Mar 19, 2008

Laundry

The last municipality in Norway to get electricity was Røldal, on March 22, 1958. Our local radio station interviewed a number of elderly Røldal residents about what it was like to get "current" ("strøm"), which is the colloquial Norwegian for electricity.

One woman described trying to get used to cooking with an electric stove. Baking bread certainly became easier with the stable heat of an electric oven. Fresh food became a first for them. They could get refrigerators and a long era of salting, drying, pickling or canning everything came to an end.

Another woman's story of not trusting herself around with an electric washing machine reminded me of my grandma who preferred all of her contraptions to have just an on/off button. No such luck when it comes to washing machines. But Grandma figured out how to do laundry, and when the ladies of Røldal were asked if they'd ever go back to heating water, boiling clothes, rinsing, scrubbing and spending all day bent over steamy tubs, they all answered an emphatic, "NO!"

Ah, yes, the washing machine. Washing clothes and linens was back-breaking work, and so in many ways, the most significant household item of the 20th century is not the TV or the refrigerator or the computer, but the washing machine.

I have never owned my own. That is to say, my folks owned one, but if it broke, that was their problem to take care of. (Amazingly, the contraption I grew up with in Norway didn't break down until after 30 years of use!) The apartment building my mother and I lived in in Glendale, California, had it's own coin-operated laundromat with one washer and one dryer for the six units. If we had major stuff to do, or someone else was using the machines, we'd go to the regular laundromat a couple of blocks away.

My current home has a laundromat, too, with one washer and one dryer for a building with 21 units. Two chalk boards with the days of the week on them hang on the wall and you write your apartment number on the two-hour slot you want that's next available. You can't sign up for more than one slot at a time. More and more of my neighbors have their own washing machine so I've rarely had a problem getting my laundry done in a timely manner. I do on average one load every 10 days. It takes a while for a single girl to save up enough laundry to fill a load of lights, and to fill a load of darks. One reason for me is that I try to wear tops at least three times before they go into the laundry, and jeans for more than a week. I tend to wash everything at 40C/105F (our machine doesn't do cold washes). I do use the dryer because I don't have anywhere to hang two loads of laundry to dry, and because the dryer heat will kill germs.

I was reading a post on clothing on Treehugger, which had linked to a New York Times article on the lack of environmental consideration in the textile and fashion industries. One thing is the new trend of "fast fashion": Cheaply made, cheaply sold, expected to fall apart quickly. That way you can justify constantly buying news clothes and keep up with fashion. (Ugh.) People who are more "green" will buy cotton garments thinking that is the most environmentally sound thing they can do; I do that, too. But modern cotton production requires a lot of pesticides, and then there's all those steps from the cotton farm via bleaching to the third world workers who make the cloth and sew it together to the container ship that takes it halfway around the globe and then the trucks that move the garments to the stores. Oh, did I mention the dioxin?

And then there's the laundry. Says the New York Times: "Sixty percent of the carbon emissions generated by a simple cotton T-shirt comes from the 25 washes and machine dryings it will require, the Cambridge study found."

Wait... 25? Only? Sheesh. I'm sure I've had clothes that were laundered far more than 25 times before I tossed them or gave them away to the Salvation Army. The NYT article states that a "polyester blouse, by contrast, takes more energy to make, since synthetic fabric comes from materials like wood and oil. But upkeep is far more fuel-efficient, since polyester cleans more easily and dries faster. Over a lifetime, a polyester blouse uses less energy than a cotton T-shirt. One way to change the balance would be to develop technology to treat cotton so that it did not absorb odors so readily."

Yeah, that would help. Or make polyester breathable and not absorb odors (who can wear that stuff?). Or - hemp. Can't we grow hemp? Who cares about the US paranoia that maybe somebody will smoke it? Why should some third-world-country wannabe (yes, my beloved native country, I mean you) dictate what the rest of the world should do - on any environmental or agricultural issue? Hemp is a wonderful plant with a multitude of uses and not as picky (no pun intended) as cotton.

Or just make me give up washing machines. Yeah, right. Let me echo the ladies of Røldal: NO!

7 comments:

Sparkling Red said...

I can't imagine life before washing machines. I have a stacked washer and dryer in my condo, so the biggest "challenge" with doing laundry is that it's hard to hear the TV over the motors.

Synthetic weaves have advanced, so some of them are either breathable or they wick sweat to the surface, but I still have a strong preference for cotton. It just feels better.

alice said...

It becomes even more staggeringly annoying when you find out that industrial hemp (the raw material, for clothing, building, etc) is not smokable -- it would only give the poor idiot who tried a raging headache. So, the authorities aren't even afraid someone would smoke it and get high. What they're afraid of is flying around in their war-on-drugs helicopters and being unable to easily tell if a field is legal hemp, or illegal pot.

Of course, we could solve that problem by legalizing (and controlling and taxing the hell out of) the pot while growing the hemp (which would, btw revitalize the Southern agricultural economy, which is suffering from tobacco blues).

I swear! Life would be so much less annoying if I were in charge of the world!

Keera Ann Fox said...

I'm with you, Spark. Cotton feels better. I'm hoping for greener alternatives quickly, but I do try to get more than 25 washes out of what I have.

Alice, the DEA could just ask the Californians. ;-) Since I'm not impressed with the other candidates (actually, their parties), I'd be happy to write you in on my ballot. Do you have a running mate? Too bad Spike's too young to be in the White House.

Michele said...

Fun post, Keera! I'm reading it while waiting for my laundry to get done. :-) I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm sort of weird about washing clothes---I do laundry two or three times a week, and we're only two people. I guess I'm one of those obsessive, overly clean Americans. It's a burden.. But I DO keep my clothes for a long, long time. Years, I tell ya! So that's a lot of washes...

I really appreciate how much I learn about Norway by reading your blog. Thank you for all of the great info!

Keera Ann Fox said...

Well, if you want to save on your electric bill, cutting down on the laundry will help. :-)

'Course, what gets me is the Norwegian desperation if they can't shower every day. Cracks me up because I grew up here, back when Saturday really still was bath day (which is the meaning of the Norwegian word for Saturday - Lørdag).

Michele said...

Yikes, yeah, I am guilty of using too much strøm with the washer. But I don't have a dryer---I dry everything on a rack in the bathroom---so that helps. I get ridiculously happy in the spring when I can finally start hanging my laundry outside to dry. :-)

Keera Ann Fox said...

Well, then it all evens out, doesn't it. And you get less rain than I do in the summer, so your laundry will actually dry. :-)