Off-Grid Laundry: Dirty Work Clothes

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I love the washboard – it’s a wonderful tool – but I found myself frustrated in trying to use it on David’s work pants and shirts.  When my mom told me about how Grandma used to spread Grandpa’s dirty overalls out on the cellar door and scrub them with a scrub brush I realized I wasn’t alone.  I took Grandma’s advice.  This is how I deal with dirty work duds.


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Always, always, pre-soak.  Even if water is scarce make a way to do it.  You can use leftover water from a previous, less dirty load if you have to.  My favorite laundry booster is ammonia.  In the old housekeeping texts it was called “aqua ammonia”, “liquor ammonia” or “spirits of hartshorn.” Yes, I know, it’s a chemical but it’s old, it’s cheap and it really works.  I add 1 cup to the presoak water to dissolve grease – both mechanical and human – and help loosen dirt.  You can see in the picture above how well it’s working.

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Lay the pre-soaked dirty item on a nice working-level surface.   I have a plastic topped table with metal legs from Sam’s or Wal-Mart. Don’t bother to wring, you’ll need the water in the item.  Next, rub the entire surface with your laundry bar of choice.  I like Fels-Naptha and I can get it at our local Wal-mart for $1.00 a bar.  Other options are Zote, Octogon, or even Ivory.

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Have ready a bowl or warm water and good scrub brush.   Make sure your brush is comfortable in the hand.  My dog found this one comfortable to chew on as well.  Wet your brush. . .

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And scrub the pre-soaped area well.  Be aware that denim, especially modern thin denim, won’t hold up to this treatment quite as well as canvas.  For this reason David’s denim work jeans are going away by attrition and we’re going strictly to canvas.

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Here is what you’re shooting for, a nice layer of suds.

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Give the item a clean water rinse. . .

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Then a good swish through a tub of prepared wash water.  Here I’m using 1/3 to 1/2 cups homemade liquid laundry soap in a tub of warm water.  I use as little wash water as I can, saving my water for good rinses. Remember that the idea isn’t just to move the clothes around, but to force the sudsy water through the fibers.

Heavy work pants don’t go well, if at all, through a hand wringer.  I can usually get them through the mechanical wringer of a Maytag.  This brings up the issue of adequate rinsing.  Wringing not only removes excess water but also excess soap.  I well-wring item won’t need as many rinses.  It’s important to rinse well as soap left in clean laundry serves no purpose but to irritate skin and attract even more dirt to be washed out in the next round of laundry.  I often have to rinse un-wrung work pants 3 times.  It just has to be done.

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Here’s the before and after.  Though it’s a bit of work I doubt the most expensive automatic washer could improve on the results.  Thanks, Grandma.

9 thoughts on “Off-Grid Laundry: Dirty Work Clothes

  1. That is awesome, Judy. The scrub brush is about the only thing that works around here for those clay-soiled clothes. When I’m on the ball, and I certainly haven’t been lately, that’s the best way I’ve found to do thick dress shirts as well – especially the collar and cuff areas.

    I’m considering using ammonia. We’re a no chemical kind of household, but I believe you can make the stuff from urine which is natural enough in my book. 😉

    1. Thank you, Shannon. I forgot to add in the post, we ought not to get too stressed out over stains. Dirt is one thing, stains are another. Now, spaghetti sauce or sweat stains on a white “going to town” shirt I’ll work hard on, but stubborn stains on work clothes, not so much. You’ll wear out your clothes if you worry to much about stains.

  2. I’m with Heather! Thanks so much for the steps and the photos. My next “step” is to get away from my washing machine and give the bucket a try. I’ve always wondered about how to get the rinse done. I purchased a mop bucket to do the wringing. It gives leverage (I hope) and captures the water for grey uses, maybe.
    Have you ever tried the “homemade” stain remover? Hydrogen peroxide and baking soda, at a minimum, with a little dishwashing liquid for greasy stains. I know the peroxide isn’t something that can be made at home, nor is the baking soda, but both are inexpensive items that can be stocked up. Just a thought.
    Thanks for the post!

    1. You’re most welcome, Mark. I’ve used peroxide on blood but haven’t tried it on our red dirt. I’ll have to give it a try.

      1. My wife works at Tractor Supply in town. She comes home with some of the strangest accumulations! I apply the stain remover liberally, let it soak on the dryer for a wash cycle, then throw them in the wash. It has worked on everything, so far. 🙂

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