by Rita Leydon ©1997

I am a fiber person, always have been. I love the possibilities inherent in a ball of yarn, a cone of thread, a piece of dry goods. Knitting, crocheting and knyppling (bobbin lace) were in my bag of tricks before I left Sweden at the tender age of ten. Since that time I have added spinning, weaving and sheep raising to the bag. The sheep became history when I took up dancing a couple of years ago, but the other tricks are still in that bag. My delight in Swedish dance has provided me with a wonderful additional interest in keeping with the fiber theme: sewing, wearing, dancing in and laundering (!) Swedish costumes. Isn’t it curious how one thing leads to another which leads to another which leads back to where you started?

In any case, back to fibers. Let me state up front that I am no friend of synthetics. I am on the other hand a passionate defender, protector, appreciator and caregiver of natural fibers-cotton, linen, wool, and (ah!) silk primarily. Got it? Rita is truly nuts about fine cloth.

I have been involved in the domestic fiber scene for the better part of two decades. This entitles me to any opinions I might have developed during my tenure as the person in charge of providing clean clothes for the family. I am the Laundry Mistress. Oh, boy, I feel the pulse of excitement as I climb up onto my soap box!

Very early in this tenure I imagined that everyone else’s domestic laundry came out perfectly white and spotless, while mine was more on the dingy side. I think TV advertising had something to do with the discrepancy. I had a “modern” American washing machine-—hereafter referred to as MAWM—and access to the same Tide, Fab, Cheer, and Clorox as everyone else. I have boys, and they can be very instrumental in creating laundry challenges, as can my husband who provides work clothes smeared in gear oil and perfumed by Castrol. Needless to say, we all wore spotty “clean” clothes for years, as does everyone else in America.

A trip to Sweden when the boys were still small opened my eyes to one of the major differences between Sweden and America. Over there they have these amazing washing machines that actually clean your clothes! What a novel idea! Imagine my shock at seeing my boys' T-shirts rid of spots that I had come to think of as part of the design, underwear and socks appealingly white without fiber destruction courtesy of Clorox—all this after just one pass through Moster Barbro’s Cylinda washing machine. I was impressed. “Show me your machine.”

Off we trudged across the stone yard and into tvättstugan in the basement of Mormor’s house. This is a magic place, fondly recalled in my memory bank, always cool and damp, a place were water play was allowed any time at all. There among several ancient wooden wash troughs, equally old copper boiling pots of huge proportions, cleaning benches for the large stainless steel milk containers used during the dairy days of my childhood, wooden slat rugs running up and down the length of the cement floor, there stood Barbro’s magical washing machine in all its unassuming glory. It was a small white affair, in fact, disappointing. Who knows what I expected—maybe something more competent looking. I thought to myself that one bath towel will fill this thing up, thinking smugly of the “large capacity” of my MAWM. Barbro allayed my fears by explaining that one packs the cavity to a hard fill, using fists—and feet, I supposed—to pack the dirty laundry. Then you put in the detergent, select the cycle and go away for several hours. “Several hours?” My MAWM does a cycle in 20 minutes. My American smugness was embarrassing as was the part about my ridiculous MAWM which didn’t know how to get clothes clean—in its one function in life, that MAWM was a failure from the get-go. Which is why we were in the basement talking shop, Moster Barbro and little Rita.

Several days further into our visit and several more loads of laundry into clean clothes heaven set me to thinking that I needed a Swedish washing machine. Yes, that’s it. I need a Swedish washing machine. The simple answer to my dismal relationship with my MAWM.

Safely back in America, another couple of years would pass before I again had the chance to give my clothes the Swedish treatment. A weekly laundry flight to Sweden was out of the question. I spent every wash day in denial and withdrawal. I tried “chemical warfare” on my hapless, defenseless laundry, the fibers crying out in agony at the indignity and harm I was inflicting. I was ashamed. I nearly asphyxiated the family with Lestoil. Woe befall anyone who got me going on the subject of washing machines. I was an angry consumer. I was not alone. Inge, my German hausfrau friend, understood—she said German machines are as good as the Swedish ones. She had raised daughters, so it had not been as big an issue for her. Aleka, my Greek sister-in-law, understood. She readily admits that she takes only the most spotty clothes on her annual summer trips so that her relations can provide a German treatment with Greek water. Greeks like their whites white, brilliant, clean. We joked about it. We laughed together. We frustrated together.

On my next trip to Sweden I had a mission: buy a washing machine and bring it back. Coincidentally, the Cylinda Company had a factory very close to Moster Barbro and she was amused to take me there. I collected beautiful sales literature and spoke in lengthy pained passion with a Company Representative. I explained my sad tale of eternally unsatisfactory laundry and that my heart’s desire was to purchase one of their fabulous machines, put it in my pocket and take it home—now. The Rep inquired about American machines and wondered if they still slosh the clothes back and forth around a central agitator? She made twisting motions with her hand and wrist at the same time as her nose wrinkled. Yes. Yes. I was impassioned and pleased that she seemed to understand my dilemma and expressed sympathy for the sad plight of American women of the Western Hemisphere. Millions of washing machines, sloshing billions of sudsy gallons, this way, that way, rinsing once, maybe twice, spinning a bit, ringing a bell announcing cycle completion, sitting up wagging its tail expecting a biscuit. The Family Dog. The clothes aren’t really clean. Doesn’t happen. It's a farce. America put a man on the moon more than twenty years ago, but can America make a decent household washing machine? No, I don’t think so.

I was frantic in my bid to purchase a machine. “I’m sorry,” I was told, “we can’t allow you to buy one of our machines because we have no way of servicing your machine in the USA.” No problem, I protested, my husband is a genius, he can fix anything. “Sorry.” She went on to share that the Company did, in fact, have one machine installed in America. Where, I wondered, was that lucky lady? In Washington DC, I was told—the Swedish Embassy. Ah. I didn’t have such a diplomatic connection at my disposal. I was devastated

Upon my return home to Pennsylvania I was so miserable that I insisted dramatically that we encase our blasted washer and dryer in cement and sink them into the nearest river and then buy the “best” machine currently on the American market—BAWM. A bit of research in the propaganda press, some money exchanged and I had the “best” at my disposal. It was horrible. I hated it from the start. The poor machine wasn’t at fault, it was perfect, didn’t miss a beat. No, the BAWM did exactly what it was supposed to do—the latest in a long line of badly designed washing machines in an even longer line of poor conceptual thinking. I bet all the operatives and decision makers have been men whose passion is for profits, not for fibers.

American women don’t know that there is a better way, don’t know that European washing machines are vastly superior to the BAWM. They think they have it peachy because their machines hold a large load and finish in twenty minutes. Anyway, Clorox is on the shelf. Gallons of Clorox line the shelves in the supermarkets of America. This stuff is not good for fibers, Mother Earth or human inhalation—it should be outlawed. Sadly I accepted that I would never own a decent washing machine as long as I lived in America.

On my next trip to Sweden I merely pined in agony as I longingly admired and coveted the wonderful washing machines so clearly out of my reach. I didn’t visit the factory again or cry on the shoulders of the Company Rep. I simply accepted. Very grownup. I had another mission of acquisition on this trip: a mangel. The mangel doesn’t exist in American homes, while it is ubiquitous in Swedish homes. Access to a mangel is expected by all inhabitants in Sweden. A mangel uses only pressure of rollers against each other and the dampness of the fibers to press the living daylights out of flat cloth such as towels, napkins and tablecloths. Linen is the fiber which longs for this treatment; thirty seconds in a mangel brings out its inherent luster and crispness as no other treatment can. Swedish women know this, American women haven’t a clue. American women think “linens” means “cotton.” Although I carry an American Passport, I am a Swedish woman, and my expectations are high. After I have spent many hours weaving tablecloths and napkins on my large Glimåkra floor loom, I want those items to have a chance to show off their true character as we use them year after year, wash after wash. That’s why I needed a mangel. I had no trouble buying and shipping this appliance. Once my mangel was on American soil, Chris had to help me search out a good power transformer—you know about the electricity being all wrong.

Back to the problem of the washing machine. By now this is a very old problem. The boys are teenagers. I feel malaise and discontent on more fronts that just the laundry. I decide to leave home, leave husband, leave all manner of disappointments and regrets and set out on a new unchartered course alone. This necessitates the purchase of all sorts of stuff to set up a new home. Washing machine is on the list. Chris is very nice and agrees to pay for whatever I need to set myself up comfortably. In an appliance store, while looking at microwaves, I chance to see a countertop dishwasher that looks European in design. “Swedish,” I’m told. Ah. Might you perhaps also sell Swedish washing machines? My pulse quickens. “Yes, as a matter of fact we do.” Chris has to hold me up. I can barely breathe. We are shown the little darlings—dryer and washer. I smile. Chris knows he’s not going to get by on the cheap. The machines are hefty in price compared to the BAWM. The owner/salesman gushes that he sells very few of these, but that his wife uses one and loves it passionately, threatening divorce if he dares to remove it.

So I finally got my coveted Swedish washing machine, but the rest of my life was in such sad shape that I couldn’t enjoy it or test it as thoroughly as I ought to. The wonder machine had simple duty as I was flying solo. Sans dirty husband, sans dirty boys. I had a dear, sweet room mate for a while, but he was more of a test for me than for my washing machine. I don’t think he ever even ventured into our basement to admire it. Didn’t understand as I rhapsodized about the great washing machine that pummeled our clothes clean. Didn’t care much about the process, was just happy I took care of it.

Let me give you, Dear Reader, a guided tour. The units are smallish, so they stack nicely, dryer on top, washer below. All they need is power—special export version set up for American power—and cold water. No hot water required, it makes its own. The settings and choices pertaining to water levels, temperatures, number of washes and number of rinses is mind boggling. Remember I am coming from the cold/warm/hot with exactly one rinse mentality. My old BAWM seems Neanderthalian by comparison. The clothes chamber is small, but has no agitator taking up valuable real estate. As my aunt explained many years ago, you stuff and shove in as much dirty laundry as you possibly can and then quickly close the porthole window that serves as door. The little angel then goes through four or five washes, four or five rinses—using less water than the BAWM—we’re talking thorough! The action is lift, smash, rotate, lift, smash, rotate—akin to beating clothes upon a rock by the river as the birds chirp overhead. After a couple of hours—for whites—the centrifuge engages to get rid of the final rinse water. The thing is spinning to beat the band as you happen upon it anticipating moving the clothes over into the dryer. All of a sudden it goes into hyper speed, spinning at 9 million revolutions per minute, threatening to levitate right through the ceiling. You might think that the vibrations and the noise are unbearable, but no, the machines stay put without dancing across the floor and the noise is minimal compared to, say, my American dishwasher. It has a pleasant tune. What about the dryer? What can you say about a dryer? It works and it matches the washing machine. Enough said.

These are simple pleasures. I get real joy and satisfaction in being a responsible and respectful custodian to the fibers and linens that I am entrusted with. I use—on a daily basis—third and fourth generation table linens, these are not mine to abuse and toss, they are mine to enjoy, care for conscientiously, and replace by the work of my own hand on my own loom as the need arises. I am talking continuity here. This is the Swedish in me. I truly appreciate that Swedes know how to make a washing machine and I am gleefully ecstatic that after two decades as Laundry Mistress I finally have the use of a great tool designed with brilliance and excellent results in mind.

My year off has ended and I am back at home with Chris—richer, wiser and cleaner. Sadly, the wonderful washing machine is for the moment stored in the barn and I have to use Chris’ old BAWM that lives in our mudroom. I mutter and frump a bit on wash days—not too much, because I know that it is just a matter of time before we install my true love washing machine, ASKO by Cylinda. I have given Chris so much trouble, generally speaking, and he has helped me so much, generally speaking, that I have to exercise patience. Dear Chris presented me with a challenge, knowing full well how passionate I am about the whole fiber/water issue: “Write an article about it and get it published, and I’ll install your machines.” Is that fair? Well . . .

Happy washday to all of you!