It’s 11pm on a Saturday, and I’m doing my laundry.
Snippets of the 90s remake of The Little Rascals waft in from the living room, followed by Alex’s giggles. He had grabbed the DVD at a thrift store earlier, excited by the idea of revisiting something he hadn’t experienced since childhood.
I smile as I pull damp blouses from the dryer and hang them, so the air can gently finish the job. The movie is terrible – seriously, I have questions – but it’s a pleasure to hear him reconnecting with something so closely tied to his past and identity.
The next button-up pulls me back to the task at hand. It’s my second-hand treasure from today’s adventure, emerging from its first trial as an object in my care. I’ve tried it on, but I have yet to examine it carefully.
Base color is a deep, striking blue, made louder by a busy pattern of small, white flowers on green-yellow stalks. The contrast had immediately drawn me in. It’s a pretty standard button-up, but a few features betray its age. The collar is a dramatic wing – not something you’re likely to find at J.Crew nowadays. And after a decade dabbling in the vintage clothing game, I know what older pieces feel like. Fabrics used on blouses made before the 80s are thicker. And from the 70s-80s, they’re usually… slicker. This is the thick, slick stuff, much more sturdy than the fabrics we see in the current era, dominated by fast fashion.
I am in awe anew as I arrange it on one of my favorite hangers. As I run my hand down the arm, I pause at some slight discoloration. The blue has faded in a few spots. Then, a small hole. Another. Probably moth damage. As I reach the bottom, I grasp a handful of fabric and bring it to my face, breathing in. Even after the wash, I’m picking up hints of a long time spent in a dark closet. Dust. Neglect.
My heart aches at the thought.
The surprising relationship you (don’t) have with what you wear
Our relationship with textiles is life-long and intimate. Babies have favorite blankets. Adolescents have zip-up hoodies they wear nearly every day, much to the annoyance of their parents. Professionals have suit jackets that make them feel confident, and most of us have undergarments we are excited to wear after we finally do our laundry.
We love the things we wrap ourselves in for comfort, and few items in our lives show us as much raw care in return. Unless you practice nudity in areas of your life (no shade, my college roommates learned the hard way to knock on my bedroom door before entering), textiles are the closest thing to your body in most of its states — from sleeping to sweating to sick. A tough job by anyone’s standards.
Your clothes play a role in your identity and psychological health as well. What we wear is often one of the first ways we think about who we will be for the day. What do I have going on, and how can/should I present for it? What do I need to be successful – or to make it through?
And yet, how much time do you spend thinking about or caring for your clothes? How many favorite pieces have accumulated one too many stains, holes, or seasons out of style?
Laundry is a love language
As textiles became more easily available and basic care for them less time-consuming, our relationship with them lost depth. I see it in the way people care for their clothes.
Like most women, my mother taught me how to do laundry. You don’t throw everything in together if you want your clothes to maintain structure and vibrancy long-term. You don’t wash dark colors with light ones or more hardy fabrics with delicate ones, and you have to be very selective on what you put in the dryer and how long you let it stay.
I remember feeling frustrated. We have washers and dryers… why do we have to do their work for them? But cutting corners led to the discoloration of a coveted pair of light denim jeans, a shrunken and pilled brand name sweater – and my mom’s resulting wrath. It didn’t take long to learn machines are tools that make laundry quicker and easier, but they are not a substitute for TLC.
Laundering is tribal and/or experientially-acquired know-how only somewhat informed by what the tags sewn into your clothes say. My process has changed alongside my wardrobe, washing machine, and exposure to other women’s ways of getting it done. It’s also annoying to adhere to with so many other things on our plates; most younger people I know of all genders would rather regularly lose items of clothing to laundering mishaps than spend the time and energy caring for them.
It’s a calculated risk, and the math isn’t bad when replacing your threads is relatively cheap and easy. Clothes are so plentiful now that the issue has become the space they take up in landfills.
What is often missing from the equation, however, is a variable you begin to see along the way. My clothing-care journey not only built confidence in my ability to tend to things I love and be rewarded with their longevity. Seeing textiles change in my care led me to appreciate what all goes into creating them.
And each item of clothing in your closet was created. That process has changed exponentially in the last century, but it has always and will continue to require the inspiration, intention, and resources of other people and our planet.
Our clothes contain love. They transfer it. They deserve it in return.
Back in the kitchen, I let the fabric of my new-to-me treasure drop. I commit to what I know is a reciprocal relationship, brought to me through a series of circumstances and human hands I’ll never know. I’ll patch you up, launder you carefully, wear you proudly, and do my best to retire you sustainably when the time comes.