Thursday, November 10, 2011


A couple of weeks ago I held a lovely dinner party. After the dishes were cleared and everyone had left, I commandeered my two friends Donald and Dave for the post-mortem and we settled in for a nice chat.

Donald and Dave had never met before but we all love a good bargain.

I mentioned the Zeer pot, a "five-dollar refrigerator" made by nesting two terra cotta pots, pouring sand in between, wetting the sand, and covering the whole with a jute rag.

Donald was then moved to offer: "Lately I've become obsessed with how to do laundry without a washing machine."

Dave and Donald discussed their respective experiences with washboards in Mexico. Donald reported that, per extensive research, the operative dynamic in effective clothes-washing is not, as is commonly believed, scrubbing, but rather agitation. To that end, there are actually people, for instance, who put their dirty duds in a barrel of water, hoist it onto the bed of a pickup, and take a drive around some bumpy desert roads.

For Los Angelenos this would require about forty bucks in gas (plus the purchase of a pickup) so I filed that idea away while Dave delivered a paean to Dr. Bronner's soap, which for years he has used to wash his clothes, his dishes and himself.

Donald then delivered an exegesis on the wonders of borax (great for clothes AND makes your dishes sparkle). I gave a short homage to my mother who refused to use a dryer (electricity bill) even in New Hampshire winters, and insisted on hanging the laundry out in wind chill factors of twenty below.

Here's a portion of the email correspondence that ensued.

On Tuesday, November 1, 2011 (three days post-party):
From Donald:
Hi Dave and Heather,
I have now become an official devotee of Dr. Bronner. What a deal- such a little goes a long way, cuts the grease and smells good too. Doesn't get much better. Here is the web site I found with all the alternative washing info- there is a whole sub-culture of machineless washers out there. Who knew?
She mentions Mrs. Stewarts bluing which I remember my grandma using- she had a funny story about dying her hair blue with it - and that was way before punk... . I tried some in my whites but I didn't notice a bit of difference. I think it is better left to science projects and hair dye.

Happy washing,

DIY washing machine and homemade laundry soap

What do you get when you combine a 5 gallon bucket and a toilet plunger? An off grid washing machine. Well, maybe not a machine in the traditional sense, unless you consider my hands the motor. This is something I have been wanting to make for quite some time now. The other day while I was in town, I saw a toilet plunger on the shelf and put it in my cart. I also picked up 3 bottles of Mrs Stewart’s bluing, I’ll explain more about that in a bit.

Plunger with holes
This primitive prototype washing machine started out as a 5 gallon bucket and the plunger. I handed the plunger to PB and asked him to cut some holes in the plunger, that makes it easier to plunge the clothes without making tons of bubbles and a big mess. I left it up to PB to decide how to cut the holes and in what shape. He took it downstairs for a few minutes, then brought it back to me, he handed me the plunger with 3, perfectly round, quarter sized holes. he handed me the rubber plugs that came from those centers.

Off Grid Washing Machine
I had a few socks and a couple of thermal shirts, all white, that needed to be washed. I put them in the bucket, filled it with enough water to cover the clothes by a few inches, added some homemade laundry soap (recipe to follow) and began to plunge. It worked like a charm. But of course, PB is never happy with prototypes, he wants to improve things, so he decided that a lid was in order, the lid would keep the water from splashing about as I plunged the clothes. We didn’t have a lid for the bucket, at least not one we wanted to cut a hole in. PB found another 5 gallon bucket, it had a bad place in the bottom, but it had a screw on lid. PB cut the bottom off that bucket and slid it into the first bucket, it fit like a charm.

Lid with hole

Next, PB cut a hole in the screw on lid, he created a gasket using a prescription pill bottle, that keeps the plunger handle straight and keeps any water from splashing out of the hole in the top. Since the bucket is several inches taller now, the handle for the plunger wasn’t long enough, so PB removed the original handle and replaced it with a longer handle. Now I can put the whole thing on the floor and plunge from a standing position, I get more power to my stroke now. It works great!...

There's more on rinsing, wringing, hanging out to dry, and making your own soap you can read here....

On Tuesday, November 1, 2011:
From me: 

Oh wow, this is super exciting [though it did later cross my mind that the prescription pill bottle from which PB fashioned a gasket had perhaps held Thorazine]... Now for the question: what is washing soda (and where do you get it) as opposed to baking soda?

On Tuesday, November 1 2011:

From Dave:
Heather and Donald, Thanks Donald for the link, I read many of the posts on the site and its so funny how many people are in correspondence about laundry! The good Dr. Bronner also makes the best bar soap, good for spot cleaning, general duty and maybe for laundry powder... it also rinses better than any bar soap I have ever used. Someone also told me once about freshening clothes between washes using some combination of Vodka and water, a costumers trick. The solution may have a funny name, but I couldn't find it online. [Author's note: sure enough, a google search for "vodka costumers" yielded this article entitled "Removing Odors from Smelly Belly Dance Costumes"]. I wont be using that particular solution, but a bit of laundry avoidance lore. I also like Fels- Naptha bar soap which is available at Vons, or was a couple of years ago. It is a harsher soap by far, I used it for cleaning brushes when I painted with oils. Great for heavy washing. Good Evening! Dave

On Wednesday, November 2, 2011:
From me:
What I'm thinking as well, and an avenue we haven't yet explored, is--bark clothing! Or maybe animal skins. Then we wouldn't have to launder at all...

On Wednesday, November 2, 2011:
From Dave:
From Harper's Magazine, July 2010: "By the time of Nero, the saving of urine had become an institution in the Roman Empire. In the vast apartment blocks where much of the capital's population lived, people urinated into small pots that, when full, were emptied into much larger vessels beneath the building's stairs. When away from home, a Roman could pay to use a public latrine and relieve himself among the figures of gods, or for no charge at all, he could pause at a street corner and use the vessels there, provided by the guild of fullers. From these vessels, as well as from the latrines, the fullers of the empire- urine conservationists perhaps unrivaled in the history of the world- gathered together Rome's urine into large basins, and in these basins men and boys used their feet to trample clean the city's woolen garments. As evidence of the degree to which this system of saving urine had become an integral part of Roman life, we know that after Nero's flight from Rome, after he is said to have recited Homer and cut his own throat, Vespassian took his place and levied his infamous vectigal urinae, the urine tax." -Cutter Wood

Thursday, November 3, 2011:
From me:

THAT'S recycling! Between the vodka-freshened shirts and the laundered-in-urine sweaters....wait....that's how I used to smell when I drank!....

photo, info re Museum of History of the City of Barcelona, 
and Roman urine-collecting corroboration:
Earprint Productions
photo: Earprint Productions
Sunday, November 6, 2011:
From Donald
Years ago I read about this Roman habit of collecting urine. I had heard that urine was used to manufacture a kind of bleach that the fullers used.I didn't know that they used it directly for washing woolens- I can only imagine that all that collecting, storing and washing in the stuff must have leant an interesting odor to the city- and the washer men probably never suffered from athlete's foot.

The moral of that particular story being we should all have more dinner parties. 


For now: Happy agitating!

photo: Earprint Productions


  1. Heather,
    Love this post!I started making my own laundry detergent about a year ago. It just killed me to spend $10on a jug of Tide or All or whatever. As I said it's been about a year and honestly I will never buy detergent again. This is just too easy, too cheap and works too well. A 6 month supply cost me under $3!!The recipe is easy to google or you can email me.
    By the way, just finished Shirt of Flame and all I can say is thank you. Never doubt that God is using your life and your work to change peoples lives. God bless you Heather!

  2. Mary Beth, would love to have the recipe--if you have a sec and can email it, I'll save your address...
    as always, blessings and thanks...

  3. To confess-the thought of going to a pulic laundromat-makes me queasy. Okay, I used to live a lovely apartment building where we had a laundry room. That was for the tenants.
    I wash my clothes in the bathtub.
    And since on sleep on the sofa-
    is this TMI? Anyway, my clothes are clean, my blanket and quilts are clean. It's austerity measures.

  4. Let's all go to Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Agitation! We won't emerge with cleaner clothes, but our souls won't be the worse for wear . . .

  5. Good one, Bill! That really DOES look like the agitator in a Whirlpool!...very fitting as well for the Church of Saint Mary of the Assumption...

  6. This is hysterical. And I also remember the days of my mom hanging sheets out in sub-zero weather. You'd be afraid they'd go CRACK and shatter into a million pieces when you took 'em down from the line.

  7. Hello! First may I say that I love your blog. It is one of the first I started to follow once I got called back home to the Church.
    Re:Dr.Bronner's soap, there is a fine documentary about Dr. Bronner on Netflix streaming movies called "Dr. Bronner's Soap Box". Highly recommended.

  8. Have just rec'd an email from Donald saying he's now discovered borax and Dr. Bronner's will remove latex paint from hands beautifully...

    Thanks so much, all--I'm very gratified by this response and some also lovely private emails I rec'd...seems laundry strikes closer to the heart than any of us might have known...memories, insights, tips...God is in the details...I'm gonna throw a load in myself momentarily...did I say for the first time in my life I have a washer/dryer within a short walk from my bedroom?...

    No, Barbara, not TMI...Jeanne, thanks, prayed for Matt Wise and asked a friend to pray, too...Mimi, welcome!!...


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