Doing the Laundry – UK vs. USA

Self Portrait by Bonnie Rose Photography © 2013 All Rights Reserved |
One day I got dressed up, did my hair, put on my make up, and got in the tub. Only to turn the shower on to capture my weekly self portrait.  To wear wet clothes in the shower is an odd experience to say the least.  While this was a fun artistic endeavor, my experience with dealing with wet clothes is a weekly occurrence.  
Let me introduce you to this Expat’s guide to Doing the Laundry in the UK vs the USA.  
UK vs. USA
  • Washing powder = Detergent 
  • Clothes peg = Clothes pin
  • Linen basket = Hamper

I came to the realisation in writing this post that there are pros and cons to how you do laundry in both countries.  I have heard the complaints of US expats in England and UK expats in America.  I have also done my own laundry in both countries.  Here is my personal experience and take on the laundry situation and differences.
1. Size & Location. Just as America has oversized cars and food portions they also have the largest washing and drying machines.  Though today they have some more streamlined versions (or ones that stack nicely on top of each other) they are still very large.  If we are talking about a standard american sized home there is usually a designated space for these monstrous large laundry machines.  That could mean the basement or in its own designated room.  I have experienced having mine also in the kitchen, but tucked away in its own closet behind doors. In England I have most often found them only in the kitchen.  However in our current home our machine (Singular. More on that soon) is on the opposite wall of our stove, in the back hallway next to our refrigerator.  In our last flat our machine was in the kitchen, tucked away under the counter top, and very small.  Though we have never had the luxury of a dishwasher in England they are quite small too. My expat friend has one in her kitchen and the size lends itself to look like a child’s kitchen toy. 
This is our tiny  2-1washing machine from our flat.  The size of the door is about the size of the capacity inside.
Do not be fooled by the large rectangular shape, because it is not the Tardis. It is much smaller on the inside. 
2. Load Sizes. Since the machines are more compact in England then it is only simple math that the loads will be smaller too.  For a girl who used to stuff her american washing machine with a very full load that is a huge size difference compared to what I can do in England.  I also learned the hard way that you cannot ‘stuff’ the machine.  Clothes will not get washed properly and cleaned unevenly. Not all washing machines are the same size here.  In fact our machine in our last flat was the smallest I have ever used.  Which takes us to the next point.
3. The ‘2 in 1′ Machine.  I mentioned the very small washing machine in my last flat.  It was confusing and no manuals or google searches were making it any easier.  I would choose a setting for the specific load like I would in the US.  The door locked, it washes, it dries and it takes hours.  We could only put one towel in the machine if we wanted to not ‘waste’ the drying process.  To wait so many hours just for two outfits, compared to one load was not making me very happy.  Luckily we eventually figured out a trick.  We would put the clothes on the ‘quick wash & dry’ which would wash the clothes and dry them.  They would not be dry. So then choose a drying setting to finish up the job. However it still took much longer to dry for such a small load. When I took the clothes out they still felt damp and very, very hot.  I have burned myself on metal clasps on the garments taking them out.  I then put the clothes out to dry on a drying rack and in an hour or so the small load should be dry. Unless there were too many clothes or I chose not to use the drying setting. Then it could take days. 
4. Hot & Cold Water Hookups. From what I can tell in America you have both hot and cold water hookups to the washing machine and in England that is not necessarily the case.  More often you will only have cold water hookup, with the unused hot water valve caped off.  If that is the case the the washing machine warms up the water to the desired temperature selected.  In America the water is not heated by the machine but by the water supply in the building.  I also wanted to add that my current washing machine actually drains the used water into the utility sink that is next to it. 
This is our slightly bigger washing machine, does not dry, which drains into the utility sink.
It shares a wall with our stove. 
5. Top and Front Loading Machines.  While there are definitely exclusions to this rule in America, most machines are top loading.  Which means you put in the laundry from the top of the machine while in England the machines are front loading.  Though it can be easier for clothes to spill out on the floor when you take clothes out of a front loading machine, I favour it over top loading.  Mainly because in the top loading machines in America you have what is called an agitator.  It is the piece in the middle of the machine that looks like a pole.  I cannot tell you how many spaghetti strap shirts and other garments I have had ruined or tanged on the agitator while living in Hawaii.  To me it seems like a design flaw. 
6. Wet vs. Really Wet.  The clothes I would take out of my washing machine in America, to put into the dryer, were always quite wet.  The clothes out of washing machines in England come out less wet and so then dry faster on the line in comparison.  From research I have found it boils down to the voltage.  America runs off of 110 volts and the UK runs off of 220 volts which makes the spin function better or worse depending on which you use.  This is definitely one issue that unless you have used both machines in both countries, you may not fully understand the difference. 
7.  Dryers are a Luxury.  In America I have had the luxury of having a dryer next to my washing machine.  Always. Heaven forbid the dryer breaks on someone because in America it is only the ‘hippies’ who put their clothes outside to dry.  While this is just a mentality believed by some in the USA, it is not a view shared by those in the UK.  More often than not people will think less of you for having a tumble dryer because they really spike the utility costs in the UK.  Our current home does not have a dryer so we seek other options for our clothes when they come out of the washing machine.
This is one of two drying racks that we use inside and outside to dry our clothes.  It compacts when not in use.
When in use it takes up a lot of space. However this one takes up less pace than are more horizontal version. 
8. Energy Efficient.  It is normal for someone in America to do laundry at any hour of the day. In the UK it is more efficient and saves money to do it during a certain time of day. Electricity is cheaper from 11pm to 6am and is when most people will set their machine to work.  Also in Europe washing machines display an EU Energy Label with grades for efficiency.  This helps consumers in the UK to buy more efficient washing machines. Now in America they say ‘Time is money’ and it does seem to take most of my time to do any of our washing and drying.  I honestly feel that people are more environmentally conscious in Europe than back in America where things like electricity can be taken for granted. 

9. Drying Clothes Outside. As I said more often than not people dry their clothes in a dryer in America.  For those that do like line dry outside, may still use a dryer for items like bedding, towels, and undergarments.  If you had to choose between a soft towel and a crunchy towel, which would you prefer?  However in England line drying is a common practice.  It is a luxury in its own for those who have a garden (‘yard’ for my American readers).  In our last flat with the small washing machine we did not have a garden.  We also were not allowed to hang any clothes from the windows or have our laundry visible clearly from the windows because it is unsightly. Now that we we have a garden I can hang my clothes outside.  But lets be practical and remember that I do live in England.  Where the temperature is usually cold and it rains a lot. I tried just moving my drying rack outside so the clothes could get fresh air back in January.  Did not matter that there was no rain in sight, the cold air would not aid in the drying process.  So after hours I brought my clothes back inside just as wet as they were before. 

Wrinkled from the small washing machine I put the clothes out to dry on racks on the radiator.
Those trousers will have to be ironed later. 
10. Drying Clothes Inside. In America this would imply that you use an electric dryer.  Or for clothes that are more delicate or prone to wrinkling you may hang it up and let it air dry. There may be some clothes drying adapted radiators available, but usually central heating is involved in American homes.  In England we have varying size radiators in every room except our kitchen and one in the hallway.  We are two short since those ones do not seem to be working.  However the others do a fantastic job and helping to dry our clothes.  If I do my kids uniforms at night before bed I can draper them over the radiators and go to bed. In the morning their outfits are dry, usually warm and ready to wear.  We have our radiators set on a timer and they go off at certain times in the 24 hour period.  I know when they go on and so plan my washing accordingly.  We also have these neat racks I can place on the radiator so that I dry a few more garments than I could without them. If I am trying to get a lot of clothes dry or drying bigger items like bedding and towels I have to use drying racks.  It can literally take up to three days to dry these items especially if the weather is cold.  Plus they take up a lot of room and you are constantly side stepping around them and hoping not to knock of laundry on the floor. 
Extra tidbit from an Expat in the UK:  I do spend a lot of time multi tasking and trying to remember to go back to other tasks. This includes always checking the weather in case I need to put clothes outside or take them back inside.  I am constantly having to open windows, to prevent mold, and remembering to go back later to close them again. Especially if it starts raining. For my clothes on the dryer I periodically go around and flip them over like pancakes so they get dry evenly on both sides. 

In Summary there are differences between doing the laundry in the UK vs in the USA. I do miss my american sized dryer so much. However I do not think I could ever have one here because I know how expensive it would be to use it and then it would just be taking up so much space with its large size. In the UK I do love being eco friendly compared to wasting resources, money, energy, etc. However I would like to figure out a better system of having all my laundry done at once. It is so easy to get backed up with laundry with waiting for it to dry. My goal is to finally figure out a systems so that I get down to manageable amounts of laundry and not IKEA bags full of loads I need to do. It can get overwhelming at times and makes me want to move back to Thailand, where I can pay to have my laundry done by someone else.

Q: Have you experienced differences in doing laundry in the UK vs USA? What about other countries? I would love to hear your feedback!

*Self portrait belongs to Bonnie Rose Photography © 2013 All Rights Reserved |
* For information regarding the use of photography by Bonnie Rose and photographic services contact bonnie[at]bonnie-rose[dot]co[dot]uk
  • ceemaccee

    Ahhhh, the IKEA bag laundry hamper so well known in my house

    • Bonnie Rose

      Those things really come in handy. 😉

  • Rachel

    In SE Asia we had a smaller washer and no dryer either–that meant, for out family of nine people, at least two loads of laundry each day, hung out to dry on racks similar to yours, but larger. We had no yard, but we did have a semi-outdoor kitchen (tiled floor and tiled roof but no walls, so we hung all of our clothes out there. Then, because we were in the tropics and at any given moment a severe rainstorm was likely, we always had to be on alert in case it started raining because the tiled roof in our kitchen leaked so badly that there might as well have been no roof! Thanks for bringing back memories! I’m thankful for my large washer and dryer here. with only two people in the house–I do maybe one load of laundry per week!

  • Melanie Miller

    Wow – I can’t even imagine not having my dryer – but then I am one of those Americans. I find this post fascinating – as laundry is not something you consider when you plan to move to another country – at least not that I can think of … but it looks like it can become quite a thing to get used to. :-) Thank you for sharing.

    My Imperfect…

  • Hanna

    This totally made me laugh out loud! And feel very sorry you as I would surely drown and die in my piles of laundry without my gigantic, king size, washing machines! What do ppl in England do if they have 3 or 4 kids and they all get the stomach flu at the same time? Now that I cannot imagine. An ugly site!
    I spent a bit of time in Australia where it is as you describe. Everyone hung their clothes to dry. Seemed sort of lovely and old fashioned to me at the time but I was 22 and had lots of energy. No house filled with messy children. Now just thinking of it sends me into a panic. In fact last year a few baby socks got stuck in the washer hose and clogged it. We couldnt use it for 2 days and I was in the middle of my work week so I dis my wash in the bath tub and I can remember thinking I might not survive. It took me hours!

    Such a great photo by the way!

  • Teresa R. Nystrom

    The US Embassy used to publish a newspaper for ex-pats called The American. You should see if they still do this and submit this blog.

  • Erica

    Great self portrait!
    Isn’t it funny how seemingly trivial aspects of life can be so different country to country??

    I’ve been living outside my home country for about 8 years or so, and am so used to all sorts of different types of washing situations. My Japanese washing machine was the most bonkers (as is totally unsurprising). Top loading with no agitator; cold water only with the option to use hot water by syphoning it from the bath tub! Great way to reuse bath water! It also sang a crazy song when done, because everything in Japan beeps and boops and make all sorts of electronic sounds. I was initially worried about the lack of hot water, because my daughter used cloth diapers and I didn’t think cold washing would cut it, but lo, it was fine.
    Another thing I noticed in Japan is that the laundry detergent was super scented. I prefer unscented products, so it was a bit of a runaround to find detergent that didn’t overpower my olfactory senses. So prevalent is the smell that it remains one of my most strongest sensory memories of the country. Like, you just walk outside and smell laundry soap everywhere!!

    ANyway, I didn’t even know that I had this much to say about laundry!!

  • Laurence Brown

    This was a great post. Those 2-in-1 washer/dryer combos are certainly not something I miss. There is, however, something to be said for the smell of clothes after leaving them to hang-dry.

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  • Nicole Bryce-Sharron

    Grea self shot! And love the post, as an expat I can totally relate!

  • Lily

    HAHA all I can do with this post is laugh because I absolutely hate dong laundry here in Amsterdam. The machine hardly holds anything, it takes forever and then our entire living room is squished full of damp clothes for a day and a half. Ok, first world problems of living in an awesome city but I desperately miss our massive machine back home and clothes hung outside in Florida take about 5 minutes to dry! Oyvey.

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  • Bonnie Rose

    Upon googling up differences between UK and American washing machines, I found your blog. Thank you for the insight! My husband and I just relocated to Oxford from Seattle and we’re confounded by the washing machines. I didn’t think it’d be so difficult nor did we realize electricity was more expensive at certain times a day. We learn something seriously every day here. I’m terribly impatient though and frustrated at how long a load of laundry will take. I turned the machine off last night because it was still spinning after running for over 2 1/2 hours. I thought it had to be malfunctioning.. but maybe not now that I’ve read this. I still have yet to see if this 2-in-1 machine we have at the rented flat we’re in will actually dry my clothes. They’re currently in right now and have been for about 30 min. It doesn’t tumble consistently like they do in the states. I’m so curious as to why. But the flat came w/ a drying rack – which I used in the states too for my undies and other delicates. I’m not at all excited to use it for say jeans or towels. There are certain things I need dried, but I also want to be conscientious and not an ugly American for being wasteful. I’m sure we’ll figure it out, but my husband goes thru his clothes and I’m a bit OCD so I ‘need’ to do laundry sometimes and his big hoodies are thick and take up a lot of space. At some point though, we’ll have to figure out how these radiators come on and off. That’s another thing we haven’t figured out yet. And the towel driers in the bathrooms. :)

  • Steph

    Great comparison post! I really wish I could send you a dryer from America. :)

  • Chessie

    Thank you for this — quite interesting to this reader in the U.S.

  • Imogen McManus

    Thanks Bonnie, your post is very entertaining! I am British and an Airbnb host. I have US guests at the moment who opened doors all over the house (including my bedroom where I stood half naked and the back door to the garden that was then left unlocked all day) – because they were looking for “the laundry”. I am still not exactly sure what they expected to find but I shouted through the hurriedly-closed-bedroom-door that they would find the washing machine in the kitchen. I will update my sheet of “house information” to clarify the whereabouts of this object! The French also find this very odd – they always have their washing machine in the bathroom.

    I’m glad you finally mentioned opening windows – drying laundry in the house is extremely effective at causing damp and mould. Like all good British citizens I do use the line in the garden as often as possible but……..yes….the rain and the cold……

  • Szak1

    Nice comparison. Just one thought: voltage has nothing to do with spinner RPM. The speed is regulated by a circuit to a preset value, so 110V is compensated by drawing more current. Front loading design simply allows higher spin rates.

    • Orson OLSON

      Correct. (And well said.)

    • JohnnyB

      The voltage has to do why they can handle cold water in, only.
      220 can heat their water in the machine very quickly. Opposed to us on 110 needing to heat water in a separate tank.

  • NeoLegolasGunner

    This is an awesome blog and so true! I lived in America for 4 years no issues with washing and drying. I was transferred to London 14 days back, and after doing my first load of washer, after 2 days of google searches and experiments on the whirlpool dual i have, Hung the clothes on the heating rod in the bathroom :D. By the way I found this, not sure if it works to keep it in the apartment but looks good

  • olva63

    Ols from Australia here – we mainly use top loaders in Oz, just like they do in the US and I personally find them much easier, flexible and convenient to use than front loaders. I’ve never had a problem with anything getting tangled with the agitator and most problems like that tend to be user related, rather than a design flaw on the machines. Top loaders have different cycles that can wash sturdy work clothes or delicate, filmy garments safely as long as one doesn’t overload the washer. For really delicate clothes, that can tangle and damage easily, one can buy wash bags to launder them in safely.

    Just like the US and Canada, most Australians have big homes and a separate laundry room, where they keep their washers and dryers. However, they are now building a lot of apartment buildings for Asians and it seems that they now put washing machines and dryers in cupboards and sometimes kitchens, which I find weird. Kitchens are for food preparation and not a place for cleaning dirty clothes, yikes. I’ve been to Europe and find their washing machines slow, small and less flexible. One can’t put in that stray sock or take out something that has color run, once they start washing. They also unbalance a lot more easily. Europeans seem to sort their clothes according to what temperature they can be washed at and that is how their clothes are labeled. There are 5 or 6 different temperature settings on their machines. At home we wash either cold, warm or hot, which is much simpler. As for clothes being wet after spinning – here in Oz most top loaders spin pretty fast, usually between 900 and 1000 rpm, probably a little faster than in the US; and in our climate clothes dry pretty fast on the line.

  • buffalobirdie

    Whoa. Need to dry my clothes in a dryer. Are there dryers in the laundromats?? I’ll just do laundry there.

  • GavinAyling

    As a Green Card holder originally from the UK, I share your thoughts about washers and dryers. In the US, I do think there’s a lot of waste when it comes to dryers. But I think the size of the US washers has got to be environmentally friendly – one wash in 40 minutes instead of 0.3 washes in two!
    I have noticed that a lot of Americans also think they need to wash clothes much more often than they do. Towels do not need daily drying and a pair of jeans can certainly go a few days.
    I don’t think you’re right about the voltage. From my understanding, US machines use two lines of power to get back up to 220V to run these powerful machines.

    • Orson OLSON

      “From my understanding, US machines use two lines of power to get back up to 220V to run these powerful machines.” Not, not in homes. Only at “commercial laundries,” which use even bigger, ie, HUGE and gargantuan, sized machines. These are places where you can take you clothes to be done for you or (most likely) do it yourself, if your flat lacks washer/dryer facilities.

      • tippypixie

        Incorrect. Many U.S. (especially electric) dryers use 220 volts in homes. Every home with an electric dryer that I’ve had in the U.S. has run on 220v. They are wired from two different phases/legs of the circuit box and so the voltage potential is 220v on those one or two special plugs set up for a laundry room. Often electric burners and ovens are also wired that way. You can tell because it isn’t a normal type of plug or socket (if it’s not hidden).

        The drying function of the spin at the end of the wash is mostly a top vs front-loader thing. Front loaders tend to spin much faster getting the clothes dryer before going in the dryeror hanging.

  • Orson OLSON

    You are a victim of Eco-correct environmentalist religion. I did my MSc work at Imperial College and I reject this religion. (SEE best-selling author of the “Armchair Economist,” Stephen Landsburg, for his chaper on “Why I am not an environmentalist” for a first-class dissection: It’s all piffle and EU tyranny. Now, go on and REBEL like a good woman raised in America!

    • Charlie Hall

      Why is America the only country on the world that thinks looking after the environment does not apply to them and that they can guzzle through gas, electricity etc like we have another ten planets worth as a back up. This post really horrifies me. That a person would think that spending ten minutes to hang washing out and use free solar and wind power is tyranny. A third of Americans have enough time to get obese. Pegging out washing takes only a fraction of the time of sitting in front of a hundred TV channels stuffing your face, which most Americans find plenty of time for!!

    • Lucy Bonette

      Whether or not you save energy for the environment or not, you must agree that we will run out of energy at some point. I guess for us air drying our clothes that will be less of an adjustment.

      • GavinAyling

        I am an environmentalist, but we should be careful about the argument from supply. As oil gets more expensive, it becomes more economical to drill more difficult to reach areas. Also there’s enough coal to power us for thousands of years. But by then, the climate will be ruined. We must take action before then!

  • Lucy Bonette

    I am from the Netherlands and many people do have a washing machine and a dryer here, but it’s also completely normal to hang your clothes to dry. I do that with most of my clothes, because I absolutely hate it when clothes shrink. Even if it is just a little bit. I have a lot of delicate stuff too, so I airdry those as well. I find it very easy. I just hang it up, and I often pick clothes straight from the line. Sure, it won’t always be dry by the next morning, but I just leave it a bit longer. It’s not so hard to plan that.