Time on her hands

6 March 2020

We were in the back garden and I was helping to bring in the washing, I thought Nana was always so good with her washing, drying it on the line and a whizz at stain removal. Though, my mum seemed to believe she did laundry whether it needed doing or not. Implying that Nana may have slipped over the edge, that is she had become obsessive about doing the washing. What I remember is, if it was washing day, one did washing. The beds were stripped, towels and sheets were separated and the job got done.

At Nana’s it seemed like it was washing day every day. She even ironed her pillowcases and bras. However,  to  Mum, this was apparently a step too far, and an indication of having a little too much time on her hands. I thought it was, perhaps, one of the least concerning activities one could engage in, in such a predicament.

Part of the process of washing involved checking garments and household linen for wear, looking for holes or split seams. If any were found, the items were set aside, after being washed, to be placed in the mending pile next to her sewing machine. There were two kinds of mending; work to be done by machine, and that which needed more specialist attention, hand repair or darning. Most of the repair work was done by hand, with a limited range of stitches, which nonetheless extended the life and use of the garments, the tea towels, or the hankies (Fig.2.).

At the washing line, we tossed the clean laundry into the basket, pegs into the wooden holder; the washing was to be sorted and folded later, I don’t know where Nana did this, probably in the washhouse. These days, I sort and fold all my washing outside as it comes off the line, making piles in the washing basket. One for myself, one for each of my children and then the general household linen, such as towels, sheets, and cleaning cloths, all get folded and placed on the chair under the washing line. This feels like ‘High Level Efficiency’, the folded clothes can go straight into the drawers, the linen in the hot water cupboard. It avoids piles of clean laundry on the couch or my bed, the evidence of all the washing, gone.

I have admired clean washing piles in my friends’ homes, their sheets and towels take on interesting sculptural forms as they await the next step in the process. The work of ‘The Washing’ taking up living space, inviting folding, or just moving to another piece of furniture when someone turns up. The sheets are traces of intimate places and times, where one sleeps, has sex, dreams, rests, hopefully, at the end of the day. The piles of clean washing are a physical reminder of caring for a household. I think that is potential downside of ‘High Level Efficiency’, the work and time is rendered invisible, it has all been taken care of, no pause in the process.

Nana's Hanky

Joy Smith, detail of repaired hanky. n.d. (Photograph by Angela Rowe).

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