Get the washing on the line!

It’s a lovely day! Quick, chuck some washing in the machine and in an hour it will be out on the line, drying in the sunshine! Tonight I’ll do the ironing, watching some rubbish on TV… some crime drama probably… and if by some chance, despite the lovely day not everything is dry, I can put it in the airing cupboard and by tomorrow it can be put away. In the winter, when lovely days are rarer, I can hang the damp clothes on the clothes-horse and they will dry in the warm, centrally heated atmosphere. As a last resort I can put really damp stuff in the tumble dryer…

How easy for me, and how hard it was in past generations; the mum and daughters would be up early to light the fire under the copper to heat the water – in even earlier generations I guess it would be pans of water over the fire, or just using cold water from the pump or nearby stream or river. Once the water was hot, then the clothes could be washed – or in case of whites, boiled, along with some powder or soap to get the marks out. Things would have been scrubbed, washboards used, things pounded on slabs, or stones by the river. To get rid of excess water the washing would be squeezed and wrung and passed through a mangle. Then the laundry could be put on a line, or thrown over a bush, or laid out on clean pasture. Wooden pegs, wooden clothes props, and wooden clothes horses… I do have wooden pegs, but I have a whirligig clothes line and plastic-coated, metal clothes horse.

It was all so weather dependent… no wonder people didn’t wash their clothes as often, how could they? My grandma who lived in the pub had outbuildings where the washing could go, but where did my other grandma who lived in an ordinary cottage, where did she put her washing on a wet day – on clothes horses around the fire? Some houses had a drying rack suspended from the ceiling which could be raised or lowered by a rope and pulley… I have seen these in modern kitchens now used for hanging saucepans and cooking equipment. Then once everything was dry or nearly dry there was the ironing, actual iron irons heated by the fire, different eights for different fabrics.

What energy do I expend in my washing? Barely any… I take a basket of laundry downstairs, bend down to put it in the machine, take it out and carry it into the garden then lifting my arms to peg it on the line.  Not many of the clothes are cotton, even fewer are linen, they weigh barely anything.  And ironing? An electric iron which glides over the clothes and can be adjusted to temperature… so easy.

Compare that to my tiny little grandmas… one pumping water in the cottage garden before carrying it to the copper – the other at least did have a water supply to hers, both up early to light the fire and give the water time to heat. Carrying the actual baskets (not plastic) full of clothes, loading and then unloading the heavy waterlogged items out of the copper, wringing them, turning the mangle, maybe a couple of times for each item, pegging them out on the line then using the clothes prop to elevate it.

What hard work… how time-consuming… I have such respect for them, strong women in every sense!

Wringing, drying berets, pegging corsets… and other washday tips

As I’ve mentioned before, nearly every time I do those repetitive household chores, like washing clothes, hanging them out, ironing them… I think back to my mum doing the same. This makes it sound as if neither my dad nor my husband ever did/do those things, well, yes they did/do, it’s just for some reason I think of my mum!

Glancing through Ruth Drew’s amusing, useful and historically interesting book, The Happy Housewife, it’s interesting to see aspects of these everyday chores which are  so different – usually because thanks to modern technology and modern cleaning materials and detergents, most of these things are so easy – oh and in the case of laundry, the easy-wear/wash/iron fabrics we have.

Here are just a few of the differences I saw today when I was reading her book for the umpteenth time:

  • when putting clothes through a wringer, see that the buttons and trimmings are folded inside for protection – Good advice – but no-one these days has a mangle or wringer, surely!
  • berets and caps can be dried successfully on plates or basins of the appropriate size – I shall bear this in mind… except I don’t think I’ll ever have a beret, and should i have a wet cap I will put it in the airing cupboard or on a radiator
  • Do not peg corsets or girdles for drying by shoulder straps or suspenders. Hang lengthwise – I do not have either item of clothing, not even my mum had a corset or girdle – and why would either have shoulder straps? I am bemused!
  • Getting really dirty collars clean – Wet the collars overnight. Massage in some soapflakes, or detergent powder. Roll each up tightly, like a Chelsea bun. This loosens dirt gently –  I’m guessing these are detachable collars… maybe collars don’t get so dirty since fabrics are better, people are cleaner, and hair products are often wash out-able
  • To cope with handkerchiefs… I don’t want to go there, use paper ones and throw them away!
  • To wash delicate old lace – pour some suds made with the best quality detergent into a jam jar or wide-necked bottle. Pop the lace into the jar, cover the top, and shake really well. Rinse thoroughly and roll in a towel to absorb the moisture – OK… should I ever have a piece of old lace in need of washing I will remember!
  • To wash corduroy at home – the bath is the best tub! Move the corduroys up and down in a rich lather. Don’t rub or twist. Go over very dirty places with a soft nailbrush. Hang to drip dry – no wringing please!  – once again, modern fabrics and detergents make life so easy – and if in doubt, I would take them to the cleaners – if I ever had any corduroys!


Sunny day, light wind, switch on the washing machine

I might seem a little obsessed by doing the laundry… I guess sitting by the window working I glance out and see the state of the day and think it’s perfect to thrust a load of stuff in the washing machine and an hour later out on the line… if the weather is really kind and doesn’t suddenly spring a shower of rain on my washing line, then a couple of hours later I can find some trash on TV to watch while I iron (Canadian Boarder Control, Motorway Cops, Oi – You’re Nicked, that sort of thing)

I’m also fortunate that I am no longer at work so I can just take advantage of a change in the weather – we live by the sea so it can be vile and pouring down with rain at seven, when I used to go to work, but then perfect for washing at eleven – when I still would have been at work. Lots of old weather sayings are pretty accurate, and I once saw a meteorological explanation for why the saying ‘rain before seven, dry by eleven’ is true – something to do with fronts…

Even when I was a child, washing was so different; we had a boiler in the kitchen, then a single tub washing machine and a mangle, then we got a spinner… and then the miraculous twin-tub! Now we have one machine which does everything, and even has a dryer function.

Another great progress in the field of laundry is the type of fabrics we have; so many of them are designed for machine washing, even some woollens. I am very careful with the garments, separating whites, turning things inside out, choosing the right programme for the fabric, to save energy by reducing temperature or doing ‘quick’ washes.

In her book ‘The Happy Housewife’, posthumously published in the early 1960’s, Ruth drew has a section on washing, and a subsection on curtain materials… these days we’d probably just take curtains to the cleaners if they were made from a material we weren’t familiar with. Ruth also suggests dry-cleaning for some materials… but these are the fabrics she has helpful hints about:

  • brocades and damasks – Ruth recommends dry-cleaning (do any of us ordinary folk have these type of curtains?)
  • chintz (permanently glazed) – wash in hot suds, rinse well, iron with a hot iron; iron on the wrong side if its textured, on the right side if it isn’t… I guess a lot of people these days might be flummoxed as to the wrong or right side…
  • chintz (non-permantly glazed) wash in hot suds and treat with a thin starch solution plus a knob of beeswax or Japan Wax – Ruth tells us that for an average pair of curtains (??) the knob should be about the size of a walnut. ironing should be with a hot iron on the right side and ‘plenty of pressure, applied with a polishing movement‘.
  • cottons ‘those hardy old friends, seersucker, gingham, towelling and similar tubfast fabrics‘ It ll seems pretty straightforward to wash and iron these materials unless you want to starch them; then Ruth helpfully gives a five part sub-section on starching
  • Holland blinds – dust them then lay them across a table and scrub both sides with warm soapy water and ammonia; starching is best done in a small bathtub (it says bathrub but that must be a very unusual typo – mostly books of this era were brilliantly proof-read)
  • muslin and lace involved kneading and squeezing, except for elderly curtains which should be tied inside an old bag or pillowcase
  • net
  • rayon – there’s a paragraph of advice on ironing rayon… and if stiffening is needed don’t use starch use gum… stationer’s gum and hot water
  • terylene more squeezing and kneading but definitely no twisting or ringing
  • velvet – Ruth is quite severe on this; entrust to a dry-cleaner and if that’s not possible ‘much can be done by thorough brushing (the way of the pile) followed by an overnight repose hung up in a steamy bathroom‘ I misread the next instruction and though the velvet should be soothed with a soft cloth… however it was ‘smoothed’…
  • washable velveteens, chenille and similar pile fabrics – apparently, these can be tackled at home, in the bath with swirling and squeezing, much rinsing,hanging to drip dry, and then more smoothing. When it comes to ironing however,a helper is needed because you need to ‘draw the wrong side over a cool upturned iron‘… sounds dangerous and impossible – unless you are Ruth!

Pegging out corsets

It’s been a lovely sunny day and I’ve been able to do three loads of washing, and pegged it all out on the line, gathered it all in and ironed it. I’ve mentioned before that this simple task of put out washing on a clothes line can be done in a variety of different ways – and when staying with friends and I go out to help put their laundry on the line, or they are staying with us and come out to help me, I notice how we do thing differently. Shirts for example… do you hang them upside down? Do you use two pegs or three? And trousers, do you hang them from the waist band or the cuffs? if you hang them by the legs are those legs side by side, or are they apart on different strands of line (this depends what sort of washing line you have of course!) Even something as simple as socks, do you peg them by the tops or toes?

In the book I was given, published in the 1960’s but written much earlier, The Happy Housewife, there is a whole section on washing entitled Washday Without Tears (Washing without Weeping would have been more alliterative!) there are sections of every aspect of the processes of cleaning garments… but since I’ve been thinking about drying clothes, here is a nice little section of advice:

Odds and Ends

  1. When putting clothes through a wringer, see that buttons and trimmings are folded inside for protection.
  2. Berets and caps can be dried successfully on plates or basins of an appropriate size.
  3. When indoor drying is obligatory, hang clothes away from direct heat in a current of air. A drying cabinet is a boon to flat dwellers.
  4. Do not peg corsets and girdles for drying by the shoulder straps or suspenders. Hang lengthwise.
  5. Try to organize equipment so that you can sit comfortably to iron. The knack is worth acquiring because it immediately reduces fatigue. Right iron temperature and degree of fabric dampness are the secret of efficient ironing. Tremendous pressure is unnecessary.
  6. Plastic coated washing lines can be wiped clean. For indoor lines, fine nylon carries a great weight and takes no storage space.

Now we have a spinning function on washing machines we no longer need a wringer or mangle, and I don’t suppose we ever worry about buttons and trimmings… and who would wash a beret and put it on a basin of appropriate size? I shall remember it though, just in case I ever have a beret which needs washing. I actually was given a drying cabinet by my aunty when I lived in a flat… and it was a boon! … as for corsets and girdles… well! … and apparently ironing boards you can sit at were the latest thing! I can’t quite imagine doing it sitting down, I must say! You might wonder why you might need to wipe clean your washing line… well, when this was written towns and cities had dreadful air quality from all the coal fires, domestic and industrial… I remember my mum wiping the clothes line before she put her washing out!


Ironing is one of those chores which I don’t really mind once I get started, but it’s the thought of it which puts me off… and puts me off… and puts me off until there is a mountain not a pile of it to do. I have a cousin who is an ironing fiend, and her board comes out of the cupboard almost every day and she whistles through the basket of clothes. One thing I notice, is that her way of ironing is different from mine, and maybe we both inherited our ‘styles’ from our mothers.

My mum had a wooden ironing board, as most people did then, and a heavy electric iron which I think must have been quite modern for the time because you could adjust the temperature. She would let me iron the tea towels and handkerchiefs and I always folded them into ridiculous shapes – I think of that now as I iron my son’s hankies! I know some people think it is a waste of time ironing tea towels but my mum always thought they dried dishes better when they had been ironed.

We all hate nylon sheets and shirts, but they were such a boon before the days of tumble dryers – not only did they dry very quickly but they didn’t need ironing. Ironing cotton sheets was a real chore in those days – but think how much worse it was for grandmothers who had to heat their flat irons by the fire or on the stove.

I too have a wooden ironing board and it is an extra long and wide one as my husband is very tall so all his clothes are very big. I iron in the front room, so I can look down the road and see what’s going on and I also have the TV on, watching some easy-viewing programme. I always associate ironing with ‘The Killing’; I had a basket full to do, and was standing, iron in hand, flicking through the channels when I came to the start of the first episode of ‘The Killing’… two hours later I was still standing there, iron in hand, and not a single item ironed!

The word ‘irony’ has been used in its modern sense for over five hundred years from the Latin word ‘ironia’, which in turn came from the Greek ‘eironeia’, meaning ‘dissimulation or assumed ignorance’;it’s possibly related to the verb ‘eirein’ –  ‘to speak’. There was at one time the word ‘irony’ used to describe something made of iron! Iron in the metallic sense is an Old English word meaning metal or a sword made from metal; there are roots going right back to very early languages with the sense of being powerful or strong and even sacred… Sacred ironing… hmmm… off to the laundry basket!


I’m feeling very virtuous because I have finished all the ironing – there is not a single piece of laundry left un-ironed! We have had a lovely couple of days which meant mountains of washing to take advantage of the sunshine, and as a result, of course, mountains of ironing.

I mentioned in a post a little while ago that whenever I peg out my washing I think of other people, mostly my mum who would run down the garden with a basket of laundry and put it on the line so quickly, peg, peg, peg and then up with the prop (it was a length of wood with an extendable extra bit used to raise the clothes line so the washing didn’t dangle on the ground; the prop would have holes and a wooden peg to poke through to keep the extension in place) I also think of my cousin Carolyn who is the laundry expert and my friend Celia who always lends a hand if I’m putting things out – both of them have a completely different way from me of pegging clothes on the line.

Ironing must have been so hard in the old days when I was a child; at least my mum had an electric iron, her mother would have had to heat solid irons on a range or fire to iron her laundry. My mum had an iron but when she was first married, most clothes and bedding were made from natural fibres, natural fibres which took longer to dry and were more tricky to iron. We might hate nylon sheets now, but what a boon they must have been before there were no tumbled driers for drying on wet days, only a clothes horse or maiden to drape things over, and no electric and steam irons to get rid of creases.

I’m sure everyone has their own way of ironing, and I know according to some people I iron shirts wrongly because i iron the body of them first, then the shoulders and collar and lastly the sleeves and cuffs… The family who have to wear the shirts never complain though!