When I was a little girl, my mother always washed the clothes using some brand of soap flakes. They always looked so pretty – little diamond-shaped wafers that were pure delight to run your fingers through, and drifted daintily on the breeze if a stray flake fell out and went flying. And it always seemed to get the wash perfectly clean, including my baby brother’s cloth nappies (mind you, my mother used one of those very potent whitening nappy rinses, and she also was able to use hot water, as we had a coal range that was rigged up to the hot water cylinder). Later on, when we moved over to South America, the laundry was still done with big bars of soap (and by hand – it was my job).
Soap is great for getting the wash done (as long as you use hot or warm water – plain soap doesn’t work as well in the cold), but unfortunately, I don’t seem to be able to find that old brand of soap flakes that my mother used to use… or if I do, it’s fiendishly expensive. However, there is a way to get soap flakes for washing clothes (drum roll, please)…. take a bar of ordinary Castile or glycerine soap and grate it. Store in an airtight container and keep dry. That’s it. Alternatively, you can save all those mingy little bits of soap that you get once the bar soap in the shower or by the basin get too small to be really useful for hand, face and body washing. Put these scraps into an ice cream container and pour boiling water over them.
They will then melt and form a gel that can be used as a liquid washing detergent that’s not only good for woollens and delicates as well as the regular warm wash, but can also be used for cleaning carpets, washing floors and even as shampoo.
Fabric softeners aren’t essential, and much of your washing can be done without it. However, it’s nice to make sure that certain items have a softener so they stay nice and fluffy – blankets, pyjamas and soft toys, for example. The natural alternative to a commercial fabric softener is to use vinegar – plain ordinary white vinegar. If you like the smell of fabric softener, then you can scent that vinegar fabric softener by adding some essential oil, lavender if you want to be traditional.
Does anyone still starch clothes to be ironed? With today’s polycotton blends (not exactly natural but cheap and easy to wash), this isn’t quite as necessary, but if you have something old-fashioned that needs it (or someone old-fashioned who wants it), the simplest way is to do it the way great-grandmother did and get a little bowl of cornstarch mixed with water.
Dip the items to be starched into the mixture before ironing. This only really works with whites and you have to be very careful not to iron them for too long or the cornstarch turns brown very easily. It does, however, wash out without too much hassle.
While you’re ironing, while ordinary plain water will do to fill up the steam chamber, you can make ironing a little bit nicer, as well as putting a subtle scent into the clothes, by adding a drop or two of essential oil into the water. If you don’t have a steam compartment in the iron, you can get the benefits of steam for your laundry by spraying the thing to be ironed with water, using one of those plant misters. You can add essential oil to this water, as well. Ironing, incidentally, is a natural way of sterilizing cloth, if this is needed or if you’re really concerned about germs.
If you need to get vile smells out of clothing, baking soda is the best natural way, as this absorbs odours (it will do the same in your fridge and in your sports shoes, although using baking soda as a natural alternative to cat litter is a bit too extravagant for most of us – use wood ash instead for this). Put about half a cup to a cup of baking soda in the washing machine during the rinse cycle.