Taming the Laundry Monster

The following encounter between a mother and her two daughters was overheard recently in a department store. Mom looked at #1 teenage daughter’s clothing and proclaimed that the clothes were filthy, asked why the girl had not done her own laundry, and added that Mom was embarrassed to be seen with her in public. (The clothes did not look at all dirty from where the onlooker stood, which was very close by.) Mom further stated that she intended to begin fining Daughter #1 $20 per day until she did her laundry. Daughter #2 then reminded them that she had already claimed the following day for doing her laundry, at which point Daughter #1 became enraged that she would be fined for a day when she could not do her laundry and blamed her sister for the fine. I have stated before that forcing each child to do his own laundry fosters selfishness, not responsibility. Each child should learn to do laundry, but he should learn to be a part of the family team. (In my article “Family is Spelled T-E-A-M,” I explain why each person in our family learned how to run the washer and dryer, and why I required teamwork in checking with others before anyone started a load of laundry.)

When some friends of mine were recently asked what one chore they would gladly give up for life, nearly all mentioned laundry. They all hated doing laundry. I no longer hate doing laundry, but I do not particularly look forward with glee to doing it either. There is a long list of leisure activities I would choose to do before washing, drying, or ironing. I have heard many complaints from families who are unsuccessful in trying to keep up with their laundry, but the story above was the final straw that convinced me to share my recipe for how I tamed the Laundry Monster in our home.

Most important to the organizational process is a 5-foot high, metal shelving unit located near my laundry facilities. These shelves hold large, load-size baskets, each clearly labeled for a specific load of dirty laundry:
— Jeans (may include other heavyweight items)
— Darks (lighter weight than jeans, but still dark-colored: t-shirts, socks, etc.)
— Reds (including deep fuchsia & purple)
— Shirts, Permanent Press, etc. (multi-colored items that may wrinkle if left unattended in the dryer)
— Whites (socks & underwear that may be bleached, so do not include colored items)
— Special Care (delicates, cold-water-wash, dry flat, etc. This often is washed as 2 loads: light & dark colors.)
— Towels/Sheets (the largest basket)

I assembled the deep shelves (18″x36″) with vertical spacing (13-14″ apart) to fit the baskets, which were purchased in sizes (16″x22″ x 10″ high) to fit two per shelf. The only exception is the huge Towels basket (19″x26″ x 12″ high) which by itself takes up the entire bottom shelf. The other baskets slide in side-by-side (2 baskets per shelf) on their shelves, extending lengthwise out over the front of the shelves a few inches. Each shelf is high enough to allow clothing to pile a few inches above the top of each basket. The baskets are labeled on each edge so that they can be identified no matter how they are placed back on the shelf. This system makes it very easy to see which load needs to be done next — an overflowing basket gets the quickest attention.

Next on my organizational supply list are personal laundry baskets (13″ x 18″ x 8 1/2″ high with 2 handles that flip up), at least one for each family member (we have 7 for our family of 4). The ones I purchased at a dollar store resemble the small shopping baskets that grocery stores have for customers who plan to pick up only a few items. These baskets are not labeled, because they circulate randomly among all members of the family. Even a small child can carry one of these baskets if it is not too full. Older children get one or two of these personal-sized baskets full of their clean laundry to put away in their rooms. The empty baskets may then be used on the closet floor as hampers for dirty laundry or returned to the laundry room, where they sit stacked until needed for the next load. When the child’s dirty laundry fills a basket, it is his responsibility to carry the basket (along with any empty hangers) to the laundry room and sort the clothing into the load baskets on the shelves. No wet garments are allowed in the baskets, but damp items may be draped over the front of a basket to dry, making sure they will not mildew before they get attention. (Children too small to sort their own clothing were allowed to leave their basket of dirty laundry on the floor in front of the shelves.) The “Laundry Fairy” notifies kids when they have a full basket of clean things to put away, but the children are responsible for moving their own clothing. Most of the time, I do take care of my husband’s clothing, but he does help, when needed, at any stage of the laundry shuffling process.

In the case of smaller loads, we occasionally combine the contents of certain baskets. Whites and multi-colored permanent press work well together, if no chlorine bleach is used. One or two pairs of jeans can easily be included with the dark t-shirts and socks. If the garments have all been previously washed and are not likely to bleed extra color, I will toss a few red items in with the darks or jeans. I found we were having more and more red garments in our wardrobes, but still not quite enough to produce an entire wash-load of reds each week. At the same time, we needed some new towels, so I purchased red towels, guaranteeing that we would always be able to fill up a load of reds. (One caution from the sad Voice of Experience: never put a sweater in the same load with anything containing Velcro.)

Deeply ingrained in me from multiple rereadings of Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth’s Cheaper by the Dozen, is a firm distaste for performing unnecessary steps in any chore. Therefore, I have tried to eliminate extra steps from my laundry tasks by handling items as few times as possible. When the dryer signals that it has finished a load, I do not pull everything out into a large basket to be dealt with later. Instead, I remove the garments one at a time, hanging or folding them and placing them into personal baskets. By the time the dryer is emptied, a basket has usually been started for each member of the family. At the end of the day, those personal baskets are filled and ready to be carried off by their owners. I shuffle loads from dryer to personal baskets, then from washer to dryer, and from load-baskets to washer. If some family team member is folding and sorting and is unsure of who owns a particular garment, they usually leave the item folded and lying on top of the dryer, to be claimed later by its owner.

My last dryer did not have a “wrinkle reducer” cycle to tumble the dry clothing every few minutes after the load was finished. That meant that occasionally I needed to leave my homeschooling students to go tend to the laundry. I used those times as opportunities to “wean” my students away from Mom’s constant attention: “You work on this page while I go shuffle some laundry, and I will be back in a few minutes to check on you.” They could always come find me if they had a tough question, but I could also stretch my “few minutes” as needed to give them more confidence in working alone. That was also how I got my ironing done.

My husband suspended old broom handles from the laundry room ceiling for me to use as hanging bars. I often hang the freshly dried shirts or other garments that will need to be ironed (separated from the clothes to be returned to closets), to prevent them from becoming more wrinkled. Quite often, the few wrinkles have “hung out” before anyone gets around to ironing them, and they can be worn without disgrace.

I use the end-of-cycle buzzers on both washer and dryer during the day to remind me that I am doing laundry, because any more interesting task between loads is likely to keep me distracted. I wash towels, socks and underwear, or other okay-to-wrinkle items as my last load of the afternoon. If they make it to the dryer before bedtime, they can sit all night in the dryer without making more work (ironing). Sometimes I will start washing a load at bedtime, so that I can start the next day with drying (faster progress is a huge motivator for me). Note to self: turn off the end-of-cycle buzzers before going to bed.

All family members have been taught to empty their own pockets before putting garments in the laundry (what I find, I keep — money, children’s “treasures,” etc.) in an effort to reduce the number of tissues that get washed (I make no guarantees). Also, I called back any family member who put their dirty socks in the baskets balled up — they had to straighten out the socks or the socks would not be washed. (They only had to be called back once or twice to learn to straighten out the socks when taking them off.)

When the weather permitted, I did use a clothesline in the backyard to save money on the power bill, but there were times when my time was just as valuable as the gas and electricity, and I skipped the outdoor drying, Guilt-Free. When I did hang clothing outside, I tried to hang underwear or socks together on the line to make the folding and sorting stage as simple as it was from the dryer.

Heavy sweaters often carry the warning “support and dry flat,” so I usually dried sweaters on my ironing board, but they could take several days to dry, leaving the ironing board unavailable. I have a folding, wooden drying rack that I use for delicate hand-washables, and I hit upon a solution one day when the laundry room was overflowing. I spread the rack out and laid thick bath towels across each level of dowel rods, creating towel-and-rod “shelves” that would each support a couple of sweaters. No more waiting for the ironing board, and no more “lines” from draping the sweaters over bare rods.

One last trick to prevent the Laundry Monster from tackling you when you least expect it: own more than a week’s supply of socks and underwear. This is also a good idea for college life, since college students rarely get time away from classes and studies for such frivolous pursuits as doing laundry. My husband has simplified things even more by having one drawer for all his undershirts and another for underwear (no folding required), one drawer for white socks and one drawer for black socks. The socks are all identical (except for the color), meaning they do not have to be matched up or folded. Buying extra sheets has saved me from having to suddenly make a bed at 10 pm, when all I wanted to do was lie down on it. Now when I strip off the soiled sheets, I can put clean ones back on immediately.

This system may require a little start-up money, especially if you want to get all new baskets, a shelving unit, and extra underwear for each family member. I grew into my own system by buying the large shelves first and starting with the few smaller baskets I already owned. As my older baskets deteriorated, I replaced them with new ones of the desired size. You can adapt my system to your own family’s needs, but give your family members plenty of instructions for how the system is to operate and allow them some adjustment time to make it work. Occasionally, I needed to remind my children to take their dirty clothes to the laundry area or put their clean things away, but overall it is a system that has worked for us for years. (I have been known to place 3 full-to-overflowing baskets of my son’s clean clothing in front of the stairway, blocking the path to his room, and forcing him to attend to them.) The shelves of load-baskets make it so apparent which load needs to be done next, that I have become accustomed to starting the fullest load each morning after I take my shower. I have been affectionately dubbed the “Laundry Fairy” by my husband, who says clean socks just magically appear before he runs out.

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