In his new book, “Laundry Love: Finding Joy in a Common Chore,” Richardson asks us to reconsider our relationship with our clothing, indeed with all our fabrics. He believes, quite passionately, that textiles — what we wear, dry ourselves with, sleep on — matter in ways most of us take for granted.
At a time when we are rethinking foundational things, why not laundry?
Richardson joins a movement already in progress. Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd, co-founders of The Laundress, espouse a similar approach to eco-friendly laundry soaps and care. One thinks, too, of Marie Kondo, whose books urge a transformation in how we relate to our clothing and possessions and, apparently whilst sober, to thank them.
For Richardson, laundry is an act of love, and “Laundry Love” is his treatise to America’s laundry rooms and the clothes that tumble in them.
Clothing is, after all, deeply personal. These things we wear, intimate things that touch our body, upon which we sleep, things that make us feel like ourselves — they matter in small but affecting ways. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote a poem called “Ode to My Socks.” David Bowie sings of “Jean Genie,” Prince of a “Raspberry Beret.” The Kinks riff to “Mick Avory’s Underpants.” There is a statue in Brussels called “The Laundry Worker.” It’s a man. A statue to a man. Who did laundry. I’m sure that won’t be taken down anytime soon.
Or perhaps clothes matter in not-so-small ways when looked at differently. According to data from the World Bank in 2017, nearly half of the world’s population lives on less than $5.50 a day. “Consider,” Richardson writes, “how many people around the world would welcome the chance to wear freshly laundered clothes — and just how much dignity that offers. Yet so often we take this privilege for granted.”
Richardson does not take it for granted. Laundry is a big deal. Here’s how big: U.S. consumers wash more than 660 million loads of laundry every week, or about 35 billion wash loads a year, totaling 100 million tons of clothes, according to one estimate. That’s about 1,000 wash loads every second of every day.
Richardson, who runs a clothing store in the Mall of America in Minnesota, gently urges us to change our ways when it comes to the washing of our clothes. Stop using laundry detergent containing petroleum, phosphates, phthalates and parabens: “This stuff is bad for your clothes, bad for your skin, and bad for the environment.” Start using soaps or detergents made with plant- and mineral-based ingredients. (His store sells soap flakes based on a 200-year-old recipe from a “New Zealand woolier,” an occupation I would like in my next life.)
Always wash clothes in warm water and always on the express cycle, not merely to save time but wear and tear on fabrics. He would like us to wash our clothes less and air-clean them more. He believes line drying in the sun and fresh air does wonders.
He covers most every disgusting stain imaginable and suggests ways to get rid of them, MacGyver-like, using bleach alternative, sodium carbonate, rubbing alcohol and white vinegar. Richardson, who runs Laundry Camps in his store, isn’t kidding around.
He eschews almost every item one is likely to find in most American laundry rooms: Fabric softener, dryer sheets, chlorine bleach. Also dry-cleaning. Stop doing it. Now. He is passionate that it can be done simply and safely at home, by hand and by machine — even cashmere. (Anyway, dry cleaning isn’t dry at all. Most facilities soak items in a chemical called perchloroethylene, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies as a probable human carcinogen.) “It’s time to break up with your dry cleaner,” Richardson writes. “After all, how many times have you heard that you shouldn’t be with someone who’s toxic?”
Written with Karin B. Miller, “Laundry Love” is not a book to read for its prose. Alice McDermott this is not. But on occasion Richardson has the power to give pause. On Page 163, he suggests cutting the care-instructions tag off your garments. “There’s a bigger life lesson in here. So often, we do — or don’t do — things based on fear, when, actually, if we just believed in ourselves, and in others, we would find a better way forward.”
He quotes the writer Ruth Moose, whose lines sum up Richardson’s book and worldview: “There is joy in clean laundry. All is forgiven in water, sun and air.”
The past year has been a steady stream of pain and negativity. To find this slim volume, its breezy pages of tips and anecdotes, stories and, in the back, recipes, is a lovely salve. One would be very fortunate, I think, to be Richardson’s friend or neighbor, share his optimism and joy in life’s seemingly small things.
John Kenney is the author of “Love Poems for the Office,” “Love Poems for Married People,” “Love Poems for People with Children” and “Love Poems for Anxious People,” as well as the novels “Talk to Me” and “Truth in Advertising,” which won the Thurber Prize for American Humor.
Laundry Love: Finding Joy in a Common Chore
By Patric Richardson with Karin B. Miller
Flatiron. 208 pp. $25.99