Easy-care: The Community Launderette That Offers More Than Clean Clothes

| Maria Passingham

Launderettes in my life have meant one of two things. Argumentative scenes on TV – FriendsThe NewsroomEastenders– or when I needed to tumble-dry copious amounts of bedding as a student, and felt the glares of other customers bore into my head. Neither is exactly the best image of society or community. You either fight with your neighbours among the rumbling and shaking machines that seem to spur on aggression, or you feel so awkward and out of place that you run away as quickly as possible. 

Long ago, public wash houses were places where you were encouraged to bring your dirty laundry (both literally and metaphorically), and get to know your neighbours and their secrets while you cleaned your sheets. In Liverpool, a group of local residents are working hard to reinstate this establishment as a functional, social, and sustainable space. 

Kitty’s Launderette is a new venture, but firmly rooted in the history of the city: the first in the UK to open a public wash house (in 1842). A decade before, Kitty Wilkinson – the launderette’s namesake – had opened her house and garden to neighbours to do their laundry as an effort to tackle the cholera epidemic. At the affordable penny per week cost the community was able to use Kitty’s boiler, and her work inspired the council to establish its own public facility. 

Through research, the Kitty’s Laundrette team led by Grace Harrison discovered that “there is still a considerable need” for a laundry-space like this among their community, despite the apparent frequency of houses having their own machines. But, they are adamant that the space must function as more than just a place to wash clothes.

As well as providing self-service, and full wash and press service options using eco-friendly products, liquid refills, and eco-dry cleaning, the launderette offers fast, free WIFI and quality coffee to encourage customers to hang out, socialise, or work. The team are also organising events to further use the space including cinema nights, live music, and other arts events.  

Art has been a key player in Kitty’s Launderette from the very start. When the team launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund its renovations they offered rewards designed and produced by local artists and craftspeople, including ethically produced tote and wash bags, soaps, ceramics, zines, music, and design prints. Importantly, all artists were paid for their work, stressing that creativity has worth and sustaining the local scene. The Kickstarter pitch showed that even the process of producing the donor rewards had been positive for the community.

“Whatever happens, our work has already contributed to the local economy, developed the capacity of several individuals and supported the creative practice of a group of Liverpool artists”.

Kitty’s Laundrette

The rewards, artistic events, and even the creative elements of the Launderette itself (such as upcycling broken titles into its flooring) all support one of the team’s central principles – “to support artist practice which values how arts function in communities rather than being directed towards the art market”. Essentially, making art as accessible and purposeful as an affordable laundry service. 

Clearly the community understood the vision of the project as it achieved over £20K in crowdfunding in 31 days, £6K over its target sum. Three years after the idea first struck, Kitty’s Launderette opened to the public. 

With its diverse array of income streams, Harrison, the team and the community hope that the launderette will be a staple of the area for years to come, reviving Kitty Wilkinson’s legacy. Kitty and Liverpool’s wash houses are also going to be honoured in a new Lottery-funded project ‘Hanging Out: Histories of Liverpool’s Laundry Life’ which will record and share memories of experiences in those spaces, through exhibitions and events.

The Launderette is also looking to the future, hoping that as we move towards a greener way of living that Kitty’s can be instrumental in encouraging behavioural change: 

“In the long run we might be able to contribute to a shift in culture around collective ownership of resources, so that if someone’s machine breaks, they may not bother to buy a new one with money they don’t have, but come and use the quality local provision.”

Kitty’s Laundrette

Along with these plans to be a community resource, Harrison’s team are looking to the future in other sustainable ways. The washing products are eco-friendly, profits are reinvested back into the community, local residents are gaining skills and training through paid and voluntary jobs, and research is being carried out on how to further develop their technologies to be cheaper, more efficient, and environmentally considerate. 

Taking inspiration from the original Kitty, but focussing on the needs of current residents, the team appreciate that these ideas “help [the] laundry to be future facing as well as a little nostalgic”. Hopefully this launderette of the future will also be able to wash out the memories of those argumentative or awkward spaces from the past.

Find out more about Kitty’s Launderette on the website, including information about contributing your tales of Liverpool’s wash houses for their new memories project.

Photo by Kid Circus

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