Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Laundry Day

From Spain to July we spent a few days with friends in a small medieval village called Alet les Bains in the Langue D'Oc region of France for Mr V's fortieth birthday celebrations. It's a tiny village situated on the River Aude which is charged with icy cold melt water from the surrounding Pyrenees. The water was so cold in fact that I didn't dare wade in it!  Though my English friend was clearly made of sturdier stuff...

As is so often the case in ancient times people settled by a river to use it both as a source of water and a sink into which they could dump their waste. Here the lack of population throughout the ages means the river is still clean enough to swim in without the health concerns that plague water bodies in more urban environments. These days it's easy to take clean water for granted and forget that often the source is still rivers like these and their fragile environments.

Have you ever done your laundry in a river?  This is where people would have washed their clothing in the days before washing machines.  I try to imagine the first women who settled here in the medieval ages coming down to the river side, perhaps using these large flat stones exposed near the banks to scrub their dirty clothing and linen clean. It has a certain romance to it but I'm sure it was pretty hard graft! That surely would have been motivation enough to keep your wardrobe down to a bare minimum.  If I try to imagine getting through the laundry loads I typically generate by the river water and river stone method, I expect I would be here for all eternity!

As time went by the villagers here were able to upgrade their laundry facilities.  Alet les Bains is named as such because it enjoys an alternative source of water to the Aude - natural springs provide a constant supply of spring water which the villagers use as drinking water, to fill the village pool and even to wash their clothes in.

This building below was the village laundry house where villagers would come to do their laundry in a reservoir of cool mountain spring water.  Can you imagine having your clothes washed in spring water?

And here you see they built two rows of stone plinths with flat surfaces to provide an alternative scrubbing surface to riverside stones and to accommodate numerous people.  Mr V believes it to have been built in the nineteenth century.  Compared to the laundry facilities available to us today it seems quaint and primitive, but it must have once seemed like a big step up from having to go down to the river side and find a suitable rock.  You can also imagine the echos bouncing off the walls of village chatter, gossip and laughter of women doing their laundry together (and lets not kid ourselves, it would have been the women).

The laundry house is no longer in use of course. In these days of electric washing machines it is nothing but a curiosity for the tourists, doubling perhaps as a paddling pool for those seeking relief from the mid-day heat and also as a drinking pool for some dazzling black and yellow dragonflies.

Performing a mental comparison of what my laundry day might have been like in days gone by with today by really hit home when I considered the volume of clothing we can now process in far less time.  In a perverse way the trajectory of technological development has enabled us to consume, accumulate and wear clothing in a way that would have been inconceivable to our predecessors, as the time we have to invest washing and drying it on laundry days is a fraction of what they would have spent. 

Although the cost in time to us may be low the cost to the environment is undoubtedly hefty.  I try to do my bit, I use eco-friendly washing products, I always wash on a full load and use cold to warm water rather than hot, I hang dry rather than tumble dry and I limit my dry cleaning to when absolutely necessary.  But after mentally extrapolating what laundering my entire wardrobe would involve and digesting the resulting guilt, I think that I just really need to bite the bullet and cut back on consumption.  Something is wrong if I own more clothes than I can reasonably launder in a reasonable amount of time.

I do love clothes, but though I don't usually discuss it, I do also think about what effects my consumption, use and disposal of them might have on the world at large, and lately I've been giving it more thought.  I'm not sure yet what the end result of the thought process will be but I may well be assigning myself a few wardrobe challenges in the near future.  Suggestions welcome!


  1. I cannot imagine handwashing on top of hanging clothes on the line! I know it's not the best for the environment, but I love my dryer. I don't put everything in it...for example, I air dry most of my pants and my bathroom rugs.

    After experiencing winter in Australia trying to dry clothing without a dryer or during a week of rain, I had enough of that!

  2. Wonderful thoughtful post, V. Imagine the labor involved in washing a family's clothing via this method. I too try to launder thoughtfully, using cold water, minimum soap and about 50% air dry. I'm also trying to wear my clothing more times between laundering, and air it out.

    I look forward to reading about your challenges!

  3. There's nothing more relaxing than chilling out in the Keralan backwaters whilst the locals come down to the river, soap up their clothing and bash it on the rocks, I can sit there for hours watching!
    The stream looks so tranquil and lovely! x

  4. What a gorgeous place to visit. It is certainly worth thinking about our consumption rates and how this translates to the use of electricity and chemical products. I for one never tumble dry, but there's a lot more I could do.

  5. I remember my Grandmother doing laundry using a wringer washer. That thing was scary! She hung her laundry outside and I remember it drying stiff as a board in the winter. I cannot imagine hanging wet laundry in the winter with temperatures below freezing. I do air dry quite a few things and do mostly wash full loads unless doing delicates. You are right that we have a lot more clothing than people did in the past. I think we do not cherish what we have because we have so much. It is hard to break long ingrained habits though.
    Great post and thank for sharing the photos of the laundry house. I've never seen anything like it.

  6. This is so interesting -- the old version of a laundromat! -- J xxx

  7. It's so good to gain a perspective on what "reality" is. The photos are wonderful and I can imagine doing the wash, as you describe. As a clothes aficionado, I'm also trying very hard to re-think my consumption, figuring out what gives me pleasure and enriches my aesthetic life.

    I've shifted to thrifting over the last few years as a creative, sustainable challenge. Because I'm able to sew and refashion, I'm on the brink of committing to not even thrifting clothes, but creating new things from what I already own. Scary. I have changed my laundry habits as well, using sulfate-free soaps and cold water, air drying as much as possible.

    There are times when I feel discouraged and cynical, thinking these measures are fingers in the dyke, but at least I'm thinking about it. I sense that there's more elegance and beauty in a more conscious way of being and dressing.

    1. That's a good description Jean - the finger in the dyke - I feel like that too quite often. But I it is better than doing nothing at all and if many of us consciously do it, it will add up to a difference.

  8. I've wanted to go to the Langue D'Oc region -- I've read so much about it!

    1. I can't recommend it enough! It's a very special place.


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