For expert advice, I turned to Martha Stewart, finding her tips matched all the other experts I read - and were actually sometimes more streamlined!
1. Martha tells us to first check the colorfastness of every piece of new clothing. This is usually done by reading the label, but you can also test a small area of fabric (preferably inside the garment - for example, on the seam) by dampening the fabric. Now blot the same area with a white piece of fabric. If any of the garment color transferred to the white cloth, you know the garment isn't colorfast and must be washed by itself. (Often, after several washes, such garments will become colorfast, so retest once in a while.)
2. Next, it's time to sort the laundry. Separate anything that needs handwashing or dry cleaning. Amongst the clothing that can be washed in a machine at home, separate darks and lights: White clothing and clothing in light colors such as pastels go in one pile. Black clothing or any clothes of dark color go in another pile.
3. While you're separating, Martha says to make sure zippers are zipped, drawstrings are tied, cuffs are unrolled, and pockets are emptied. If you see clothes that need mending, fix them before washing them because washing can make the problem worse.
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4. Now Martha says to pretreat stains. Most should go into a large bowl, bucket, clean sink to be treated with commercially made or homemade stain treatments.
5. Open the washing machine and pour in the detergent, Martha says. She also says powdered detergents are best if you have hard water, or the clothes have mud or clay soil on them; liquids are best for greasy stains. "Use the recommended amount," she says.
6. Add the clothes, says Martha, making sure they aren't packed in and that they are evenly distributed. Clothes need to move, so don't fill the machine more than it's capacity - about 3/4 full, she says.
7. Use the shortest wash time - unless the clothes are very dirty. Select the temperature: "Use hot water (120 degrees) to keep whites white and to clean very dirty colorfast clothes - in separate loads, of course. Warm water (90 degrees to 110 degrees) is good for most average loads. Cold water (below 85 degrees) is best for bright colors that are likely to fade and for delicates. Detergents are less effective in water below 65 degrees. Shrinkage is caused by heat -- either from the dryer or hot water in the washer. To avoid it, wash items in warm or cold water, and hang to dry."
8. Select a cycle. According to Martha, "regular" is good for sturdy clothes; "permanent press" is a bit easier on clothes; "delicates" is the most gentle.
9. Once the wash cycle is over, hang clothes to dry or put them in the dryer and select the appropriate setting. The "permanent press" setting reduces wrinkles because it cools down near the end of the cycle. "Air fluff" uses no heat and is best for fluffing pillows or for freshening up clean clothes that have been stored for a while.
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Now, there is nothing wrong with Martha's methods. But are they realistic for a busy mom? Maybe, maybe not, depending upon your life and your personality. So here are a few tips for streamlining things:
* Always read care labels before buying. Don't buy dry clean only clothing, clothes that must be washed by hand, or clothes that aren't colorfast. This will save tons of time and money. If you do end up with something that isn't colorfast (say, black jeans) wash them once in hot water, adding 1 cup of white vinegar to the water. This should make the item colorfast.
* Consider whether the clothes really need washing. Americans waste copious amounts of water, detergent, energy, and time washing clothes that don't need it. Pants, for example, can often be worn several times before washing; towels usually can go a week or so; clothes that your kids dump on the floor but don't wear can get hung right back up. Use the smell test!
* Don't sort lights and darks. I never do. Do our socks look slightly dingy? Eventually, yes, but it really doesn't matter to us. Of course, if you have a special white shirt (Really? A mom with a white shirt??), you should probably wash it separately. Don't rely on bleach to lighten it because bleach is really hard on fabric.
* Treat stains immediately. If you're at home, remove the clothing and wash it right away. Often this prevents the need to use strain treaters. If you're not at home, remove the clothing as soon as you get home and use a stain stick or spray on it. For really stubborn stains, soak in a bowl of OxiClean overnight.
* If you're clothes are coming out with detergent still on them, you may be overcrowding the load. Or,
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* Don't run the washer unless you have a full load. For most families, this is no problem, because even if you want to wash a stained shirt right away, there is always laundry in somebody's hamper!
* Use cold water. It's much cheaper and does a fine job. An exception is if clothes are very dirty or need disinfecting. In such cases, use hot water.
* Use less detergent than the detergent-maker suggests. In many cases, laundry detergent isn't even needed! Use a very small amount unless you're washing very dirty clothes or clothes that need disinfecting.
* Hang as many clothes as possible, to save a lot of money.
* Always use the shortest drying cycle you can. If in doubt, go for a shorter amount of time - you can always add additional time later.
* Clean the lint screen in the dryer every time you use it. It saves energy and makes the dryer a safer appliance.
* If you use a dryer, you'll need some sort of fabric softener. The most wholesome and natural softener and anti-cling "product" is plain old white vinegar: 1/4 cup in the washing machine. Otherwise, I recommend Bounce Dryer Bars; they are much less troublesome than dryer sheets or fabric softener.
* To prevent wrinkles, remove clothes from the dryer as soon as it's done. I know it's not always possible, but make it a goal.
* Give line dried clothes a couple of good shakes before hanging and take the time to straighten cuffs, collars, etc.
* Fold or hang clothes right away to prevent wrinkles and the temptation to re-wash. Sometimes this seems like a monumental task, but it usually goes much faster than you think.
* Have your kids help! This is a life skill they need to know, and most kids enjoy helping if you start them early. Toddlers can do things like pull all the socks out of the laundry pile. As they get older, teach them to roll socks into a bundle, sort clothes by family member (they can at least pull out their own clothes), fold simple things like wash cloths, and put their clothes away. My 7 year old daughter can do all her laundry on her own except for the folding (which we are working on); best of all, she enjoys doing it!
And what about detergent? Well, you already know you need a lot less than you're probably using. And I know some people swear by their homemade laundry detergent. I, personally, have found it doesn't dissolve well in cold water and isn't money-saving in my region. (Read more here.) In most cases, powdered detergent is less expensive than liquid. I've tried all the cheap brands and found they all work about the same - so pick and choose your ingredients as you see fit.
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