Laundry is a mundane, habitual and highly routinized social practice. At the same time, it is an inconspicuous act of resource consumption that occurs in the private and domestic realm. As a collective activity, it annually uses up massive quantities of finite resources such as energy and water, and in the process, contributes towards greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and climate change. Beyond resource consumption, laundering can also be linked to synthetic microfibre pollution in aquatic environments. However, this has not always been the case - the increase in environmental impact is largely consequential to the enormous rise in volumes of clothes that are washed, the frequency at which they are washed and a shift towards greater use of synthetic materials. Between 1970 and 2014 the amount of energy used to do the laundry has more than doubled. As such, the average household in the UK now performs 284 wash cycles per year; equivalent to 5.5 cycles a week, and those with tumble dryers perform 260 drying loads per year. This acceleration in laundering routines does not reflect an increase in the amount of clothes that get dirty but rather, changes across a broad spectrum of social, technological and cultural areas where expectations and conventions have shifted.
The Laundry Pile looks beyond the mundanities of doing the laundry and explores clothes washing in context to the environment and our evolving material culture. It brings together a range of work from a small group of activists, researchers and designers who have explored laundry and its associated practices from a variety of different perspectives. The exhibition displays work relating to three core themes Design, Materials and Cultural Narratives.
First, shining a spotlight on Design, the exhibition questions how garment design contributes to the choices we make about how and how often (or not) to launder clothing - highlighting how clothes washing is influenced by an array of factors aside from the desire for cleanliness. Giving attention to Materials, the exhibition takes an up-close look at what lurks in the water after clothes are washed. As well as leaching colour dyes, microfibre pollution describes the release of tiny fibres, less than 5mm in length and smaller in diameter than a human hair, which are released from clothing and textiles during machine washing and drying cycles. A single synthetic garment can shed as many as 1900 fibres per wash . Finally, the exhibition considers laundry as a Culural Narrative, including its past and present social significance and how it has co-evolved as a practice in environmentally significant ways. Critically, the themes illustrate the interdependencies involved in the escalation of laundry as an environmental concern and the complexities involved in working towards more sustainable practices.
The Laundry Pile has been curated and organised by Jade Whitson-Smith, Emma Rigby and Lizzie Harrison. It emerged through conversations between the curators about their common interest and work in laundry and clothing. The curators would like to thank their funding partners: University of Huddersfield.