1930s Sew-along with Norma: Tubbing your Paris frocks at home, Part 1


Over the past week or so I’ve had very productive exchanges with Norma and Naomi about homemade laundry soaps and fabric softeners.  The discussion arose in part when I posted a book review of the 1930 book “Paris Frocks at Home”.  An entire chapter was devoted to the correct way to hand wash and dry clothing.  The emphasis and the great detail given to the subject revealed how women were moving away from a wash day based on the use of boiling water, heavy scrubbing and the use of soaps that were harsh on fabrics.

I was greatly encouraged to try making a batch of my own all natural, home made laundry soap and fabric softener.  I also did three test batches of hand washing afterwards.  I was pleasantly surprised with the results.

It’s the Spirit of the Thing

I decided to take on this project as part of the 1930s Sew-along with Norma since “Paris Frocks at Home”, published in 1930, emphasized hand washing techniques in more detail than I’d seen in any sewing book.  I thought about the ingredients of the home made preparations I was about to make.  Since they were in common use in earlier decades I think this offered me a chance to see how laundry may have been done in the past.  It also offered a chance to see what the results were like.

Selection of Soap

I have read that only Ivory soap should be microwaved.  People at other forums have tried microwaving Fels Naptha soap and gotten a very ugly odor  that is hard to get out of the microwave and surrounding area.

How I Made The Soap Powder

I’m sharing a batch with my Uncle.  We both remembered how Ivory Snow was a favored laundry soap in the family back in the 1950s and 1960s.  This determined the soap we chose for our homemade soap powder.  What follows are photos of the process I used based on several recipes I found online.


1.  Organize your supplies.  For the soap powder you’ll need:

-2 cups 20 Mule Team Borax
-2 cups Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda
-1  5 ounce bar of Ivory Soap.  I couldn’t find a 5 ounce bar so I used two 3 ounce bars.  Since Ivory is very mild I didn’t worry about the extra ounce of soap.

For the softener you’ll need:

-32 ounces of distilled white vinegar
-8 ounces baking soda
-4 cups Epsom Salts
-Lavender essential oil

I did not want to grate the soap so I microwaved it.  This was so much fun watching the soap explode in the microwave.  It turns out that Ivory Soap does not have a strong odor.  Although some of the soap stuck to the walls of the microwave it washed off easily leaving the microwave very clean.  I remove any lingering soapy odor by putting some white vinegar in a microwaveable bowl  and let it heat for 4  minutes in the microwave.


2. Microwave the soap one bar at a time.  Set the time for 75 seconds.


3. This is what the microwaved soap looks like.  Let it cool for a minute or two.  Then remove.  It will be crumbly.  Break into little pieces.


4.  Put 2 cups of washing soda in the blender.


5.  The microwaved soap cools quickly.  You’ll want to break it all and get it into the blender as soon as possible.  Put the blender on pulse setting and be patient.  You’ll have to turn the blender off every so often and stir the mixture to ensure all the soap is pulverized.


6.  Soon you’ll have a fine white powder.  Now it’s time to add 2 cups of Borax to the blender.  Pulse again and turn off to stir.  Keep pulsing until all the soap is turned to powder.


7. You’ll end up with a fragrant and very fine white powder.  The soap powder will be slightly warm from the blender.  I took it out and put it into two plastic containers but did not cover them until the soap was cool to the touch.

Making The Fabric Softener:  Epsom Salt and Baking Soda


1. Add 4 cups of Epsom Salts to a bowl.


2. Add 40 drops of lavender essential oil and mix well into the Epsom Salt.

3. Add 1 cup of baking soda and mix until well blended.

Liquid Fabric Softener:  Vinegar and Lavender

To 4 cups of distilled white vinegar add about 10-15 drops of lavender oil and shake well.

Finished Product


When I was finished I had 2 containers of soap powder and 2 containers of powdered fabric softener as shown in this photo.

For a washing machine about 1/4 cup of the soap powder can be used and about 1/4 cup of the fabric softener.  I think experimentation is best to see how much you need.

Using home made laundry soap and fabric softener

Please note that some discussions on the use of home made laundry preparations caution against using vinegar or Epsom Salt.  Some say that they are harmful to High Efficiency washing machines.  Others advise that Epsom Salt hinders the cleaning action of the soap.

I plan to use the soap powder and powdered fabric softener for hand washing.  No Epsom Salt is added to the washing powder so I am not worried about these concerns.  I do recommend checking the topic further if you plan to use them in the washing machine.  One poster at forum said the vinegar rinse corroded the gasket in her washing machine.

RetroGlam Test:  Tubbing various wearables and fabrics at home

I washed a 100% cotton shirt, some lingerie and kitchen towels with the soap  The first thing I noticed was how soft my hand felt when I took them out of the water.  I always wear rubber gloves but had to take them off because of a hole.

The next thing I noticed was that it was necessary to swish the water around a little before putting the clothes in.  The soap powder did not make lots of suds but there was enough after I used 3 T of the powder for the second wash.  I let the clothes soak 15 minutes and then rinsed in cool water.  The suds rinsed out quickly, unlike the detergent I buy at the 99 cent store.

I then used the vinegar and lavender oil as a softener for the kitchen towels.  The baking soda and Epsom Salts softener was used for my head scarves, cotton shirt, lingerie and fashion fabric scraps.  I rinsed the softener out after 15 minutes.


The blouse, lingerie and kitchen towels dried soft and without any wrinkles.  I was surprised at how soft they were.


Before hand washing.

The next test was using the soap powder and fabric softener on cuttings of fashion fabric.  The lighter floral prints are rayon challis, the print with navy blue flowers is polyester.


After hand washing.

I was very surprised to find that the rayon challis responded well to the home made laundry soap and softener.  The colors remained bright.  The polyester was very soft and did not have the odor it had from being in a plastic bag since April.


One rayon challis did not come through the wash as smooth as the other.  This one took on a crinkled appearance.  I think it needs to be ironed while damp to remove the crinkly lines that run through the fabric.  I will do a test following the ironing instructions in the chapter “Tubbing your Paris frocks at home” and report back.




7 thoughts on “1930s Sew-along with Norma: Tubbing your Paris frocks at home, Part 1

  1. So cool to see all your results Em. I have never experienced any adverse results using vinegar but haven’t tried Epsom salts so can’t comment there. I certainly wouldn’t go back after doing it this way though. Better for me, for the clothes and for the environment! Hoorah.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I was blown away by the results! I can’t believe how soft my hands were after handling the clothes! Now I have to try the vintage pressing techniques and report back. I have to roll the cotton shirt in a damp towel and let is sit in the fridge for an hour or so. I’ll try the same thing with the challis that got a little crinkled.

      I’m so glad we got onto this discussion. I was beginning to dread hand washing my clothes. I can’t explain how awful rinsing the clothes had become. The suds from the products like Roma Detergent and Blanca Nieves Detergent took so much water to rinse out. And then even through the vinegar rinse soaking more suds were still coming out.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Blimey, this is dedicated research! I’d be terrified to do this just in case I did something wrong and ended up ruining something. It’s really interesting to read how you did it though and how the different fabrics came out. xx

    Liked by 2 people

    • More to come. It’s in the spirit of the book “Paris Frocks at Home”. I never saw a sewing book that went into such detail about garment care. I conducted an ironing test this weekend and guess what–the vintage ironing techniques and prep worked. I modified the approach but overall I’m very satisfied and will post soon.

      I wanted to be a Home Economics teacher and this kind of thing would have been in the curriculum I’m sure. But then in the 1970s when I went to college this was considered a dead subject. My Dad kept pressuring me to be a school teacher. As things went I meandered from job to job and then ended up in banking!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds like this has been a really interesting experiment.
    I’ve used vinegar in my washing machine in the past & never experienced any problem.
    The water in your area makes a difference to the results I think. We have really soft water and use very little washing liquid to get good results

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for adding to the conversation, Norma. I had to post that cautionary note just in case. I did notice that other commenters agreed with you and Naomi. They were in the majority.

      We have soft water here in New York City and State. It’s not only good for washing clothes but washing hair, too. When I’m in an area with hard water my hair is a mess.


  4. Pingback: 1930s Sew-along with Norma: Tubbing your Paris frocks at home, Part 2 | Retro Glam

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