As a country we love washing dirty linen. Not the kind we find in gossip magazines, but the stuff we wear. Living in a hot place necessitates washing clothes often. But obviously there are ways and ways of washing; some better than others. In The Magic Faraway Tree, a book that I held as my favourite during my preteens, Dame Washalot was a woman to be feared by the many inhabitants of the tall, spreading tree. On washdays, which were alarmingly frequent, she created huge tubs of sudsy water that once the washing was done, she would pour unthinkingly down in a flood that threatened to wash away everything in its path.
In our own ways, we are all versions of Dame Washalot. Thanks to the fact that most of us own washing machines, we wash and wash. Not always waiting for a full load. Even otherwise, we delight in soap suds, believing soapier means cleaner. Our clothes might get cleaner, but our surroundings can get dirtier in the process.
Imagine entire rivers of soap suds carrying invisible micro fibres weaned out of clothes by detergents, snaking their way through ground water and drains into our water bodies. Synthetic fibres can cause the same effect as plastic on ground and in water. Detergents loaded with chemicals can kill fish and other invisible creatures that live in the soil around us.
The question is, is so much washing necessary? Or is it a reflex habit we follow without thinking? Think again. Can ironing have the same effect as washing? Can that stain be removed by brushing? Can that garment be worn again?
Hotels often request guests to reuse towels and disallow the daily changing of sheets. It preserves both water and cloth. And saves the environment. A study shows that a tee shirt worn 100 times is washed about 50 times; 70 percent of carbons emitted from the washing while only 30 percent caused by the process of producing it.
Silk, wool, denim are materials that can live through multiple cycles of wear without acquaintance with soap. A simple water rinse can refresh them, if at all that is felt necessary. Hand-washing small garments gently in soap makes them last longer. And using natural washing products like the reetta nut keeps the sheen of the silk and the texture of the wool longer. But then, how many of us know where to find the reetta nut?
So here’s a mantra to save your clothes, and in the process save the environment: Wash the clothes that you must. (No one wants to encourage body odour). For all the rest, take a long hard look. Hanging them in the sun or shade outdoors, steaming them in the bathroom while having a hot shower, or by using a hot steam iron, or airing them under a fan can often substitute for what we believe is a good rollicking wash. Wash your dirty linen. But know this. Not all linen is as dirty as you think. So wash sparingly. No one, and that’s as good as a promise, will know the difference.
Author & Consulting Editor, Penguin Random House