My Family’s Dirty Laundry: Soap Suds and Patience

January 12, 2013

Why we need laundry soap.

Why we need laundry soap.

Here’s the January installment in the Pennywise column I’ve been writing for Savvy Kids. Thanks for reading! 

A few years ago my husband and I decided to start making our own laundry detergent. We were on an extremely tight budget and looking for ever-more creative ways to save money. Three years down the road, making laundry detergent has become one of my favorite domestic activities. And it’s recently become a source of wonder for our twin toddlers. This probably makes us sound like we don’t get out much. But hear me out: Making laundry detergent is a form of household magic.

If you’re new to the world of DIY homemaking or urban homesteading, or whatever name you want to ascribe to this make-it-yourself form of domesticity, the thought of making your own laundry detergent may sound a little over the top. People often wonder, will it work? Is it hard to make? Where will I find the time? I can get cheap detergent at Wal-Mart, so what’s the point, anyway?

First let’s talk about frugality. According to a little online research, we discovered that store bought laundry runs somewhere around twenty cents to forty cents a load. Homemade, on the other hand, is only about two cents a load. If your household produces a high volume of laundry, the saving can really add up. But honestly, I’ve never sat down and calculated our savings.  I just know I can buy a package of washing soda for about 3.00 dollars, a box of borax for another 3.00 dollars and a few bars of soap for another 3.00, and I’ve got what I need to make laundry detergent for the year.

Does it work, you ask. I’m a gardener who lives with two three year old boys, two cats, two dogs, and an artist/cyclist/semi-handyman. In other words, we’re quite familiar with dirt, and laundry is a serious subject around these parts. Since beginning to make our own detergent, I’ve never noticed a difference in the quality of our laundry, and our clothes come out just as clean and stain free as they always have. As an added bonus, we’ve also greatly reduced the amount of plastic bottles we throw in the recycling bin since we reuse the designated detergent container for each new batch. In our case the reusable container is an old four-gallon ice cream bucket we got from a local deli, so we double the recipe. But any two-gallon container will do.

I like saving money and I’m happy to have found another way to decrease the amount of waste we produce in our home.  I also like knowing that this soap is better for the environment, free of toxins, and doesn’t dump any dangerous chemicals in the communal water supply. But to be honest, this isn’t why I look forward to whipping up a new batch every few months.

When I grate the soap and dump the shavings into boiling hot water, the concoction fills the house with a soft, soapy smell that permeates every room. My children love watching the steam rise from the big bucket and the opportunity to stir all the ingredients together, observing the powders dissolve and knowing they’re helping make something so essential to our daily lives. After we’ve finished the process, and we put the lid on the bucket to let it cool, I take this opportunity to talk to them about patience and the art of waiting (you’ve got to work that subject whenever you can, right?). Twenty-four hours later we lift the lid and find the concoction converted into a gel-like substance that’s ready to be stirred and wash their dirt-covered clothes. It only takes a few minutes to make a batch, a seemingly simple act that infuses a little bit of wonder into an otherwise normal day.

You can find numerous soap recipes online, including some that call for liquid soaps like Dr. Bronner’s. Here’s our favorite recipe.


*1/3 bar of Fels Naptha Laundry Soap* (found in the laundry area of most large stores), grated. You can use a hand grater or an electric. We use an old cheese grater reserved specifically for this purpose.

* 6 cups water

* 1/2 cup washing soda (Found in the laundry aisle of most stores)

*1/2 cup borax, (same as above)


  • Heat 6 cups of water on stove. (An old cooking pan works perfectly).
  • Add soap shavings and let them dissolve.
  • Stir in washing soda and Borax and mix until dissolved.
  • Boil mixture for 15 minutes and remove from heat.
  • In a 3 or 5 gallon bucket, add 1 quart of hot water and add the soap mixture. Stir together.
  • Add enough warm water to make a 2 gallon mixture. Mix until blended.
  • Let sit 24 hours.
  • Stir before each load and use about ½ cup per load.

*You can substitute other bars of soap in the place of Fels Naptha. Use 2/3 of the bar rather than 1/3.


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