I revised my notes of Kate Fletcher’s Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys (2014, London – New York: Earthscan from Routledge) and found a ‘make post about this’ note in Chapter 3 waiting for me since November last year.
However, as I had it on a limited loan from a far-away library, I only have my notes… and I was convinced that the all data cited about wear frequency were from the Dutch paper cited below. It’s not! I checked all 170 pages of that report… So get Fletcher’s book from your library and check.
Chapter 3 is dedicated to *use* and this phase of garment’s lifecycle is a tricky one as it’s private and individual. It’s hard to track, and the industry just love to put the responsibility on the consumer reminding that (a) ‘ha, you made a shitty decision’ and (b) ‘loads of energy gets wasted and water polluted via poor laundry practices’. And they are not wrong. So (and this is from my notes, Fletcher does not use the f-word):
– A garment spends on average 3 years and 5 months in one wardrobe
– Get 44 wears
– Gets ~3 wears between the washes
– If a person has 10 pairs of underwear, that means 36.5 wears every year (provided that all are worn equally and one per day)
– Most garments get only around 20 washes that cause a lot of environmental impact
– Washing is responsible of 80% of the energy impact of underwear
– Cold washing and line-drying reduces the lifecycle energy for polyester 4 times and for cotton – 2 times
– The increase of individual households with more machines and less people tend to cancel out the washing machine efficiency gains due to smaller load sizes
– The launderette as an alternative are: better because they are communal and guarantee maximal use of fewer machines while getting big loads, worse because they use higher temperatures used and tempts people into using the f*ing dryer
(obviously the averages here are statistical artifacts, provided that there are categories of garments that are washed after every wear and ones that are never washed)
From the Uitdenbogerd et al 1998 paper “Domestic Energy Saving Potentials for Food and Textiles: An Empirical Study” we get that, according to the behaviour of Dutch families in 1997, the most promising options for energy saving in household when it comes to textiles are:
– washing at lower temperatures, including 25ºC cycles,
– use of ½- or S-buttons for ½- and ¾- loads, and E-buttons on the machines,
– longer wearing,
– line drying.
So, following St.Kate’s advice and being mindful that notions of cleanliness has more to do with idea about culture, civilization, piety, propriety (as opposite to dirty) than dirt. And for the germophobes: as a species we are not very good at disease prevention via cleanliness, unless you boil and bleach everything, and even then… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
(A disclaimer is due here that – quite ironically – our household experienced an order from a doctor to up our temperatures for certain types of laundry lately… So, as always, follow your doctor’s orders.)
Stop the automatic ‘I take it off and put it in the hamper’. Look at it, smell it, ask yourself if maybe drying it on a hanger and/or spraying with a mix of water and essential oils could be enough.
If you have decided that a garment needs washing, collect them until you have a full load (cold washes allow for not separating the colors), get an environmentally friendly detergent and go cold at least with the often worn clothing (very few of us truly cover our garments with mud every day). Rethinking the function of underwear is an idea, too. Let’s keep in mind that one of its missions is to separate the living, breathing, sweating, etc. flesh from our outer garments. The practice of wearing an undershirt might be on its demise (and now associated only with Marlon Brando and old men not wanting to show their nipples), but just give it a thought, especially for places with winters. And remember that the ‘iconic white t-shirt’ is not much more than a rebranded piece of underwear.
The impact assessments tend to include bleaching and ironing, so forget about that shit and the softener too. You never needed those for everyday use anyways. In our household only an occasional stubborn fruit stained serviette gets a 100ºC bleach soak before going in with the rest of household textiles at 60ºC. And only C’s summer shirts and my handkerchiefs get ironed.
Forget the dryer if you can, line drying is a beautiful practice in the sunnier parts of the globe (dry your brights inside out, though, sun is the original bleach; on the other hand, your whites will love it) and the northerners with proper heating at home get an actual health benefit from drying their clothes indoors on a rack – no need for an additional humidifier! The only people I’d give a permission slip for the dryer would be those with a lot of small children and those using launderettes (which normally comes accompanied with no space for a drying rack and a tendency towards mold in their studio apartments). But with reasonably cold/lukewarm water, good detergent and full loads, eh?
And now, after the yearly ‘how to wash’ primer (this was the last year’s), here is the phrase that peaked my interest: “It is very likely […] that we all have durable unwashed items in our wardrobes, but probably have never recognized them as such” (Fletcher 2014: 107). This is part that got me thinking: what are my no-washes? And rarely washes? What would be the common characteristics of the garments that do not get washed?
*No washes* are my fluffy coat (2006),
my festive bolero (2011),
my cape (2013),
my red woolen sweater (2015),
my Lithuanian woolen sweater (2015),
my swimsuit (2015) – rinsed a lot, never washed,
Ginta’s Monton bird skirt (2016),
Liisa’s velvet skater skirt (2017),
Julie’s cardigan (2017).
The WAG set has gotten no washes, but I’ve worn it only few times, we’ll see this summer if that structured but unlined cotton begs washing. Rare (as in ‘once in a season maybe’) washes are my parka (2003; the outer shell, the inner one has been washed once in 15 years, I think), HnM sweetheart dress (2008), Ginta’s trench (2010), Ginta’s blue silk dress (2016).
So, the riddle is served: what do these have in common? (1) Almost all are outer layers, so that my filthy body does not touch them directly. On the other hand however, the same characteristic makes them more vulnerable to outside dirt: bike oil, bird poo… (2) Many of them are worn strictly seasonally or for special occasions, so the overall number of wears is small, hence reduced exposure to being dirtied. (3) Materials! Wool is my golden amazing darling that does not smell, basically auto-cleans and any minor mayonnaise stain can be fixed with a damp cloth and all refreshing these garments need is just some alone time in wardrobe with a baggie of lavender. (4) Fear and awe inspiring items: I’m scared of fucking them up and wearing them out by repeated washing + the swimsuit which seems to be doing just fine with its chlorine soaks and less-chlorinated rinses afterwards.
What are your *no washes*? Are those things that don’t need washing because of their function or are those things that you haven’t worn enough? Do you have any secret garment refreshing techniques: spot cleaning, steaming them in shower, freeing them? Tell me, I’m all ears!