When I walked into the kitchen, my teenage daughter looked up from her phone just long enough to say: ‘Ew, you wore that dress yesterday.’
‘Yeah, and the day before that,’ said my other daughter. ‘Gross.’
But they hadn’t seen anything yet. I went on to wear the maroon frock every day for the next seven days and quite happily would have gone on for longer if teen pressure hadn’t ground me down.
The dress itself was remarkably unscathed — it looked and smelled as fresh as a daisy.
My daughters’ perception of me wearing it repeatedly was the problem; how can a dress that isn’t freshly laundered possibly be clean, they wanted to know?
And so, I expect, will you.
Well, the dress is made from fine merino wool, no thicker than a cotton T-shirt, and comes from a U.S. company called wool& — one of a new breed of small, eco-friendly fashion labels creating natural clothing that requires very little washing.
It is a simple A-line design that can be worn bare-legged with sandals in summer and tights and boots in winter. The week I tested it, the weather veered from uncomfortable humidity to driving rain and then bursts of glorious sunshine — in other words, a typical British summer.
Bizarrely, the dress did exactly what its designers said it would do and regulated my body temperature. Wool is designed by nature to keep sheep cool in summer by pulling moisture and heat away from the body. On a cool day, it reverses the process by absorbing moisture and releasing stored heat energy to keep you warm.
It is a sophisticated, wearable technology — except that it’s completely natural, which explains why we’ve been breeding sheep for wool for the past 10,000 years.
Even more importantly, for anyone who has worn a polyester dress on a hot day and had to keep topping up the deodorant, my wool dress never became whiffy.
As wool efficiently absorbs sweat and evaporates it into the air before it can break down the bacteria on your skin causing smells, it is naturally odour-resistant. Wool is also six times more durable than cotton and naturally wrinkle-resistant — so no wonder it has been called the ‘original high-performance fibre’.
The designers at wool& are so confident in the wash-less credentials of their Rowena Swing Dress (£103) that they issued a challenge on their website to see who could wear it for 100 days straight.
Fifty women volunteered, and 13 managed to finish the challenge with just a handful of washes. One even managed the entire 100 days just spot-washing — dabbing at any stains with a cloth or sponge.
The experiment was extreme — but demonstrated the point that natural, breathable fibres can be worn for weeks without washing. That reiterates designer Stella McCartney’s recent advice on the subject: ‘If you don’t absolutely have to clean anything, don’t clean it.’
This, of course, is great news for those of us who have laundry baskets the size of a municipal tip.
A number of small fashion labels have sprung up to design light woollen clothes, including U.S. company Unbound Merino, French label Seagale and UK companies Isobaa and EDZ.
There is also a deeper reason to start washing less — and wearing wool: the environment. Not only is wool sustainable, biodegradable and won’t release plastic micro-fibres into our water systems, it lasts for years and requires very little water or detergent to keep clean.
The truth is that most of us are guilty of over-washing our clothes. Washing machines account for 17 per cent of water usage in our homes, and manufacturer AEG claims we’re so cleanliness-conscious that 90 per cent of clothes never reach the point where they need to be washed before we throw them in the laundry basket. We also use far more detergent than is necessary — half the dosage recommended by detergent companies is usually enough.
Mac Bishop, CEO of wool&, says we have been conditioned to over-wash our clothes by advertisements from detergent companies. He should know, because he used to work for one.
‘I saw how that world worked,’ he says. ‘Most markets around the world are saturated with marketing from detergent companies. Their products were everywhere and everyone used them. So the only way to grow was to persuade people to wash more frequently and use more detergent.
‘But instead of washing your clothes after one use, give it a few moments’ thought. Give clothes the sniff test, then figure out yourself if they need to be washed or not. It will save you time, money, water usage and detergent.’
However, persuading us that it is hygienic not to wash natural-fibre clothes every day (pants and socks excepted, of course) is a major challenge. The other challenge is persuading us to turn our backs on fast, disposable fashion in favour of fewer, better quality clothes that last longer and need less care.
One new fashion company, Pangaia, believes it has the answer — making T-shirts from seaweed fibre and recycled materials that are treated with peppermint oil to keep them fresher for longer without washing.
It already has a following of young American stars such as Justin Bieber and Jaden Smith, who might just help to persuade our own teenagers that it is simply not cool to toss a T-shirt into the laundry basket after just one wear.
Mac Bishop admits it will take time to change the cultural norm that we should wear a freshly washed outfit every day. ‘What the women in our 100-day experiment realised is that very few people notice you’ve been wearing the same dress day in, day out,’ he adds.
They probably didn’t have teenage daughters, is all I can say.