Inhale and enjoy `Laundry' (after washing)

December 11, 2005|By SUSAN REIMER

Admit it. There is nothing as pleasing as the smell of freshly laundered sheets, or a comforter that has spent the day hanging in the breeze and the sunshine.

There is not much more reassuring than the sight of all your dress shirts crisply ironed and lined up like soldiers in your closet.

Fluffy towels, warm from the dryer; a favorite pair of jeans, ready to go again; a stack of folded kitchen towels, the stains magically gone.

It is hard to focus on the sensuality of clean laundry when you are facing a mountain of it, but author Cheryl Mendelson does.

" ... Laundry is my favorite kind of housework," she writes in her new book, Laundry: The Home Comforts Book of Caring for Clothes & Linens (Scribner, $25).

"It requires just enough physical involvement to give the satisfying and all-too-uncommon experience of work that unites the head and hand.

"It is sensually pleasing, with its snowy, sweet-smelling suds, warm water and the lovely look and feel of fabric folded or ironed, smooth and gleaming."

Laundry expands on a topic covered in Mendelson's first book, Home Comforts, an encyclopedic inventory of the art and science of caring for your home and the things in it. That book was a surprise best-seller in 1999 and is in its 11th printing.

"What I had done the most work on in that book - I mean, I really killed myself - was cloth, which is my passion," said Mendelson, a Harvard Law School graduate who rediscovered the joys of the home arts when her son was born.

"I grew up sewing and knitting and embroidering and doing laundry with my mother."

There was nothing sensual about it back then. Mendelson's family worked a farm in Greene County, Pa., and Monday was wash day, a brutal trial of boiling pots and hand-wringing that left the women in her family exhausted.

Laundry is a lovely read, and it includes both the lore and the science of cleaning the fabrics in our lives, including the helpful decoding of the care labels on our garments and the demystification of stain removal. At 400 pages, it is comprehensive.

She writes in an urgent attempt to preserve the best of what she learned beside her mother, aunts and grandmothers.

"Kids today don't know what gingham is or a houndstooth check. They don't know why you wear wool in winter and linen in the summer. They only know style. And, likewise, they can't judge quality. All these little skills help us take care of the stuff of our private life. Passing them on should be a good feeling."

She spoke by telephone from the New York City apartment she shares with her husband and son, where she is frustratingly unable to adjust the temperature of the water that feeds her washing machine.

Heat. That was probably the biggest revelation for Mendelson during her research.

Energy consciousness has changed so much in the laundry room. The water there is rarely hot enough anymore to get clothes really clean (160 degrees, at least).

Care labels and detergents reflect this new reality, disappointing and frustrating the person responsible for the laundry.

"We have been acclimated to a less good result, and we accept it," she said, noting that European washing machines can heat water to 200 degrees. "Remember, we used to boil our laundry."

Laundry dispenses with misinformation about luxury - 600-threadcount sheets and Egyptian cotton bath towels are not it - and reinforces what your mother told you:

There is only one way to fold a fitted sheet.

It is poor bed manners to lie or sit on bed linens while wearing street clothes.

And good girls should hand-wash their unmentionables every night.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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