Dirty Work

no more of this…

I am proud to announce that I have achieved another personal best: wearing the same shirt daily for nine days without washing, largely unstained and all but odourless. Previously I’d regularly managed four and half weekdays only changing into something fresh and uncreased towards the end of the fifth day for my traditional Friday night libation crawl. With the radio and press full of water shortage stories I decided to push the envelope and guided only by frequent sniffing and the occasional damp sponge wipe to remove spots of food (!) I saw out nine full days in the same indigo Ralph Lauren button down. Aired on a clothes hanger each night and smelling if not quite like a spring day and more like a warm damp autumn dusk it could have gone on longer were I not committed to attend a sad event and so changed it for a freshly laundered other (also dark blue) out of respect. 

Washing my clothes as seldom as possible is not a new phenomenon (aka hobby). I have suits bought in he the early 2000s that have never, not once, been dry cleaned and that look and smell as good today as the day they were bought. The same goes for several pairs of trousers that only require sponge wiping and pressing to sharpen up.

For a brief period – pre-decimalisation (look it up) – my classmates and I were entertained by a shaggy haired geography teacher who when asked why he always wore a dark blue shirt instead of a traditional white one replied “it needs less washing because it doesn’t show the dirt.” It’s funny how some things stay with you. 

What I hadn’t anticipated was a growing movement actively opposed to over washing. Among them designer Stella McCartney who vocally discourages people from washing their clothes unnecessarily: for the negative impact on the world and wasteful damage to the actual garments.  McCartney, who learnt her craft in Savile Row is “not a fan” of cleaning clothes. She says you should never clean a bespoke suit. Simply leave any mark (usually food) to dry before simply brushing if off. 

In an interview with The Guardian the designer, who admits to being incredibly hygienic, went on to say ”I don’t just chuck stuff in the washing machine because it’s been worn.” 

Like me she’s an advocate for placing niffy items in the freezer rather than washing them.  I started doing that some time ago to get on top of a moth situation that was eating away at my suits. But it works equally well for killing the bacteria that make clothes pong. If you put a worn jumper, shirt or denim back in the drawer it can resurface weeks later with a distinctly vomit odour. That’s when to shove it in the freezer. 

Obviously there are exceptions. Few would or should keep wearing the same undies (unless you’re French where it’s a cultural thing). Socks are best changed regularly too.

The facts speak for themselves. Even a new high tech washing machine uses upwards of 30 gallons of water in addition to around 500 watts of electricity. It’s reckoned 17% of domestic water usage is in washing machines. And as for tumble dryers they belch out nearly half a kilogram of CO2 per load. Trying thinking about the ice-cap next time you’re in a hurry to find something clean something to wear. 

Kim and I don’t have a lot of synthetic fabric fast fashion items. I buy natural fibres which may explain why I’m wearing cardigans, jumpers and shirts  bought in the 90s. They may cost more but they last longer. Washed cheap stuff sheds micro-plastics, infinitesimal specs of plastic that fish eat and which, don’t ask me how, end up in 83% of our drinking water as well as our food. I recall worries in the 80s that plastic drinks bottles leach chemicals that increase the risk of infertility. 

Of course washing and the impact it has especially on cheaply manufactured garments is a major reason why shoppers lap up more and more cheap stuff. Frequent washing fades colour and degrades fabric. So you’re not just cleaning your clothes by chucking them in the washer after you’ve worn them you’re destroying them too. 

According to Fashion Revolution that among many cultural, economic and environmental aims wants ‘an end to throwaway culture and shift to a system where materials are used for much longer and nothing goes to waste’  “nine out of ten pieces ends up in landfill because over washing has degraded the material and colour has faded.”

That was a lesson I learnt years ago with denim jeans. I’m one of those who prefers dark indigo to the washed out faded variety. When I read that jeans should be worn for a minimum of six months prior to any form of washing in order to build up natural oils in the denim I knew what I had to do.  This really only applies to classic heavy duty denim 12oz in weight or more and I found myself explaining this to the customer of a men’s store in Richmond-Upon-Thames earlier in the year. He was buying a pair of jeans and was concerned about colour loss. Being the good busybody I stepped in and explained the Edwins I had on that day have only been washed once since they were bought six years ago. He and his daughter looked aghast as the salesman nodded approvingly before admitting the Edwins did look rather good for unwashing. 

I read somewhere the CEO of Levis hasn’t washed his jeans in 10 years. Hans Ates head of Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, manufacturers of fine but pricey jeans says: “If you buy good quality denim jeans you could wear them for maybe ten, twenty years if you know how to look after them, wash and care for them, they could live with you forever.”

This could catch on. There are now clothing companies treating items made with recycled fabrics with a variety of natural oils to maintain freshness longer. How about that – a future in which fashion brands sell their garments as much on looks as the need not to wash them. 

US merino wool manufacturer Wool&Prince is one of this new breed. In addition to pointing out that most of us don’t wear 80% of the clothes we own (oops)…”washing and drying account for a surprisingly high percentage of a garments carbon footprint. And all this washing isn’t easy on clothing either. Cleaning often breaks down a garment just as much, if not more than actual use. We encourage you to wear more wash less…”Going on to point out that body sweat is actually ‘clean’. It only goes off when bacteria gets a hold. That’s when you stick whatever it is in the freezer. 

In closing I can announce another record smashed. The freshly laundered short I put on for that sad occasion is still on my back – 14 days later! No wonder the man at South West Water told me on the telephone that Kim and I use well below the national average for water consumption. Around 11 cubic metres a month instead of the more normal 15. 

All I need now is an excuse to put on another clean shirt.

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