Is America Ready for Washboards?

An interview with Slow Laundry advocate John Sage

Abby Napad, July 22, 2012

AN: Thanks for taking the time to talk, John. A lot of people credit your book Truth and Lyes with launching the Slow Laundry movement. How’d you get started doing laundry by hand?

John Sage

John Sage, gazing into my soul during our interview.

JS: Well, it’s pretty simple. I had a pair of pants that had been with me through thick and thin, through all sorts of meaningful life experiences. I didn’t wash them a lot, because you know how pants can get tight when you wash them…

AN: Yes, I do.

JS: …But one afternoon, I did wash them. And when I took them out of the washing machine they had a bleach stain.

And I had this deep sense of betrayal and rage. But at the same time, I realized I’d given the job of caring for this beloved garment to a machine. And if I’m having a cold, heartless machine do my laundry, why should I be surprised when it heartlessly destroys my pants? That very day, I went out and bought my first washboard.

AN: Where’d you buy it?

JS: I bought it at Cracker Barrel. But there are a lot more options today. There’s a great craft blacksmithing movement and I really urge people to find a local blacksmith to make their washboard, ideally with locally sourced zinc or tin.

These days, I use river stones to scrub my clothes. But I know not everyone is ready for that.AN: Isn’t a washboard just another kind of machine?

JS: I’m glad you asked that. Yes, it is. Washboards were a product of the industrial revolution, and all the destruction and dislocation that came with it. Ultimately they’re just another technology – like an elevator, or a hot water heater – that makes our lives a little more synthetic and artificial. These days, I use river stones to scrub my clothes. But I know not everyone is ready for that, and I don’t want to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

AN: So, kind of like how even though a bike is better than a car, a bike is still…

JS: …Yes, exactly, that’s a great analogy. And that’s a whole other topic, because using a bike instead of walking is so symptomatic of this modern idea that fast is better than slow and machines are better than organic, living things. When we use bikes we blind ourselves to our surroundings, we sort of artificially isolate ourselves in this shell of wind and speed.

AN: What is your thinking on soap? I know this has been a contentious topic in the Slow Laundry movement.

JS: Soap is a really complex topic. First, I do choose to use soap in my washing, although I also respect those who don’t.

If you’re hand-washing your clothes you’ve already taken an important step. But I hope people consider going a little further and making their own soap. Commercial detergent is just an awful chemical brew that shouldn’t touch anything that’s going to touch your skin.

AN: Isn’t making soap at home dangerous? Because of the lye?

JS: Lye has power, no doubt. That’s something our ancestors knew, and it’s why they had so many rituals and sacred traditions associated with soapmaking. When I first started making my own lye from wood ashes I got some pretty bad burns – here, look…

[At this point in the interview Sage took off his shirt – his entire torso is covered in purple scar tissue. One of his nipples is burned off entirely.]

…, plus, I’ve accidentally inhaled lye fumes a few times, so my voice is a little lower than it used to be. But you have to ask yourself – is making lye really more dangerous than having commercial detergent residue all over your body? At the end of the day, I’ll stick with soap made from wood ash and pig lard that I collected myself, rather than a bunch of chemicals I can’t even pronounce. You can learn a lot more about this in my book, Truth and Lyes.

Anyone who machine-washes is a subject in a massive science experiment to see how these machines impact human health.AN: Aren’t newer, resource-efficient washing machines a big improvement over older machines?

JS: Well, yes and no. Their carbon and water footprint is smaller, which is obviously good. But they disconnect people even further from their clothes. An older machine will take longer, it might require more than one cycle, it makes more noise, it’s more likely to break down, it creates a bigger utility bill – and these are all things that force people to engage and connect with the laundry process. Newer machines just sanitize laundry.

AN: Are washing machines safe?

JS: I don’t think anyone knows for sure. Electric washing machines are relatively new, and they might have environmental health impacts that don’t show up until the third or fourth generation.  Big appliance companies have a lot of power in Washington, and they were allowed to force these machines into millions of homes without doing any longitudinal studies to assess long-term impact.

AN: So we don’t know if washing machines are hazardous to our health?

JS: Basically, anyone who machine-washes is a subject in a massive science experiment to see how these machines impact human health.

AN: Do you get angry at people who don’t do laundry by hand?

JS: No, absolutely not. I genuinely feel sorry for them. Without realizing it, they’re cutting themselves off from one of the most integral parts of being human. So many people walk around with this feeling of emptiness, like there’s something missing, that their lives lack purpose and meaning, and they don’t realize that the answer is so simple.

AN: Machine-washing causes some sort of generalized ennui?

JS: People think the high rates of depression and anxiety that we have in the industrialized world are normal, but they’re not. Folks in poor countries don’t have these problems. And for that matter neither did our great-grandparents. They were too busy doing laundry to be sad.

People think these machines are making their lives better, but they’re not – they’re hollowing out part of what it means to be human. 

AN: And you think Slow Laundry is the solution?

JS: Well, it’s a big part of the solution. The true solution is to purge society of the decadence and materialism that corrupt it, so that a unified community rooted in our eternal, spiritual connection with the land and the nation can be reborn from its ashes. But I think doing laundry by hand is a big part of that.

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