Sun Bleaching – Yup, It Still Works


One of the things I love about having this blog is that it encourages me to do my homework.  I know that I hang clothes out in the sun to bleach them, and that it works, but what’s the history of doing this?  Isn’t it how they used to bleach linen?  Hmm . . .

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may have noticed that I promised more about this soon, in a post about hanging laundry, um, quite a while ago.  I’ve seen a couple of other bloggers mention a mild curse around promising something “soon”, now I see what they mean!

The good news is that in the meantime I did some more hands-on research, and some more reading.  I read part of a fascinating book called World Textiles: A Concise History by Mary Schoeser.  As near as I can figure, bleaching by (at least in part) laying things in the sun goes back at least as far as ancient Egypt.  That makes sense to me, especially if early cultures were also trying to find dyes that would withstand fading in the sun.  For the more recent history, after much guessing at search terms, I finally found this post on Root Simple, which linked me to this page on Old & Interesting.  If you’re curious, do click, both these sites are tantalizingly full of interesting stuff!


While I was doing this research I mentioned my ideas about this post to my mom.  She told me that when we were kids, she would always hang our cloth diapers outside to dry, which got them back to a reasonable whiteness.  In fact, one of my aunts (the one who has always liked her household very neat and clean) was visiting and commented that she wanted my cousins diapers to look like ours!


It’s been my experience that when trying to keep things white, it’s the sun that helps the most.  Pre-treating stains helps a little, oxygen bleach helps a little, but the thing that gets collars, underarms, and kitchen towels back to presentable is to hang them in the sun.  I’m limited in what I’ll put in our laundry as far as chemical bleach, partly by my inclination, and partly because our washer empties right into the back yard, and has done since it was put in in the 70’s.  But on recent road trip I tried out chlorine bleach at a laundromat, following the instructions on the package.  I admit I’m pleased to say it made much less difference than my usual sun routine!  Now if only I could do it while we’re traveling (I can see it now, the truck streaking down the highway with shirts flapping against the sides).  I have been known to bring clothes on our visits home, so I could get them back to white before venturing out again!


My method is pretty darn simple, I hang things that need bleaching with the stained parts getting as much direct sunlight as possible.  Sometimes I lay clothes on the ground or bushes – old school bleaching ground style, especially if they’re particularly yellowed.  But most of the time I hang them on the line, in some funny arrangement with clothes pins like the picture at the top.  I’ll leave the whites out all afternoon, occasionally moving them if needed as the sun shifts, and spraying the stained parts with a mist of water, which really seems to help as they dry again (chemically why? I have no idea – I didn’t do THAT much research).


I also tried out lemon juice, not part of my normal routine but suggested by a couple of sources I found.  I mixed it with a little water and dipped in the stained areas, then hung out the shirt as usual.  It didn’t seem to do more than just misting with water on underarm stains.  BUT, out of curiosity I also dabbed it on this really stubborn light orangey spot which lots and lots of regular washing and sun exposure, plus extra scrubbing, stain remover, even chlorine bleach pen had faded but not erased.  Voilà!  Totally gone.  So now I have added lemon juice to my stain removing tools.


Oh, I should mention that if your clothes are stiff and/or wrinkled in weird places after this treatment, you can throw them in the dryer for just a couple of minutes with a wet cloth, or iron them, or mist the wrinkled places with water and hang them on a hanger and let them dry.


Lynda Barry has this line in her wonderful book Picture This where she writes “IT STILL WORKS”.  I think about this all the time, all the time, not just about laundry (or about making books by stapling paper together, which is what she means).  Just because humans invent something new (like chlorine bleach) does that make the old way somehow not work?  Nope, in fact, it doesn’t even mean that the old way might not still be better.