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Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.


Rescue Old Pillows

King size pillow hung on two chair backs to dry.

For a number of decades I’ve been in the commonplace position of looking for shortcuts to avoid spending unnecessary money on new things.  It’s just a part of the life of a humble professional working musician.  Remember the expression “A penny saved is a penny earned”?    How about “Waste not want not?”  I suspect those are rarely heard now because the depression-era generation has almost died off.    But the spirit lives on among those of us who believe in re-using old things.

Don’t throw out those pillows!  Summer is here and you may have relatives coming to stay on your spare bed which makes you consider all your smelly old bedding.  But there’s no need to contribute more old foam to your local landfill.  Your old pillows probably still have some life left in them.   Don’t spend good money on new pillows thinking they’re the only answer for cleaning up your old bedding!

Hidden Microorganisms in Pillows

The following is a quote from CBS News:

"I've seen people with pillows that were loaded with microorganisms," NYU microbiologist Dr. Philip Tierno told The Early Show consumer correspondent Susan Koeppen. Tierno says as pillows absorb germs from our skin and the air, they become a breeding ground for mold, bacteria and dust mites. Experts say you should replace your pillows every two years, but that can be costly. Instead, buy pillow protectors that usually cost between $10 and $20 

I decided that my pillows were worth the experiment of hand-washing them after reading a couple of websites with suggestions on how to do it.  I have nine pillows.  Some are filled with polyurethane foam, some with polyester fiber, and the rest I can no longer identify from faded tags. None are feather pillows, though. The first time I tried washing my pillows was around 10 years ago. I then used a washing machine and dryer, which was a mistake. They came out lumpy and misshapen.  The tags on some of them even recommended machine washing, so I used the gentlest setting and still two of them ripped open at the seams. They were difficult to sew back together; I hand-stitched them which was only a temporary fix. This may be seen as predictable but a number of websites still recommend it. Washing by hand was much preferable for me inasmuch as it succeeded in keeping the shapes of the pillows intact, as well as the end seams. 

Old pillows most certainly have dust mites. According to experts, hot water will kill them. I wasn’t willing to take chances, though, so I added chlorine bleach to kill bacteria, too. The result is clean-smelling pillows with no stains.

New Pillow Expense

Forget about throwing your old pillows out. Even if like me, you’ve compromised the shapes of them over the years, there are plenty of uses for lumpy old pillows.  Look here for a heap of wonderfully creative of ideas. Consider how many pillows would have gone to a landfill if in my adult lifetime I had replaced them every two years: I’m counting four times forty-two which add up to 162 new pillow purchases. That’s a considerable waste of old pillows.

I also loathe the idea of having spent around eight dollars each which would have come up to $1296. I’m roughly figuring an average of pillow prices over the last 42 years. I’m a pretty thrifty person so that seems wasteful to my personal budget. As well, I’m not one who buys for the sake of an enjoyable outing to retail stores.

Step-by-Step Instructions for Cleaning Old Pillows

This exercise of cleaning pillows demands a sunny weather forecast, because they require sunshine to dry properly. As dense as they are, the process may take 48 hours with two full days of sunshine. Sun will contribute to killing even more bacteria than the bleach, especially any that may be left in the moisture of the pillows.  I washed five small  pillows in a 60-inch long tub in one setting; then a week later I washed four king-sized pillows in the same tub.

Begin in the evening before the sunny day. You’ll need around four clean, dry bath towels at hand next to your bathtub.  Make sure your tub is completely clean.   You’ll also need a large, clean flat board or hard piece of plastic big and strong enough to stand on.  It should be roughly the size of a pillow.   I used the lid of a large plastic tub.

1. Fill your bathtub with very hot water from the tap. Add ¼ cup liquid fabric detergent as the water begins to full the tub.  When the tub is nearly full, add ½ cup liquid chlorine bleach.

2. Simply soak as many pillows as you have or can fit into the tub. Press them down with your gloved hands and gently scrub any stains with a soft brush.  Continue to repeatedly press down on the pillows for around ten minutes to agitate the liquid thoroughly in and out of the pillows.

3. Pull the plug and let the tub drain. There will be quite a bit of liquid left in the pillows. 

4. Fill up the tub again with hot water. Repeat the process of gently agitating the rinse water into the pillows by pushing with your hands.

5. Drain the tub again. Here’s where you use the large piece of plastic or board to squeeze out as much of the water as you can from the pillows.     First push them with your hands to get as much water as possible out manually.  Then lay the board on the pillows and stand on it, moving from one end to the other to use the slope of the tub with gravity to work the water out.   You’ll be amazed by how much water will be in each pillow.  So keep at it until you can’t see any more water coming out of them. 

Squeezing water out of a wet pillow. 

6. Then carefully wrap each pillow in one of your towels and one by one, carry them to a place to lay flat to dry. At this point be very careful to protect whatever surface is underneath each pillow because it will still be dripping wet.  You may want to surround each pillow with a towel and walk on it to soak up more water, then rest it on another dry towel overnight.

7. At daybreak, take each pillow outdoors and set it on the back of a chair with a dry towel underneath. This allows the maximum air circulation on the pillow for drying.  After around six hours of sunlight, flip the pillow for even drying.

8. After sunset, bring the chairs inside with the pillows still resting on them, to dry overnight as they probably will still be damp.

9. If they’re not completely dry the next day repeat this process.

You should wind up with clean, good-smelling pillows and the edifying feeling of having saved money as well as landfill space.  And you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing your guests will rest their heads on safely-sanitized pillows. 

Sources of information and research for this article

Apartment Therapy

Yes, You Can Wash a Pillow

Solar power kills bacteria in water

5 Tips to Kill Bacteria With Healthy Cleaning Products


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