A mountain of laundry!

With six children my mother had to face countless terry nappies, shirts, school uniforms, towels…. and endless  socks, vests and pants. 

Getting the laundry done was a constant worry, and a lot of work.

I don’t know how she did it. 

It’s not by magic that clean clothes appear in the wardrobe.

 ‘Someone’ in the household (with a sense of responsibility and organisation) has to keep clean clothing coming through.  

I have vivid memory coming home from school seeing my mother standing over the twin-tub. 

The kitchen was filled with the heavy smell of detergent ( TidePersil, Daz, Omo), the air steamy and humid.  And it was noisy. There was constant sound of chugging, bubbling water draining from the tub, and  the loud whirring of the spin dryer 

It was intensive, heavy work and it took most of her day.

Wet washing still has to be dried. 

washing line with wooden peg

For this we had a washing line in the back garden

My mother taught us to first clean the line, then to peg the clothes so they kept their shape, didn’t sag, or snag or blow away. But also, to peg larger items to the front, underwear to the back – so the neighbours wouldn’t see.  

It gave her immense pleasure to see a washing line full of clothes neatly pegged out. A job well done.

A washing line is a visible sign of someone at the top of their game.

Whatever I know about laundry is my mother’s knowledge passed down. 

Now, whenever I am hanging out washing on the line it gives me a little moment to remember her by. 

I still use some of her old wooden pegs. They are infinitely more robust  and durable than plastic ones; they feel nice in your hand.

In Ireland a good drying day is a rare gift. 

It’s a really great day when you get 2-3 loads of  washing out and dried. 


When there is washing out on the line you can never totally relax because line drying puts you closer to the elements and nature. 

Will the rain hold off?

Is there enough wind?

Where did the sun go?

Observing the skies and testing the air you constantly look out for signs of change. You  develop a sense of when the clouds will clear the sun will shine and the wind blow. 

But if it rains it’s a scramble to get everything back inside. 

Air drying is by far the most sustainable way of drying clothes.

It is the most efficient way of drying laundry. And it costs nothing. 

In Hong Kong, fluttering in the breeze like rows of flags, older public housing estates are a colourful display of air drying laundry catching the wind and sun. 

Residents hang their washing in the kitchen/verandah or outside on poles inserted perpendicular to the exterior. 

A precarious and tricky procedure, it is a delicate process of leaning out with the clothing pre-attached to the pole and then deftly inserting the heavy pole into the slot.  There is always a chance that certain items  – or the pole  – could be lost in the process. 

US apartment buildings are generally designed without personal laundry facilities. 

Instead, residents use communal laundry rooms with huge washing machines and dryers. In the suburbs many US homeowner associations have banned outdoor washing lines. People must use dryers, or hang washing in their basement.  

Washing is seen to  detract from the look and status of the building, the people who live there and the quality of the environment. A washing line smacks of a rural population, the working class and tenements. 

In the UK, up-market housing developments now have set rules against displays of washing on balconies or  communal areas. 

People still have to do laundry, but it must be hidden away and out of sight.

Hong Kong housing block with laundry  hanging in public areas

Somewhere along the way air-drying has become associated with poverty. 

It is a ‘ brand’ image seen to be at odds with beautiful, managed  spaces. 

Where displays of washing  once used to be a sign of everyday family life and an industrious  housewife, it is now considered  unsightly, and unsuitable for the public gaze.  

A washing line has become  something of a taboo. 

Culturally  (and by design) a washing line has been removed from everyday life. There are generations who have never used a washing line, and they don’t miss what they have never had. 

We could say that  prissy design values and social conformity have contributed to  the demise of the washing line.

We have lost the sense of using the great outdoors, the air, the wind the sun, to dry our laundry – for free. 

The irony is certain brands are now playing up the value of air drying; a fabric softener  that is: ‘ Outdoorable: fresh! – as if dried outside’.  But, not.

Laundry is a task and a chore.

It is a largely thankless occupation on constant repeat. 

Clean clothes will get dirty again.  

A never-ending feature of daily life it is  an activity that consumes much time, effort and consciousness. 

Through the seasons the content of our laundry changes with different fabrics and knits, lighter and heavier clothing. Clothes that dry quickly and those that don’t. Sportswear, baby clothes, overalls, work clothes. Clothes for doing odd jobs, clothes for leisure, clothes for a night out. The small stuff, the big stuff, sheets, duvet covers, mattress protectors.

But certain items such as school shirts and favourite pyjamas, children’s bibs and stuffed toys, sheets and towels pass through the system on a regular cycle. 

Laundry takes up space, mentally and physically. 

laundry basket
Phot by Annie Spratt/ Unsplash

In every home, every day there is  dirty laundry set aside to  be washed. 

There  will be clean clothes  piled up waiting to be sorted, ironed, or returned to a  designated  place – a wardrobe, clothes rail, drawers, hot press. This cycle never stops.

Washed, dried, ironed, put away, worn. 

 Washed, dried, ironed, put away, worn.

Only to do it all again.  

Eventually, my mother acquired an ‘automatic washing machine’. 

It was a dream come true. 

She could put everything in to wash and reclaim that time to get on with other things. 

In theory, modern washing machines should create a more equal division of labour in the home. As an appliance it is designed to be used by anyone. My father?… Not so much.

Then… my mother got a tumble dryer. 

Before that, I remember on wet days every part of the house –  the banister, backs of chairs, between chairs, shirts on hangers in the bathroom –  was bedecked and draped with wet washing.

And yes, on some days wet washing could sit for days. The smell of wet dog and excess moisture hanging in the air.

Owning  a tumble dryer meant  laundry was not as all-consuming for her as before. But, her first choice for drying  clothes, was always the washing line.

It is the deeper reach of politics, economics and marketing that shapes, influences and nudges our behaviour. 

We see, in a cost-of-living and climate crisis, more people are weighing up what everything costs. We are advised to do bigger wash loads… less frequently… on a lower temperature and… to use line drying whenever we can. 

It means that line drying is now eco-fashionable. Though perhaps only for people who have environmental  concerns and people with less money. 

We see  innovative initiatives emerging for people who want to line dry but do not have access to outdoor space. This is something that can bring communities together.

If our washing machine breaks down it becomes a household ‘crisis’.

Eventually we come to an end of all our available clean clothing.

In polite society, we are required to present with clean clothing.  

Reduced hygiene standards might be fine for a camping holiday but clothing with stains, odours and creases won’t work in the office.

But, do we need to wash our clothes quite so much?

Social codes dictate that we should change our clothes regularly and shower every day. But there is a ‘ trend’ of non-washing. People who have decided that we could/should re-think the ‘need’ for washing – on the edges of what is necessary, and what is just a convention. 

Trust your nose!

In a world of throwaway fast fashion we all have ethical questions to answer. 

How many times will I actually wear this garment?

Will it stain easily – and need to be washed often

How long will it be fashionable?  

Is it designed to last?

There is something wrong if it is easier and cheaper to buy something new  than to wash or dry clean what we already have?

We need homes that are designed to accommodate the entire end to end laundry process.

makeshift laundry utility room

A home with a utility room is still a relatively rare thing in  UK. 

But, it is something that people value and desire. 

With the trend towards more open-plan living our home space has become more exposed. There is nowhere to hide anything. 

In a utility room all the noise and the mess of laundry (at every stage) can be hidden away out of sight.

It may seem like a luxury space, one specifically designed for laundry, but it is a space that acknowledges the time, process and effort involved.

TV’s Kirsty Allsopp recently provoked a debate when she pronounced  the presence of a washing machine  in a kitchen as ‘disgusting’.  

People responded angrily because many people do not have that choice. There may be a limit as to where they can actually fit in their washing machine in the available space of their home.

kitchen with washing machine

Older homes were not designed for ‘new’ and essential bulky appliances.

Perhaps the original architect didn’t imagine occupants would ever be able to afford such luxuries as a washing machine, dish washer, dryer. 

Perhaps they didn’t think that laundry was such a big deal?

In Ireland and the UK we have small kitchens, and small homes. Instead of a utility room many people have their washing machine and dryer outside in the garage or shed.

Laundry means big business, big brands,  and big profits.

clean white shirts hanging in laundry
Photo by Ryoji-hayasaka /Unsplash

So, what’s next?

Where once there was just soap, supermarket aisles are filled with  a vast array of detergents,  softeners, starches, stain removers,  fresheners, fragrances.

Super-appliances come with multi-functions that make washing clothes faster, cleaner, brighter, noiseless, more efficient, easier to use, eco-efficient and a more ‘designed’ experience.

However, we are now more aware of relationship between detergents, water and energy. What we need is to look forward to smarter technology, shorter wash times, improved capabilities, efficiencies and water-less technology. 

But, if our homes are designed to be smaller, things could go the other way. Perhaps a centralised ‘Deliveroo’ for quick-fix laundry. Or, a wash, dry, iron, return service so that no-one is required to do laundry at home – an efficient service for all, not just for the rich.

laundry room

There needs to be greater connectivity in the laundry cycle.

From where it originates in (textiles, fashion, design ) to  where it is maintained ( in the home and where it ends up ( in landfill) as a  circular economy.  It is clearly a   design problem.

Washing machines  may be ‘ intelligent’ but they can  very quickly become obsolete. Once they break down often they  cannot be repaired. So, we are forced to buy a new one.  

We need to look more closely at both the practice and space in which laundry takes place. 

In my mother’s lifetime new and improved appliances made her work at home – and her life – easier. These time-saving appliances disrupted the ‘old ways’ of doing things by recognising that she was important and her time was valuable. 

My mother was not a servant living a  life ‘downstairs’. But, given all the work she had to do, it was not far off!

With more women in the workforce, why does laundry still take up such a big part of their time?

woman folding laundry
Phot by Sarah Brown/Unsplash

While new fabrics mean that ironing is not always necessary clean laundry still needs to be sorted and stored away in the right place to ensure the cycle keeps moving. 

There’s no shortage of hacks and advice around. 

People who see the problem differently are taking the time to think through what needs to be done. They are looking more widely for a radical and ingenious solution.

This kind of re-design looks at who does what – and where  –  and how the workload can be re-distributed more evenly. It is the re-engineering of domestic laundry. It disrupts the conventional idea that clothing MUST be stored in a wardrobe or a chest of drawers.

A new way of doing things may – in the future – shift what we expect to see in terms of bedroom furniture. The norm ( wardrobe, clothes rail, dressing room, drawers) versus a more efficient system that you might see in a warehouse.

The whole issue of laundry, it’s not just going to disappear- even if you choose to live like a nomad.

white cat and sheet in garden

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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