Coming Clean On Laundry Aids

When my mother-in-law still had a house full of kids, she kept a neat little handwritten note in the laundry room, gently reminding the denizens to clean the lint trap and put the caps back on the detergent and keep the area tidy. It was politely signed ``The Management.''

There is no polite little note in my home.

And no need.

Everyone else in my family knows better than to venture anywhere near the washer-dryer, lest they incur my wrath. I am a slob in nearly every aspect of my life, but for reasons that would probably require costly therapy to uncover, I am a laundry maniac.

I pre-treat. I run a double rinse cycle. I use liquid fabric softener and dryer sheets. I dry low. I fold clothes while warm to minimize wrinkles. I know the right way to iron a dress shirt.

It was, therefore, with great anticipation that I tested this month's crop of infomercial products: a variety of laundry and clothing-care items that promised to give me whiter whites and brighter brights and save me untold time and money on wash day. We'll see.

Here's what I bought:

A 3 1/2-pound tub of Oxi Clean, the ubiquitous granulated cleaner hawked by expert pitchman Billy Mays.

The FlipFold, a plastic contraption designed to help you fold clothes.

The Handy Stitch, a handheld battery-operated sewing machine.

And the Space Bag, a clothing-storage device that shrinks bulky sweaters, blankets and other items by using a vacuum cleaner to suck out the air.

Curing the wash-day blues is a perennial favorite for infomercials, hearkening back to the earliest boardwalk hawkers and door-to-door salesmen, who wowed crowds with miraculous demonstrations of cleaning prowess. Of course, these salesmen never met my children.

To test Oxi Clean, my kids spent the last six weeks smearing greasy fingers on their shirts, rubbing dirt into their sweat pants and spilling a variety of foods on themselves, from spaghetti sauce to milk to peanut butter.

Remarkably, they did this without my even asking.

I used the $10 tub of Oxi Clean as both a pre-treater and a laundry booster. But through several loads in different water temperatures, I found the clothes only about as clean as I would have expected them with detergent alone.

I also soaked a badly stained floor mat overnight, and although the Oxi Clean removed some of the mud, the cleaning power was no match for chlorine bleach, which got rid of all the stains.

Of course, not all colored fabrics will survive bleach, and that's the one place I found Oxi Clean useful. We have a light blue duvet cover that had begun to look dingy.

A single drop of bleach would have ruined it, but after soaking it in Oxi Clean and running it through the wash, the cover was not only cleaner, but noticeably brighter.

Bottom line: I wasn't overwhelmed by Oxi Clean's cleaning ability, but would recommend it as a brightener for fabrics that can't handle chlorine bleach and are not heavily soiled.

OK, so once the clothes are washed, they need to be folded, which -- if the ads for the FlipFold are to be believed -- is a task roughly as complicated as solving Rubik's cube in the dark.

``Don't spend hours folding your clothes,'' one ad exults. ``Just FLIP . . . and FOLD!''

Hours? Who needs hours to fold laundry?

The FlipFold features three vertically hinged boards, with a horizontal hinge through the center of the middle board.

Lay a shirt on the FlipFold, then fold the right board over and back, the left board over and back, and the middle board up and back, and voila, your shirt is folded.

In the alternative, you could hold the shirt in your hands and fold it in about half the time. It consistently took me more time to lay the garment smoothly on the FlipFold than to fold it myself.

I tried mightily to find a use for this product. My kids got a kick out of it, so I thought it might teach some elusive habits in tidiness.

But their interest waned after half an hour.

I thought it might have some advantages as an adaptive device for the disabled. But even with one arm behind my back, I could fold a shirt faster by hand than with the FlipFold.

The clerk at Walgreen's gave me an odd look when I took the $9.99 FlipFold to the cash register. Now I know why.

I had higher hopes for the Handy Stitch. This ought to be a great product -- faster than hand-stitching, but not as cumbersome as a full-size sewing machine. That's a perfect niche for minor repairs.

But more often than not, my stitch completely unraveled as soon as I finished sewing. The instructions warn of this, and give precise directions for extricating the thread just right and immediately tying a particular knot to keep the thread from pulling loose. The key is cutting the thread close and removing the fabric carefully. Most times, it didn't work for me.

When it worked, it worked well. The Handy Stitch sews a chain stitch, which requires only one source of thread (traditional sewing machines typically use two) and it was generally a strong, even stitch. The Handy Stitch was also more substantial than I had expected, with most of the key parts made of metal. And it was powerful enough to sew through moderately thick fabrics.

But it didn't work often enough. And in the end, I found the Handy Stitch, which sells for $10 to $15, more trouble than it was worth.

Lastly, there's the Space Bag. I love the infomercial for the Space Bag. Rather than focus on shrinking the clothes, the presenter gleefully opens thin, sealed bags of garments and liberates puffy mounds of towels and blankets and clothes. It looks like circus clowns pouring out of a VW Beetle.

About six weeks ago I stuffed beach towels and dozens of summer T-shirts into a Space Bag, and had great fun sucking all the air out, and the overall package shrunk by about half. The result was a flat, rock-hard bag that was easy to handle and certainly looked like it would keep out air, water and moths.

But within a few days, the rock-hard slab was getting a little flabby. And within weeks, it was clear that plenty of air had seeped back in.

Nevertheless, the clothes stayed clean among the dust-bunny colonies under my bed, and they had been compressed long enough that even without the airtight seal, they remained considerably more compact than when they entered the bag.

The infomercial pack of five assorted-size Space Bags goes for about $20.

But smaller packs can be found at retail for about $6.

At that price, Space Bags are a useful item, but more, I think as a way to store and protect clothes than to save significant space.

A caveat: The Space Bag is not a good choice for down jackets, blankets, pillows and sleeping bags.

Although you could probably suck a down pillow to the thickness of a paperback book, it may never spring back to life, and even the instructions with the Space Bag warn against shrinking down and feather-filled products by more than 50 percent.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a load of lights that need to go into the dryer.

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