Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Survival Value of Washing Clothes by hand

Caption: shirt drying in a window in second story apartment in Merida, Mexico.

[Excerpted from Christopher’s book, “Squatter in Los Angeles: Life on the Edge,” available from Kindle, or as a pdf from the Store at]

Washing machines are another of those devices that modern man seems to believe that life could not go on without.  Yet for the vast stretch of human life, there were no washing machines. People just washed with hot water and soap and worked the garments by hand.  Sometimes smooth rocks were used, sometimes not. In fact, sometimes it was just cold running water in the stream and no soap at all. 

When I lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico, I had to walk through a canyon on the west edge of town to get to the school I attended. The poor people lived in little square adobe houses in this section, where the window and doors were merely openings in the structure.  A stream flowed through this canyon and everyday I’d see how all the people who lived there washed their clothes in the stream, usually with rocks. Then they  laid the clothes out on the stones to dry in the sun.  So, clearly, a washing machine is not vital to life.  But it was obviously invented because people wanted and needed more time to do all the other things in life that they deemed far more important than washing clothes by hand, whatever those other things may be.

During the time that I was a squatter in an out-of-the-way place in the hills of Northeast Los Angeles, I learned to wash my clothes by hand, and even began to enjoy that process.  Soon, I never took trips on my motorcycle anymore with a full load of laundry to a laundromat.  I learned how to efficiently wash my clothes by hand, and hang them out on the “solar clothes drier” to get refreshed.   An electric drier seemed to be a luxury that was wholly unnecessary.  On rainy days, I hung my clothes indoors or in a covered area where they’d dry by the wind.

I found that I had a more intimate connection to my clothes after doing this awhile, and somehow this reminded me of some of Thoreau’s commentary, that we should learn to live better with less.  I learned what it takes to clean difficult stains, and the different textures of fabrics. I began to buy for sensibility, always buying for wearability and practicality, rarely because something was in style.  I would often think before I set out in the morning: what if some disaster befalls me today, and I am forced to wear these same clothes for days or longer?  Would my clothes be comfortable?  Could I move around easily in them?  Could I run? Will they be easy to clean?  These and more questions I asked myself, and gradually I eliminated all my clothing that no longer served me.

I frequently took a load of clothes that I no longer wanted to Goodwill and Salvation Army.  Once I began to think to myself, well, if they are no good for me, why should I foist these garments upon the lower income people who must get their clothes at Goodwill?  I realized that was stupid thinking, because there is no predicting the tastes that people have in clothing, whether they are rich or poor.  My part polyester shirts and pants would serve someone well, especially if the alternative was no clothes at all!

After I was no longer a squatter, I  continued to wash some of my clothes by hand. In fact, I have continued this practice life-long, and have rarely used the laundromats around town.  I consider hand-washing a very normal thing to do. Wash some of your own clothes, hang it up to dry, let the sun refresh it.  And it takes no more or extra water to wash those garments than it took for me to bathe. It’s a perfect formula, one small part of what it takes to live ecologically in the city, and to feel that you are not accruing more karmaic debt.

In 2010, I met Yee Fun from Singapore when we shared a room in Merida, Mexico during an educational tour of the Maya lands. Yee Fun was a man who traveled light, carrying only an average size carry-on  travel bag for his week of travel.  He traveled light because he expected to wash some of his clothes, somehow, somewhere.

He would wash in the sink or shower, and then find creative ways to dry his clothes in the window, or balcony when there was one.  We would trade ideas on how and where to dry clothes the most efficiently, and because of this interaction, I earned the title of  “Yee Fun’s Clothes Drying Instructor.” 

These days, I have several of the solar showers, which are heavy-duty plastic bags you fill with water and lay in the sun to get hot.  You then hang it from a tree, and open a spout to let the hot water out. These are awesome and every home should have at least one to enjoy solar-heated water, and just in case, for emergencies.

Practical survival skills are not just for the homeless, or squatters, or destitute low-income people, nor are they only for surviving “the end of the world.”  Survival skills are imminently practical, all the time, everywhere. 

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