Monday, May 28, 2012

Front Porch Dishtowels

Front Porch Dishtowels

Okay I know this is sort of a weird post to start back up with (and note that I did NOT put up a sorry I haven’t posted post, I was busy, it was not exciting, that’s all I have to say) but I was talking with my mom about my discovery of a method for cleaning dishtowels and she asked for the detailed how-to and I said I’d put it up along with the before and after pictures so she could see for herself.

Here’s the background.

After I bought my house in 1999, I bought the book Better Basics for the Home and started making my own cleaning products. I started teaching a class on it at The Scrap Exchange in 2004 and have taught the class on and off since then. One of the things that I always get asked about is laundry detergent, what do I use and do I know anything about making homemade laundry detergent.

Unfortunately, I do not have a good answer to that question.

Getting laundry detergent is a problem for me because (a) it’s really heavy and (b) it’s expensive. I walk to the grocery store, so I basically have to make a special trip just for laundry detergent — after saving up my pennies for three months so I can afford it. Also I cannot stand the smell of most commercial laundry detergents, and I’m always afraid I’ll mistakenly buy something that has some horrible fragrance and I’ll have to give it away just to get it out of the house.

I use Sal Suds as a general cleaner so I always have that around and it says on the label that you can use it for laundry, so a few years ago I started using that. The label says a quarter cup per load but that doesn’t seem particularly cost-effective to me, since it’s $13+ for 32 ounces, so that would be over eighty cents a load. Also it’s super concentrated so that seems like it would be too much.

I have a front-loading machine and I know you’re supposed to use less detergent in those, and also I know that with most things, you can use less than the instructions say, so I started keeping a diluted bottle of Sal Suds (detergent mixed with water, maybe 1:4 ratio) and pouring a little bit in when I run a load of laundry. Seems to work fine, though I’m not all that picky about how my clothes look so I may not be the best person to speak to this question.

And while I may not be all that picky about how clean my clothes are, there are a few things I was having problems with, namely pillowcases, which had begun to yellow, and dishtowels, which seemed to come out of the washer looking as gray and dingy as they looked when they went in.

So in preparation for class, I decided to do some research on homemade laundry detergents and also try a few experiments to see if I could do anything to get my dishtowels clean without shelling out the big bucks for a possibly horrible smelling commercial laundry detergent.

In terms of the homemade detergents, there are many versions of recipes online but all of the ones I looked at were basically some form of soap or detergent plus washing soda and borax. I think these would probably work fine, though my concern with using soap is that if you have hard water, soap will react with the minerals in the water to form soap scum, and your laundry might start to turn a yellowish-gray after you use it for a while. If you have soft water, or if you have s water softener in your home, this will be less of a problem due to the lower mineral content. If you use detergent instead of soap, this will not be an issue since detergent is designed to not react with minerals in water.

So feel free to try any of the online recipes and let me know how it goes, if you’re so inclined.

I’m pretty happy with the Sal Suds, and I can always add washing soda and/or borax to a load if I think it needs it (and I often add baking soda to smelly loads, bike clothes and things like that — that works great), so I haven’t bothered with mixing up a batch of homemade detergent.

However I did want to try to tackle the dishtowel problem, and here is the solution I came up with.

I put the towels in a big stock pot and filled with warm-ish/hot-ish tap water. I put in a medium squirt of Sal Suds (maybe a teaspoon or two), along with about 2 to 3 tablespoons of washing soda and 1 to 2 tablespoons of borax. (I didn’t measure anything, just poured it all into the pot.) I also added about a tablespoon of powdered non-chlorine bleach. (I used Ecover because that’s what I had here.)

I stirred everything up and put the pot on the stove, turned the heat on high, and brought to a boil. When it started boiling, I turned the heat to low and kept the pot simmering for half an hour or so, stirring occasionally. (It’s basically like making soup. But with dishtowels.)

I then turned off the heat and left the pot on the stove for a few hours. (I have an electric stove, so it stays hot for a while; if you have a gas stove, you might want to simmer longer.)

As the pot simmers, the water starts to turn this really disgusting color of yellowish-brown as all of the grease and grime and dirt in the towels is pulled out into the wash water. It’s totally vile, and disturbing to think that this is what you’ve been using to wipe things off with. So try not to think about that too much, it doesn’t really help anything.

After a few hours, I dumped out the water (it stays hot for a long time, so be careful when you dump out and take out the towels, to make sure they’re cool enough to handle) and, without rinsing, put the towels in the washer along with other things that I would normally wash with towel. Then I ran a normal wash cycle, without adding any detergent or anything else to the load. (This utilizes the leftover cleaning solution in the towels for a full load of laundry, and gives you a clean rinse of the dishtowels.)

When they were done, they look like new. Totally amazing.

Dishtowels-Before and after

Before and After

The picture above shows a comparison of a towel that was washed this way (on the right) with one that wasn’t (on the left). No more dingy gray, just fresh and clean blue and white stripes.

And you will totally be able to tell that it’s working by the color of the water in the pot. Below is a picture of water samples. In order to make sure that simply boiling the towels wouldn’t do the same thing without  cleaners, I filled the pot with water and boiled without adding any detergent or washing soda or borax. The water sample on the right shows that the water stays basically clear and the towels stay dingy. On the left is the water that results from boiling with detergent/washing soda/borax/powdered non-chlorine bleach.

Water samples dishtowel cleaning

Wash Water Samples

And I’m glad to have finally taken this picture and put this post up so I can get rid of the water samples and wash the rest of my towels this way so everything is clean.

And I’m glad to be back, and will try to not disappear again. Hope all was well with everyone these past few months. More soon.

7 Responses to “Cleaner”

  1. Excellent scientific spirit! How is the job also?

  2. lessisenough Says:

    Well you know if you could get them clean just by boiling that would be even better.

    If I had really been feeling scientific about it, I would have done separate tests with various combinations (detergent alone, washing soda and/or borax alone, with and without bleach, etc.) But I wasn’t that committed to boiling dishtowels on the stove so I just figured out one that worked and left it at that.

  3. Sara Says:

    White vinegar mixed with hot water, let items sit in that for a few hours, then wash as usual. It gets whites very white, and they don’t smell like vinegar once they dry. I also mix white vinegar, water, and an expensive laundry soap in a spray bottle and use that as a stain remover. I have two sons so I’ve used everything. This mixture usually gets everything out. Sometimes we have to run it through twice, but it works.

  4. Sara Says:

    Oh, when you put items in a hot tub of vinegar mixed with hot water, you don’t need to boil it. You’ll see the gross stuff in the water almost immediately, too.

  5. lessisenough Says:

    Hmmm… fascinating. Hot water with hot vinegar. I’ll have to try that.

    The other laundry secret I have, which I generally don’t promote because it involves horrible smelling solvents, is Lestoil, which works like a charm to get grease stains out of clothes, even set-in stains on clothes you’ve washed. Makes the house smell like a gas station though, and it takes a few washings to get the smell out so not my first choice.

  6. Sara Says:

    The water/vinegar/laundry soap mixture will get grease stains out, even if they’ve been washed and dried. As I said, sometimes it takes a couple tries, but I have tried everything that’s pretty much out there, and I like this because I can’t stand chemical smells, and the boys are so hard on their clothes that I need something. This works better than anything I’ve tried.
    The vinegar doesn’t need to be hot. Just dump it into a tub of hot water.

  7. My mom used to boil the tea towels once a year. I have no idea what she put in the pot with the water however. She passed away when I was 21, so I can’t ask her, but I know she had a lot of white vinegar around the house, so that’s probably it.

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