February 8, 2011

Cute baby socks on a washing line

Laundry day, by iskir on flickr

When I was a wee researcher, I did an unholy amount of research on people’s laundry habits.   Much of this was done in standard focus groups.  Problem is, people posture like crazy in focus groups, especially when you wish to Get To The Truth of people’s deepest darkest washing habits.

So we also did in-home interviews.  I was dispatched with my Sony Walkman Professional to talk to housewives in grim London suburbs.  They had strict instructions not to prepare for the interview. Uhuh.

Scene 1

A kitchen with a blue lino floor that shone in the sunlight.   Daffodils on the windowsill.  Coffee provided in a neat mug with pictures of dogs.   A white plastic laundry basket full of sparkling clean clothing , and a discussion of delicates, silks, pre-treatment, after-treatment, boil washes, airers and detailed laundry schedules.

Scene 2

A basement kitchen with a concrete floor.  Piles of washing everywhere.  Tea from a chipped red mug.  Lady of the house in faded sweatpants and bunny slippers.  A dusty green laundry basket full of clean socks, babygros and T shirts that had taken on the same rough, grey-white washed-to-hell hue.

‘I put everything in at the same temperature,’ she said  cheerfully.  ‘I never bother sorting, I don’t really think it matters.’   We both looked at the pile of grey sports socks on the floor, and I nodded encouragingly.

Context matters.

I learned more about women’s lives (and indeed the politics of laundry) in those silly interviews than in doing focus groups for a year.  Sure, people were still putting on their best face, but in their own spaces you saw far more.  Stuff.  Context. Real lives. Polished-up, but  not magazine-ready.

There’s a lovely book by Daniel Miller, The Comfort of Things, which examines 30 households in a London neighbourhood. He looks at material culture, the things that people own and the way that they display them, and he uses this to illuminate the stories he tells about the people who live there.

I think we should all get out more.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ann McMahon February 8, 2011 at 2:54 pm

I am strangely fond of this post & we’ve only just met;)


Anonymous February 8, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Thank you. It’s the baby socks. ;-)


Nancy February 9, 2011 at 4:30 pm

I love the last line. So. Much. And you have convincingly built your case for it before you reach it :-)


Ali Mac February 10, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Thanks Nancy.


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