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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Laundry gloop isn't very good

I tried making laundry gloop a while back. At the time, it seemed fine, but as I've used it more I've been less impressed by it. It's OK for things that aren't very dirty - clothes that have been worn once, mainly - but things that need a bit more elbow grease - towels that perhaps should have been washed a bit sooner, maybe - it leaves them smelling, well, much like they did before they were washed. If they're then hung on the line in the fresh air, they get that lovely fresh smell from the breeze, which I believe is ozone, but if it's raining and I have to hang them indoors, that's not so nice.

I wondered if choosing a recipe with borax in would give better results, so set about finding some borax. This turns out to be more difficult than you might think, especially if you're reading American websites. It turns out that the EU have recently classified borax as a hazardous substance, which makes it somewhat less available than it used to be. In my investigations, I got the impression that this classification is not to protect the consumer, but to protect the miners who did the stuff up, and are inhaling the dust all day every day. This is health and safety doing what it should: Protecting the workers.

It's still possible to get hold of borax, but at a much higher price, presumably to cover the cost of the extra protection for the miners (she hopes, naively). There is also 'Borax substitute' available:

Borax substitute: Sodium sesquicarbonate

I say available; it's still not that easy to get hold of. I prefer to buy from actual shops rather than online, where possible, so I trawled around town, eventually finding it in the second of the two excellent hardware shops in Aberystwyth (in the first I tried, no-one had ever heard of borax).

So, I made up a new batch of laundry gloop, using larger quantities of soda crystals as well as the new borax substitute, together with a bar of grated soap. Result: No discernible difference from the first batch. You know how lists of tips for reducing your carbon footprint often include Turn down the temperature on your washing machine. Modern detergents can cope with cooler temperatures? Well, this isn't a modern detergent.

I looked up what borax substitute actually is as I wrote this blog post and found that sodium sesquicarbonate is probably just a mixture of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and sodium carbonate (washing soda), so it's hardly surprising that adding it doesn't improve the performance compared with plain washing soda.

I have another idea for laundry liquid that I'm going to try in the autumn, but in the meantime I've gone back to buying Persil. The clothes do smell nicer, but it's striking how artificial that freshness smells to me now.


  1. Oh what a shame - thanks for sharing though, very interesting. I want to move to homemade powder myself but this has made me think twice. Have you tried soap nuts?

  2. I can't bear the smell of commercial liquid now I haven't used it for so long. It really makes me feel quite ill.

    We do keep a bottle of bio liquid for special cases (usually involving cats...) but as DH was brought up to think if you can't smell washing powder from 15 paces it's not clean, pretty much every load he washed became a special case, so I've hidden it! I realise this makes us sound as though we have a peculiar relationship- we really do operate a partnership, honest!- but it was driving me mad, and I suspect it was exacerbating DD2's eczema so it called for drastic measures!

    Anyway, I was going to suggest soap nuts and then saw Louisa had asked about them.

    I've used them for 5 or 6 years now, and I reckon they're about as effective as a non-bio. Stains need a bit of extra treatment and I wash at 40 C. Barely dirty clothes might get washed at 30 C, but I try not to wash that stuff in the first place. (Clothes screwed up on bedroom floors that nobody can remember if they've worn or not- that kind of thing.)

    To combat the lack of fragrance/risk of things smelling the same I add a few drops of essential oil (usually lavender- cheap and has that fresh laundry smell) to the fabric conditioner section, or to the bag the soap nuts are in. (Incidentally the lovely cotton bags they send with them drive me potty; the string gets stuck open or shut on the drawstring once it's wet, so I acquired a couple of laundry tablet bags from a neighbour and they work well.)

    Soap nuts obviously have air miles associated with them, but I reckon not more than the shop detergent once you take into account the individual ingredients and the packaging. I buy them from a local Fair Trade stall and compost them when I've finished, which is very satisfying.
    Until I work out how to make laundry detergent from the saponin in conkers, I'll carry on with soap nuts.

  3. Hmmmm... well I don't have a lot of experience in this department, but here's what I've done. A few years ago I started doing most of my laundry by hand... long story, but my washer was having "issues" and since I don't dirty many clothes it was just easier.

    I had incredible success using a bar soap called "zote" (but I think any soap would do) and either washing soda or borax (didn't make much difference which one). The key for me was that I had to rinse the clothes with vinegar to get the soap to wash out completely, otherwise they looked dingy and still smelled like soap when they dried. I've been told that the rinsing problem has something to do with the fact that we have extremely hard water, but I don't know for sure.

    I have since given up the hand washing because the 1968 Kenmore washer finally died completely so I bit the bullet and bought a new fancy shmancy high efficiency washer last summer. The new washer came with all sorts of dire warnings that you could ruin it by using the wrong detergent, so I've been a bit too timid to try my homemade concoctions. Plus it's HUGE, so I do very few loads and haven't even gone through the tiny bottle of detergent that I bought when I got it.

    To tell the truth the hand washed stuff came out much cleaner than anything washed in either the new or old machine. I'm not sure if that's because of the extra attention given by hand washing or the soap vs. detergent issue.

    Don't know if that helps, but you might try adding a cup of vinegar in the rinse cycle and see if it makes any difference.

  4. Louisa, no I haven't tried soap nuts yet. I might, but...

    Hazel, I'm glad I'm not the only one to have thought about extracting saponins from conkers - that is the idea I plan to try in the autumn! I've also thought about growing soapwort, but it's not good for fish and we live on a rainy hillside above a stream, so that's not such a great plan. The conkers are going to take a bit of thought, though, as horse chestnut is also an ingredient in hair dye...
    Good point about the air miles of soap nuts vs. manufactured detergent.

    EcoCatLady, the smell I'm getting left with is not soap, but dirty clothes, so it's not an issue of the soap not rinsing out. Using vinegar to combat hard water makes sense, as hard water is alkaline, so the acid would neutralise it. We don't have particularly hard water here (though not as soft as I expected, being up in the mountains). Thanks for the suggestion, though.

    I'm wondering about hand washing. I've always been really bad at getting round to it, and hand-wash-only clothes, bought in fits of optimism, end up sitting around unworn for months because I don't get round to washing them. On the other hand, that was when I had a full time job, so maybe I could get into the habit of hand washing now.

  5. Rachel, we have an avenue of conkers in our village, and I feel I ought to do something with the bowls of conkers we accumulate in the autumn.
    I found something about Viking soap which started me thinking about local soap nuts.
    I had a half-hearted attempt a couple of years ago, but it's on this years to-do list.

    I've also ended up with a lot of what I'm pretty sure is soap wort growing in my garden, so I've no excuse really...

  6. For hand washing I bought one of these laundry plungers: http://www.breathingwasher.com/ It really does an amazing job of pulling the water through the clothes. I used a tall circular plastic trash can to wash in and it worked great.

    I still wash some things by hand especially stuff that's stained or has sweat marks on it. It just gets so much cleaner than tossing it in the machine. I think some of it may be that I was always too lazy to grate the soap, so I'd just rub the bar thoroughly onto the dirty spots, completely saturating the area with soap, which really helped to pull the grime out.

    The most difficult part of hand washing was actually not the washing it was the wringing. So if I was gonna do any meaningful amount of it again, I'd probably invest in some sort of a wringer.

  7. Hazel, I'd never heard of Viking soap, thanks for that. Googles...
    ... hmm, that involves soaking the grated nuts then discarding the water, which is the opposite of what I had in mind. In exchange, I offer you: http://www.herbsociety.org.uk/kh-hedgerow-to-kitchen-horse-chestnut.htm. I also found an academic paper discussing the effectiveness of different solvents and temperatures. Apparently it varies a lot depending on the plant you're trying to extract the saponins from, but I might try mixing a little alcohol (surgical spirit/rubbing alcohol) in with the water and heating. I did worry about ending up with alcohol in the laundry, but it seems to be used as a stain remover, so it's probably OK (if not very frugal).

    ECL, that gadget could make handwashing a lot less unattractive, as I wouldn't have to soak my hands while doing it. An old-fashioned mangle would be quite cool for wringing - I wonder if I could find one cheaply.

  8. Thanks for the link Rachel. I remember reading about horse chestnuts dyeing potential before, which means I won't be washing DD1's school shirts in it!
    James Wong has a recipe for Conker gel for varicose veins, so I guess the infused oil/salve instructions must be for something similar.

    ECL's comment was very interesting (Thank you!)
    My plan is to have something non-electric for power cuts etc (we get quite a few here) and also something that I might be able to persuade the children is fun that they'll do in the garden in the summer! We can then use the water on the plants.
    I looked into a Wonder Wash a while ago, http://www.lehmans.com/store/Home_Goods___Laundry___Washing___Pressure_Handwasher___1152405?Args= but apart from the cost and having to import it from the US you have to have somewhere to store it... And you still have to wring the clothes out.
    So I had a look on google after reading ECL's comment and found several people had made a similar gadget by drilling holes in a (new) sink/toilet plunger and using it in a large bucket, with or without a lid. Cheaper than the proper plunger, and easier to find in the UK.
    On ebay mangles weren't too pricey if they were near enough to pick them up in person and not too ornamental. I liked the table top ones. Mop buckets with wringers are often suggested, but they're huge and at least £50. I think I'll keep an eye out in junk shops.

    Lots to think about!

  9. Hi Hazel,

    I thought about getting a wonder wash, but after reading the reviews I learned that people have trouble with the plastic handles breaking. The homemade laundry plunger sounds intriguing. The concept has actually been around for centuries and you might be able to find one in an antique shop. The old ones are generally made from tin so they rust if you don't dry them after each use... which is why I opted for the plastic one.

  10. ECL, That's interesting about the wonder wash. A plunger it is then!

    I have seen antique plungers, but, presumably because the tin ones have all rusted, you only ever see gorgeous copper ones here it seems, with a price tag to match...

    It hadn't occurred to me to make my own, but as the breathing washer doesn't seem to be available in the UK, and on looking it up I found people had made their own version for a few pounds, I'm going to give it a try. Just need to find a plunger with a long handle.

    Sorry Rachel, I've hijacked your comments.

  11. Haha, don't mention it :-) I'm now getting interested in antique laundry possers! I saw one on Gum Tree for not very much (nowhere near me, of course), but I'd guess a rubber plunger might be more effective.

  12. I make a laundry gel from grated homemade soap with washing soda, borax and vinegar. The day I make it it is a very pourable liquid that looks like the commercial laundry liquids. After 24 to 48 hrs it thickens to a scoopable gel that is probably similar to your shower gel. If you can't find borax, I would recommend using washing soda and baking soda. This gel "melts" easily into cold water and does a fine job of cleaning/freshening anything that my family throws at it, and trust me they throw a lot at it. I have 3 "outdoorsy" kids and my husband is a very dirty boy (he's a construction worker). The soap I use most often is a simple lard soap; a basic coconut oil soap is also good. We use a bar of the lard soap as a stain stick for the worst stuff (chocolate, tomato sauce, blood, mechanics grease, etc). As far as smell goes, the clothes smell, well... like fabric. Sometimes I add a little essential oil to the gel when I make it and then you get that smell for your clothes. An essential oil that has natural anti-fungal/anti-bacterial properties may help with the lingering smells too. Something like tea-tree oil, lavendar, or citrus. And using vinegar in place of fabric softener is also a great way to soften the clothes and remove odors.

  13. Thanks for that, Handcrafter. I get confused by recipes that include both vinegar and washing soda - one is acidic and the other is alkaline so they react together to make salt, which is not something I'd expect to be that great at shifting BO. On the other hand, you say it works, so maybe I'll warm up my not-very-good gloop and add some vinegar. I have nothing to lose but the vinegar!

  14. Soap is technically a salt as well, the result of lye (alkali) and oil (fatty acids). And I'm sure that you have used table salt to clean things at some point, it's one of the best cleaners for cast iron that I have found.
    If you don't want, or don't get around to, heating up your gloop, you could just try adding some vinegar to your load. Do it however you would add liquid softener to your machine. My machine has a dispenser for softener, but I have also used a "Downy Ball", which is a little dispenser you throw in with the load and the spin cycle opens it up to dispense the liquid.

  15. I never thought of fats and oils as acids, even though I'm familiar with the term, "fatty acids". D'oh!

    Right then, I withdraw my prejudice against salts forthwith and will try vinegar in the laundry ;-)


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