Laundry is more than washing and drying
Monday, July 01, 2013 4:04 AM
Quite a few people echoed my recently-divulged desire to have an old-fashioned clothesline. For some reason, those conversations then naturally led to remembrances of that usually dreaded task, ironing.
When my siblings and I were younger, my mother had "help" and so laundry day was always Monday. That seemed to be true for almost everyone else too: if we drove around our small hometown on a Monday, the clotheslines were full. I vaguely recall that in the winter, the clothes that froze on the lines might be re-hung on the clotheslines in the basement to finish the drying process. They still had to be hung outside first so that they would absorb that wonderful smell of the great outdoors.
Then came the dreaded ironing. After all, laundry is more than washing and drying. It also includes ironing. The goal was that it would all be finished in one day. I think that was a carryover from the rules that were symbolized in the embroidery on dishtowels, which are now considered antiques. Each day featured a different task, and Monday's was laundry. When my sister and I were old enough to help, Saturday became laundry day so that we could do it. (Not surprisingly, my brother did not have to do laundry, though he did have to help clean the house.)
There were two other steps in the total laundry process that, like ironing today, are largely forgotten. First is that, after washing, the shirts, dresses, blouses and skirts had to be starched. It was cooked starch, made with boiling water. The items were dipped into a bucket of it, wrung out by hand, and only then hung up to dry. Depending on how heavy or light the starch was made, those clothes could be stiff as a board when dry!
Ironing is different than pressing. So every item to be ironed had to first be sprinkled. Before we had "modern" gadgets to help with that job, sprinkling meant dipping a hand into a bowl or pan of water and dripping it onto the item to be ironed. It was then rolled up very tightly and stored in a plastic bag so that the moisture would spread evenly throughout the garment. By the time I was old enough to help, we had a small stopper with holes in the top; it was pressed into an empty soda bottle, and we just shook it over the piece. They still had to be tightly rolled and stored before ironing.
Heavy items, such as jeans, did not get sprinkled and rolled up. Instead, we'd use a damp cloth so that the fly would lie flat and proper creases could be ironed into the legs.
Those of us who grew up having to iron easily recall how we learned. Others have told me that they were "started" in the same way that I was: first were my father's flat handkerchiefs, and if I did a good job of those, then I graduated to pillowcases, dish towels and other easy objects.
When I had conquered the flat stuff, even linen tablecloths, and could properly iron pants or slacks, I learned the ultimate in ironing skills. That was when I could (or had to!) do shirts. It was important to follow the precise order for a well-ironed shirt. First, the collar was done on both sides. Then the sleeves, and then the yoke (the upper portion of the back) because it had to be done while the shirt was folded in a certain way.
Next the lower part of the back was ironed, and finally one side of the front and then the other. On those sides, however, the placket holding the buttonholes was completed first to get a nice flat look to it. On the other side it was important to iron all around the buttons too. Two things might have been the ultimate in ironing skills: learning how to iron ruffles, and never scorching anything.
Over the years I learned shortcuts. I still prefer all-cotton shirts to the "no-iron" fabrics, and so when I was wearing suits and shirts to work, I owned about 25 shirts. That way, I only had to do the dreaded ironing once a month. And even then, because I never took off my jacket at work, I only ironed the collars and fronts! That sure made the job go faster, even though it would have made my mother and grandmothers cringe or maybe even disown me.
We do adapt to modern technology, though maybe gradually. My mother did, for instance when "automatic" washers were introduced, use that new one for the first load - the whites - and then ran that into her old wringer washer for the rest. (She eventually did give up the old wringer machine.) She got a "mangle" to iron the big flat stuff.
Because I still like the stacked neatness of nicely-ironed pillowcases and t-shirts, and creases in pants and jeans, I still iron. For years I could not find an iron that was hot enough to do cotton and finally resorted to one I found in an antique shop. However, about five years ago I tried a new steam iron, and I no longer have to sprinkle the clothes. I do keep a can of spray starch nearby, though I will admit to not using it very often anymore. And Kleenex has replaced the need to iron stacks of handkerchiefs.
Old habits die hard. In my retirement, I again do the laundry on Mondays, all of it.