The best moneyless option for washing your clothes isn’t a lot different to washing your body – down by the bank of the river. Similarly, if you want to use soaps of some sort, take utmost care not to pollute the river for those downstream. Considering that this option is just as impractical as sea bathing for most of us at the moment, there is a need for other options on the moneyless menu.
Hand washing in a sink or bathtub is still a realistic option, and it’s a rather good way of getting some exercise in first thing in the morning. If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, the washing machine is always an option. What type of washing machine you use will be the big question. Conventional machines eat electrical energy (not to mention water) for breakfast and so are a big draw on your photovoltaic or wind-powered system if you have one, especially in the winter, which unfortunately is the time when you’ll need your clothes washed most.
In terms of purely off-grid clothes washing, the best (and most fun) that I have seen is the wooden hand-crank washing ‘machine’. If you combine this with a bicycle powered spinner, to get your clothes fairly dry, then you’ve got yourself a really useful moneyless contraption, and a gym bicycle to boot for all those winter days you don’t want to go out in the rain. If you want to seduce your partner into a romantic night in, tell him or her that they could first shed a little of their extra flab you’ve noticed by washing and spinning your clothes for you first. Smooth.
In terms of saving time, movement and labour, you could combine this washing machine with a mangle. Depending on how good this mangle is, you would use it either before or after the spinner – if it is very good, then use it after, and vice versa.
Getting your clothes dry without the spin cycle of an electric machine is the tricky part. Hand-wringing your clothes just doesn’t do quite the same job, and is fairly tiring if you have a big load or are washing your bedsheets. It’s good enough in the summer when there is plenty of sun, but I’ve found that in the winter hand-wringing means that clothes can take a whole week to dry out.
Enter the mangle. I found one on Freecycle, and they appear quite commonly there as few people use them any more; most people use electric washing machines and dryers. A mangle is a fantastic device where you feed your clothes in one end through two or more tight rollers, fed through using a rotating handle. This process squeezes out every millilitre of excess water, and while it obviously doesn’t completely dry them it does drastically reduce their drying time. Once it comes out of the mangle, stick it on a long stretch of cord which can be suspended between two trees, ideally somewhere south-west facing so that it gets the sun for the best part of the day.
Alternatively, take the double-hard bastard option, which I once proposed to a woman who subsequently thought I was bonkers: put the clothes on wet, get to work, and let them dry out on your body.
Some of you may have seen a product called soapnuts in your local or health food shop. I have used them for years. They have been utilised for washing clothes in India and Nepal for centuries, so there is nothing alternative or kooky about using them. There is absolutely no need to buy them, however, as you can grow them, but they are difficult to get started and like any tree will take time before your labour bears fruit.
If you aren’t using boiling water in your wash, I would recommend boiling up the soapnuts (Sapindus mukorossi, Sapindus detergens or Sapindus drummondii(193)) first on your rocket stove in order to leach out as much of the saponins as you can, creating a soapnut liquid. You can still then put the nuts in the wash along with it, but doing this just means you maximise their cleaning potential. The quantity to use depends on how concentrated you make it – the best way to find out is by trial and error, but don’t fret, you won’t go too far wrong.
Best of all, you can take the used shells, blend them in your bicycle powered smoothie maker and turn them into an exfoliating scrub – add some herbs, coarse oatmeal and water to make into a paste if you want to be extra good to yourself!
Failing being able to grow soapnuts, there is always a soapwort recipe that will be more than adequate for getting your clothes clean, and it won’t smell anywhere near as toxic as the conventional supermarket brands that claim to have extracts of patchouli and fairy poo in them.