Monday, February 15, 2010

The boiling pot - ancient way of cleaning clothes, still brilliant idea for simple living

Into the boiling pot – another heirloom idea from the past that we can use to bleach our whites here in the simple living present.

Boiling water is a glorious thing and it can play a major role in a simple life. Water is the universal solvent. Water can dissolve more things than any acid or chemical every dreamed up. Adding heat to water makes it even more effective and then even the tiniest addition of soap or bleaching agents will be immeasurable more effective.

In the “good old days” laundry was an all day affair and I do not harbor any blind nostalgia for that process. No, I do not relish pointless physical labor. And I am not calling on you to trot out vast tubs of boiling water every single week to do your basic laundry. Bless the machines and use them while you have them. But there are times and situations where otherwise insoluble laundry problems can be remedied by tossing them in the boiling pot. Let me warn you, one cannot get the same results just by using the hot water cycle on your modern washing machine. Usually, by the time the tub is full, that “hot” water is tepid at best. No, it is not nearly the same thing. No a large pot, some water and a lot of heat are the way the old folks dealt with stubborn issues and it is still a great heirloom skill to learn and use. However, time consuming, there are elements of old time laundry that can still serve us today whether we are building a small homestead or just trying to get garden stains out of our jeans. For numerous special needs a good boiling will work wonders with your laundry.

What kind of needs you may ask. Well, sweat stains for one thing, that dingy grey buildup that accumulates over time, musty smelly towels and things exposed to infectious disease – all of these can be well treated by some time in boiling water. How about dingy pillow cases and dull stained kitchen towels. White socks really can be white again. Ring around the collar can be a lost memory for your favorite shirts. Also washing in boiling water make the effectiveness of regular bleach improve a dozen fold. Perhaps the last, but not least use for boiling clothes and linen is as a way to treat infestation of lice or other critters. Do not laugh, in a world of bed bugs returning to America, boiling your linen once in a while doesn’t seem so silly.

The process could not be easier – now in older times the water was boiled outside in giant cauldrons upon an open fire. The giant cauldrons would certainly be roomy and have a certain retro chic cachet, but the idea of tending a great smoking fire is not too appealing. Fortunately, we can avail ourselves of all the modern conveniences and still benefit from this simple technique. Here is the basic method.

First, get the largest pot you can find – you may use as many as you have burners on your stove and if necessary, you can do two “loads”

Second, fill the pots about ¾ full and bring the water to a brisk boil

Third, add the clothing, towels or linen slowly and stir into the water using a large spoon – wood is preferable because it does not conduct heat well and is easier to handle. The longer the handle the better and in fact a long wooden dowel or piece of broom stick would be ideal. Be sure not to overload the pot – you need room to stir.

Fourth, to wash the clothes and or remove smells and grimy stains add a small amount of detergent – there is much debate on how much to add but I feel that half the amount listed on the detergent is usually plenty for any purpose. If you need to bleach this is the time to add it – but do so very conservatively, you will not need near the usual amount of bleach in boiling water. Stir frequently. Now allow the clothes to remain at a low boil for between 30minutes and an hour – no longer.

Fifth, remove the clothes from the pot using your long handled spoon. Rinse them thoroughly in warm water and then again in cold. Remember, cloth shrinks more from going to one extreme to the other so do not douse them in cold water, if you fear shrinkage.

Finally, when they are rinsed free, treat them like regular laundry at this point. I always hang them out to dry in the sun and complete the process of refreshing them the old fashioned way.

NOTE: if your items are prone to shrinkage you can add them first to the pot and let them heat up with the water – shrinkage is most prone to happen from sudden temperature changes so start them slow and rinse them slow and you will be less likely to have trouble

SECOND NOTE: If your friends are queasy you can use a separate pot for the laundry than the one you cook in. Or alternatively, just scrub it well and tell a little white lie – people are silly.

Using hot water has of course some risks – It can shrink and it can cause fading. You may not want to use this technique on all your laundry. But trust me, if for nothing other than white socks, underwear and bed linen, it is the best possible way to brighten and freshen them. The old boiling pot, it’s a brilliant heirloom skill and one that I have been practicing for decades.

FINAL NOTE: If you read my other post on using boiling water to cleanse and clear drains – this is a good use for the water once you pull the clothes from it. Just be careful, the pots are heavy and water still scalding – but pouring it down drains will clean them, deodorize them and help melt away fatty soap deposits. It’s a great way to kill two chores with one idea.


  1. I don't know why more people don't comment on blogs. I found this really helpful while trying to figure out if I'm able to boil my whites. thank you!

  2. great post! thanks for sharing whilst also helping me get some laundry down sans automatic washer!

  3. Fed up with EU washing powder (it just does not work properly) hence so many stain removers on the market. Also reminded of starched pillow cases whilst in India, we seem to have lost this art too. Pure luxury ,I went out and bought starch immediately.

  4. I imagine this is used in many third world countries. I watched a video tonight of people in India slamming their laundry on the rocks like they were trying to kill it. I know it's not funny, but I'm still laughing. Boiling would probably be easier than that.

  5. I imagine this is used in many third world countries. I watched a video tonight of people in India slamming their laundry on the rocks like they were trying to kill it. I know it's not funny, but I'm still laughing. Boiling would probably be easier than that.

  6. You can also pour the boiling water on unwanted grass and weeds, like in the cracks of your sidewalk. Kills the weeds and waters the plants around them as the water cools. Just be aware of what you have added to the water to clean your laundry. If it was non-toxic you're OK.

  7. I just used this method on some vintage linens that I was sure I would have to throw away they were so badly stained. I have a large canning pot so i added salt and baking soda (recipe from another site) brought to a boil stirred then let sit over night. Next day I simmered them for an hour. Rinsed and hung up to dry. I couldnt believe how well this worked they all came out looking brand new.

    1. How much salt and how much baking soda?

  8. Thank you for this information! It's amazing how simple things should really be while we complicate it so much.

  9. Everything is very open with a clear description of the challenges.

  10. I remember going to my Aunt Eva's house in the very early 80's. It was in northeast England and she still had the old "copper boilers" out in the "wash house" in which she used to do her laundry. They were coal fired and the wash house was separate from the main house, and right near the kitchen door. The copper boilers were quite large. They would heat the one to boiling for the whites, and the other to tepid or warm for the darks. THOSE were the days when your clothes really got clean!

  11. I'm only 53. We had to boil our underwear at boarding school. They were always white.
    I still treat my white cotton and linen sheets to a "boil-up" as I use vein concealer on my legs which rubs off and is difficult to remove in a front loader. I also rub a tiny bit of detergent into the concealer stains before I launder them.


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