How to love your laundry

Thought the washing was just another chore? Not so, says laundry guru Patric Richardson (yes, that is his job). Do it right and you can improve your whites and your life.

You know how to do laundry, right? Divide between darks, whites and colours. Sort your bedlinen and towels from your delicates – and, voilà, into the machine they go with your detergent of choice, perhaps some fabric softener and a spritz of stain-removing spray. Done.

Wrong. Step forward laundry guru Patric Richardson. A man so obsessed with laundry he received a child-size washing machine for his third birthday and learned to wash and dry his own clothes before he was ten. Patric has dedicated years to the study and conservation of textiles. His mission? To make laundry not just faster, cheaper and kinder to the environment but more fun, too.

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In fact, if you do your laundry right it will improve more than your whites – it’ll improve your life, the planet and possibly even your soul. We need to stop seeing laundry as a tedious chore and see it as cathartic: think of the satisfaction of the washing blowing on the line or a neatly folded pile of sparkling whites. If you shift your perspective – and laundry methods – it becomes less stressful, more mindful. Think how soothing the quiet, repetitive folding of clean clothes is and how satisfying it is to the eye when they are placed neatly in the drawer, smelling of soap and fresh air.

When it comes to cleaning, our clothes are bossy. Their tags bully us into time-sucking techniques, and before we know it, each article of clothing is trying to tell us what to do – and none of it is simple. Speaking of time-sucking, did you know a family of four runs on average nine loads of laundry a week at roughly one hour 25 minutes per load? That’s nearly 13 hours a week. Well, not any more. Follow Patric’s simple steps for life-enhancing laundry and you’ll be able to slash that to four hours and ten minutes a week. And that’s not all – he also has tips on getting your whites whiter, keeping your denims blue and reveals how never to pay a dry-cleaning bill again…

1. Ditch the detergent

Popular detergents are loaded with petrochemicals: bad for your clothes, skin and the environment. Pods are even worse – there’s enough detergent in a single pod to wash five loads of clothes.

Fabric softener should also go, too. It coats your clothes with silicone, cutting their absorbency by up to 80 per cent, fills the spaces between yarns so clothes can’t breathe and makes stains incredibly hard to shift. What’s more, one of the main ingredients in softener is ‘dihydrogenated tallow dimethyl ammonium chloride’, derived from horse, cow, and sheep fat – which is why fragrance is added.

2. Rethink your laundry list

Wash your clothes using soap flakes or a high-quality, plant-based liquid laundry soap that is free of petroleum, phosphate, phthalates and parabens and includes words such as nontoxic, biodegradable, allergen free and bleach free. Also make sure you have the following items (all will become clear as you read on):

  • A box of washing soda (100 per cent sodium carbonate): add 1⁄4 cup to a wash of dirty clothes to remove stubborn stains
  • A small bottle or two of essential oils
  • Three wool dryer balls
  • A couple of bumpy rubber dryer balls
  • Laundry mesh bags in multiple sizes
  • A few safety pins
  • New tennis balls
  • Aluminium foil
  • Note A big-name brand may call for a quarter cup or even a half cup of detergent per load, whereas a higher-quality laundry soap may require only a single tablespoon.

3. The sorting revolution

The chances are you were taught to sort laundry into whites, darks and colours, but Patric has a faster, better way to sort…

  • Whites, including mostly white items with a bit of colour, off-white, cream, oatmeal, beige and lemon yellow.
  • Blacks.
  • Cool colours – blues, greens, purples and greys.
  • Warm colours – reds, yellows, browns, and oranges.

The reason behind sorting the cool colours from the warm is that if a micro dye bleed occurs in the wash of either of these loads, no one will even notice, but if you mix cool colours with warm, a blue bleed, for example, might dot a red blouse with purple or a yellow T-shirt with green.

If in any of your colour piles you have activewear, eg, spandex or other high-tech workout fabrics, to get these really clean and smelling good, you’ll need to add some hydrogen peroxide to your wash, which kills the bacteria that can lead to bad odours.

Also if you have any wool and silk items in your piles, the best way to wash them is to turn each item inside out and place in a mesh bag, one item per bag. If your bag is too big, fold it over and fasten the mesh in place with safety pins. Wool items should be folded, rolled and stuffed tightly like a giant sausage in the mesh bag – if necessary fold over and secure with safety pins to make the bag fit more snugly – to stop them rubbing against other clothes in the machine, which is what makes them matt and emerge smaller. Once bagged up, return your items to their colour piles – you don’t have to wash them separately.

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4. Master your machine

These days, most of the technology is built into your washing machine, so for nearly every wash, you’ll need to do just two things. First, wash everything in warm water – select a temperature of around 30C-40C. Second, wash everything on the express cycle (also called the fast, quick or super-speed cycle). This is much kinder to your clothes than a full cycle, helping them last longer since we’re no longer prolonging the time they’re exposed to soap, water and other clothes.

5. The drying rules

Where you can, air dry your clothes rather than using a tumble dryer: it’s better for the environment and your clothes will last longer. But when you do use the dryer – which Patric says he does for T-shirts, underwear, sheets and towels – toss in at least three wool dryer balls, which reduce the time spent drying clothes by up to 40 per cent. If you’re feeling fancy, add a couple of drops of essential oil to the wool dryer balls to scent your laundry.

When drying towels, add bumpy rubber dryer balls, which help separate laundry and plump up the cloth. And his final trick is to place a tightly rolled ball of aluminium foil – roughly the size of a cricket ball – in every dryer load to discharge static. Simply throw it into your dryer and it should last about 60 loads, getting increasingly smaller with each. Once it shrinks to the size of a golf ball, put it into your recycling bin and make a new ball.

6. How to banish any stain (even red wine)

There are three basic types of stains: oily, organic (from living organisms, and including blood, berries and grass) and inorganic (manufactured, eg, pen). Some stains fall into more than one category – eg, foundation is both inorganic and oily – so may need more than one type of treatment. All stains should be tackled before putting them in the washing machine. Here’s how to deal with the most stubborn…

  • Avocado Scrape off any residue with a knife, then scrub the stain with a laundry brush and laundry soap. If necessary, dip the stain in a solution of one tablespoon of bleach alternative (100 per cent sodium percarbonate) and 900ml water, then wash.
  • Baked beans, chocolate, mascara, shoe polish Spray with a 50/50 mixture of vinegar and water, then scrub with laundry soap and a brush. Repeat as necessary.
  • Berries, blood, grass, tomato Dip in a bleach alternative and water (as above).
  • Butter, grease, oil, sunscreen Spray these with vinegar and water mixture (as above).
  • Candle wax, crayon Place the item between two layers of brown paper and press with a warm iron. The wax will be soaked up by the paper.
  • Coffee, tea Tackle with laundry soap and a brush. If that fails, stretch the stained portion of the garment over a bowl and pour the hottest possible water through it. Use a kettle to pour from a height for greater force and more stain-removing power.
  • Deodorant Use laundry soap and a brush.
  • Ink, ballpoint Place a towel on the inside of the garment and spray or blot the area with rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol).
  • Permanent ink Treat with a few drops of Amodex (magical ink and stain remover).
  • Lipstick Place a white flannel under the stain and generously spray the stain with a mixture of vinegar and water (as before). Blot with a cotton wool pad to remove the excess oil, then gently scrub the stain with your laundry brush and soap. Repeat the process a few times, flipping over your flannel as you go to use a clean area to soak up the stain.
  • Mildew Soak the stain in a solution of hot water and bleach alternative (as before). Next, let the garment dry in the sun to kill the spores. Third, wash it. Then repeat.
  • Perspiration Place a few drops of an oil-based stain remover such as The Laundress Stain Solution directly on to each underarm stain. Then sprinkle the tiniest bit (maybe ten grains) of sodium percarbonate on to each dollop of solution and rub in with your finger. Leave for 30 minutes before pouring nearly boiling water right through the stain. Then throw the item of clothing into the wash. Just before you wash the item in the future, spray it generously with a mixture of vinegar and water (as before) to neutralise the pH of the stain and you’ll never have underarm stains again! (The same methods work for stains around the collar.)
  • Red wine Mix a tablespoon of sodium percarbonate into a bowl of very hot water and dip the stained portion of the item into it, giving it a swish (the stain should change colour), then throw it into the wash. That’s it.
  • Scorch Soak for 24 hours in water, then scrub with laundry soap and a brush.

7. Sack the dry cleaners

Patric is certain that anything can be washed at home. After all, dry cleaning was invented in the 1800s, but people were certainly washing wool clothing prior to that. And, let’s face it, goats and sheep aren’t rushed into barns at the first sign of inclement weather to protect their fur or wool. Rain or snow? Bring it on!

In fact, numerous experts say dry-cleaning is too harsh for cashmere and mohair. So why the ‘dry-clean-only’ labels? Many manufacturers worry we’ll inappropriately machine-wash a garment and damage it.

The term ‘dry cleaning’ simply means that it uses no water – it does, however, use liquid solvent, usually perchloroethylene (perc), which is extremely hard on clothes, not to mention toxic to the environment.

So, while we tend to think dry cleaning gently cleans our finest clothes, precisely the opposite is true: machine-washing at home is better for these garments, and anything your dry cleaner can clean… you can clean better.

  • Boots (suede-sheepskin, eg, Uggs) Spray with an equal mixture of vinegar and water, and gently scrub with your laundry brush and laundry soap. Next, submerge the boots in a bucket of water with soap flakes or a liquid laundry soap (detergent can affect the boots’ moisture-repelling treatment). Let them soak for 20 minutes, rinse clean, then lay them flat to dry so any extra water runs out.
  • Coat (wool or anorak) Button up, place front-down and fold in the sides and sleeves to create a rectangle, then roll up and stuff in a large mesh bag, fastening it tightly with safety pins – you don’t want the coat to move within the mesh bag. Then wash the coat as normal, using soap flakes or a liquid laundry soap. After washing, give the coat a shake and hang to dry. Press when still slightly damp.
  • Pillows You can wash any type of pillow in a washing machine. After washing, throw down pillows into the dryer with three clean tennis balls to fluff them up. For synthetic pillows, hang them up to dry or place them across the top of a drying rack. Once they are completely dry, fluff them up in the dryer with tennis balls using the no-heat setting.
  • Suits Place the jacket front-down, fold in the sides, then sleeves to create a rectangle, then fold into thirds, roll it up and place in a mesh bag, fastening tightly with pins so it looks like a giant sausage. Fold the trousers as small as possible, roll them up, put them in another mesh bag, again securing snugly – you don’t want them to budge. Wash on a warm, quick cycle, then shake them out and hang to dry. Iron when nearly dry.

Top colour tricks

Wash using a gentle soap and a tablespoon of chlorine-free oxygen bleach (never use chlorine bleach). This nontoxic, biodegradable bleach alternative, also known as sodium percarbonate, will whiten your clothes safely and beautifully. One caveat: don’t use it for washing silks or wool.

Soak your denim item overnight in a sink or bowl filled with hot water and a quarter cup of salt. The next day, wash and dry as normal, and your denim should permanently hold its colour. To restore faded denim, mix a tablespoon of good, old-fashioned bluing (try in a basin of warm water and then leave your item to soak overnight. The denim will drink up the bluing. If still not quite blue enough, repeat the process, little by little, until your denim is just the way you like it.

How to Love Your Laundry: Sort your Smalls, Save the Planet and Never Dry Clean Anything Ever Again by Patric Richardson with Karin B Miller is published by Orion Spring, £14.99. To order a copy for £13.19 until 18 April, go to or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.