated into these programmes to give better cleaning results. It may include using more water to reduce wear and pilling, and/or a reduced spin speed. The pre-wash option may also be necessary for very dirty clothing. If it is a large load, then a full wash cycle may be necessary. If the laundry is being done at a time when it is not going to be unloaded at the end of the cycle, then rinse hold or spin hold may be advantageous to reduce creasing. The woollen/silk wash is also very useful for those delicate items as this is performed at a lower temperature using a higher water volume with a greatly reduced spin speed. A definite must for that expensive weekend underwear!!! Also check out the spin speed and duration. To iron linen spun at 1600 rpm for six minutes is definitely no fun!

How much should go in the drum? Most machines will take between 5 to 7 kg loads, but how much is that in washing? 5 men's' shirts or two bath towels is 1 kg, dry weight. So check the machine' capacity and load accordingly. Bear in mind that the laundry is cleaned by the actions of the detergent,water and movement. If the water and detergent cannot permeate the entire laundry and there is insufficient movement of the fabric, it will not be cleaned efficiently, if at all! So be sensible of the load. No higher than the top of the door, and do not cram it in. There should be enough space to enable a hand to enter the laundry. For both environmental and economical reasons, a full-load is preferable. If this isn't possible, check the machine's programs and use the half-load or economy (it may be labelled differently) program, if there is one.

Many people have noticed, when ironing, the iron sticking to the material, damaging it, or a dark residue building up on the sole plate of the iron, and believing it to be the iron set at too high a temperature. This can be the case but, more often than not, it is excess detergent or conditioner in the fabric due to the rinse cycle not being effective enough. This melts on contact with the iron, and causes the damage. There are two reasons for a poor rinse. The drum is too full and the water can't circulate and/or too much detergent/conditioner was used.

The Detergent

Liquid? Powder? Tablets? Which is the best? Biological or non-biological? Cool wash or normal? Where, or when, does this laundry nightmare end?

Here is a run-through of the detergent types and their uses.

Tablets and Capsules

With tablets and liquid capsules, the dose is fixed by the manufacturer so whatever the load in the machine the only option is a fixed quantity of detergent. This is not always a good idea!

Bottled liquid and powder

Liquid in a dispenser that is placed in the drum, or powder in the dispensing drawer gives dosage flexibility and so puts the person doing the laundry in control of the outcome of the laundered products. So how much is it best to use? The measurements on the detergent packaging are predetermined by the manufacturer and are usually based on a heavy, soiled load. As mentioned previously, most washes are a refresh wash at best, so only half the recommended amount is really necessary. Someone who is a little cynical perhaps, may also be inclined to think that these quantities are greater than are really necessary, so that the person doing the laundry will use the product quickly and need to replace it sooner, generating a greater income fo the manufacturer... So who's the winner?


Something else to consider is what the detergent is designed for.

Laundry detergents, as mentioned, come in various forms, and here is an outline of their ideal purpose, as detailed by a well-known consumer-testing company.

Liquids, either in a container or a capsule, work best on oily residues and pre-treating stains and other tough oiling.

Powders, either in tablet or bulk form, are very effective at tackling ground-in stains and soiling, and often used where a pre-wash is needed.

There are other detergents, such as soap liquid or flakes. This detergent is often used for fabrics that require careful handling, such as woollens, silks and delicates.

So what is in these detergents?

Probably the first thing to see on packaging are the words 'biological and 'non-biological'. The difference is that the biological detergents contain enzymes. These act a catalysts to break down long biological chains like proteins (using subtillin) or cellulose (using cellulase) into smaller chains and flushing them out of the fabric. These detergents work at low temperatures, as above 40C they denature and become ineffective. It is worth bearing in mind that cotton and wool are biological3, so it is advisable to use a non-biological detergent on these fabrics. If they are biologically soiled, then place a biological liquid on the stain and leave for a short period, then wash using a non-biological detergent.

Colour safe detergents are designed to prolong the depth of colour in fabrics. Some detergents contain a bleaching agent, which can damage or, in the case of decals, destroy images, as well as harm the fabric.

A further addition, and a boon, added to the detergent is the surfactant. This reduces the surface tension of the water and means that the dirt and soiling is held in suspension in the water, rather than going back onto the fabric. These surfactants have improved, along with the washing machines, to reduce water usage to less than 49l per wash!!!

Many detergents also contain a scent or perfume. This is to enhance the idea of cleanliness in the fabrics. Some can be quite overpowering, and may be unsuitable for those who are allergy sufferers!

For those who are feeling particularly conscious of the impact on the environment, there are 'natural' detergents on the market, as indicated below, which use natural saponin-rich ingredients. These saponins are a natural soap-like agent, that produce the bubble, so liked by most people, as it gives an indication that something is happening. One particularly well-known saponin provider is the conker from the horse chestnut tree. This is used in many areas, particularly bubble bath and shampoo. There are others, notably the soapwort plant (Genus Saponaria) from which the name saponin is derived.

That has now probably caused maximum confusion, so here is a recap:

Powder detergents are best used for high temperature washes, and for heavily soiled washes. In true powder form and added to the water via the dispenser it dissolves readily and may cause less damage to fabrics.

Liquid detergents are best for low-temperature washes and are placed directly in the drum. Due to the viscosity of some liquids, they may not be fully dispersed and can bleach or stain fabrics.

Biological detergents are used to remove biological staining,such as grass, blood, food etc, but is not recommended for use on natural fabrics which are, themselves, biological. It is also worth mentioning that people with sensitive skin, or skin complaints like psoriasis and exceed, can find biological detergents an irritant.

Non-biological detergents tend to be good all-rounders for quick-wash purposes.

Soap-based detergents are for delicate or special fabrics.

Colour care detergents are for use with any coloured fabrics to keep them fresh. By not using optical brightening agents there will be little bleaching.

There are a few other washing agents worth mentioning:

Dark fabric detergent is relatively new on the market at the time of writing. As black fabric is proving ever more popular, and is not the easiest dye type to 'fix' (this researcher was reliably informed there were 42 different black dye types, and not one is 'true' black!) the dark fabric detergent contains a substance that traps chlorine radicals that would normally fade the fabric.

Other items used in the laundry process


This has been around forever. It works by adding chlorine to water that then creates hydrochloric acid and oxygen. This can be added via the bleach dispenser. It is the oxygen that is the bleaching agent, as it oxidises the colour, thus reducing or removing it. The bleaching agent is often sodium hypochlorite, although this appears to be being replaced with sodium percarbonate which, being an oxygen bleach, operates at a lower temperature and is also colour-safe. It is the hypochlorite agent that was renowned for damaging fabrics, often bath linen, and, not infrequently, by the liquid detergents. This occurs where there is too much detergent or the load is too great. The detergent may clump in one area of the fabric and not dissipate, slowly bleaching, or damaging the dye of, the fabric. Another reason to check the amount of fabric in the machine and reduce the detergent quantity. There are 'natural' ways to bleach clothes. Probably two of the better known are by using natural lemon juice or washing soda. A half cup added to the wash should prove sufficient.

Blueing. Ah! Grandmother's little blue bag! This is just a light blue dye that absorbs yellow light, making whites appear whiter by eradicating that yellowing appearance of old white fabrics.


Most households rarely use this in the wash preferring a spray-starch where necessary. However there are still those, like this researcher, who prefer crisp, starched bed-linen and sharp shirts. Starch is cellulose based and is a long-chained molecule that acts as a stiffener. It also has the added benefit of causing dirt and sweat to stick to it, rather than the fabric, making the laundry easier.

Natural Cleaning Agents

One of these is a relatively new product which consists of three balls being placed in the laundry. These balls contain ceramic granules which, by producing ionised oxygen in the water, lifts the dirt out of the fabric using no chemical processes. This is meant to be an environmentally, and cheaper,way of performing the task. It also negates the need for conditioner, as there is no harsh detergent being used, and also no fading. The optimum temperature is around 30 to 40 degrees, 60 max. There is also no perfume, which may be a real blessing for those with sensitive skin. It is claimed that they are also anti-bacterial, so another box ticked. However, the initial outlay is high, and the granules do need replacing after a thousand washes. So start counting!

Another is soap nuts. A cleaning agent that literally grows on trees. The nuts in question are from the Chinese soapberry tree (Sapindus mukorrosi). It appears that when the nuts become wet, they release saponin, which is a natural surfactant (see above). Only a few nuts are needed per load, 4 - 6 should suffice, place them in a bag, and add to the wash. The soap nuts should be good for 3 - 4 washes, getting darker with each wash as the saponins are extracted. Again, a 30 to 40 degree wash is preferable. The retailers claim they can be used up to four times and still be effective. They become dark and soft the more they are used and they can then be discarded onto the compost heap when exhausted. For heavy soiling, or to use on non-laundry items, such as upholstery and carpets, they can be crushed and simmered in water, and the resultant liquid used as a pre-wash, or applied to the stained fabric with a cloth or sponge. For fragrance add a teaspoon of lemon or a few drops of lavender, or similar, oil. As with the above, they are environmentally friendly and very good for those with sensitive skin because they perform a gentle, non-chemical wash, and there is no need to use softeners or conditioners. It is a good idea to do a full detergent wash, when the soap nuts are discarded, just to freshen the machine.

Fabric Conditioner

The wash is almost complete but for one item. Fabric conditioner or softener. This is probably used in every wash, without necessarily knowing what it does. It coats the fibres making them smoother and softer, and easier to iron. However it was created to reduce or remove static from synthetic clothing. As many women will know, wearing a synthetic dress and nylons was very uncomfortable and meant wearing a petticoat to prevent the fabric clinging to the legs. This is caused by the inability of synthetic materials to absorb moisture and so there is a static build-up. The conditioner, by coating the fabric, acts as a damper, so reducing the build-up of static. Another tip. Do not use conditioner on t-towels, hand towels or bath linen Why? As the conditioner reduces the static, it means it will reduce moisture absorbency, which is what the t-towel and bath linen is specifically designed for. Using conditioner is seriously going to impair this function, so wash these items separately. It is also advisable, due to what they are used for, to give them a full wash at 40/50 degrees. It will give the fibres loft, reduce any bacterial content and remove dirt, grease etc.

As most conditioners are perfumed, it should be noted that some people may have a reaction to this. There are sensitive and non-perfumed conditioners available. Some people believe that conditioner should not be used on nursery fabrics or babywear. There does not appear to be any grounds for this concern and, when the potential soiling is taken into account and the likelihood of the fabrics being washed at higher temperature, conditioner is suggested to make the fabric less harsh against delicate skin. A non-perfumed conditioner is suggested.

There are products, touted as money-savers, that incorporate both detergent and conditioner. However this is not always a good idea, as explained above.

There are proprietary brands on the market that have combined the detergent and conditioner in one package. This may be of benefit both for cost and also carrying the product from the retail outlet.

Let The 'Chore' Begin!

Now, having ensured that there is a water source and waste outlet, and that there is power, the fabric has been sorted into type and load, the correct program, detergent and other products selected, the laundry process can begin. Sit back, put those feet up and have a hot drink and a biscuit and relish that mountain of ironing to come!!! However, that is another entry for your delectation!

Nearly forgot!

The Launderette

The launderette machines, although being automatics, do operate differently, with different programs. The detergent drawer is usually split into three compartments, pre-wash, min wash and conditioner/bleach. It is worth noting the load sizings as well, as there are normally two different sized machines available, on of around 5-7kg capacity, and one of 10kg. 4 There is a dial or push-button, that gives the options similar to cold, cool, medium (or normal) and hot. Some more modern machines may give other options. There is also a display or dial that indicates the progress of the wash, as it is usual for the person doing the laundry, to remain with it. Laundry theft is not unheard of. Also if any special additions like bleach are necessary, the machine indicates when, and there is usually only a short period to do this. This method of washing is very haphazard, erratic and expensive. However, for many it is often their only option. If this is the case, use it as a good opportunity to socialise. Many romances have been known to form while the smalls are flashing through the glass of the door!!! What could be more intimate than seeing an assortment of someone's wardrobe, let alone the romance of helping fold someone's bed sheets?

1There are properties that have specific laundry or utility rooms, often outside of the UK while, in apartments, there maybe somewhere in the basement set aside for this purpose.2Fast coloureds are fabrics with fixed or non-run dyes, while non-fast coloureds are fabrics whose dyes may leach or bleed dye, notoriously reds and deep or dark colours, particularly bath linen.3 Skin is also biological and normally at 37C, the enzymatic agent' operating temperature. For this reason, those with sensitive skin may find biological detergents irritating, causing rashes and, in extreme cases, lesions.4In the UK this is often classed as an American sized machine, and there are some available on the domestic market.

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