I moved to Sweden recently and after the initial shock had temporarily subsided, I took in the details of our rental apartment and was horrified to find that there didn’t appear to be a washing machine. Queue existential crisis. Queue visions of myself avoiding eye contact in crowded launderettes. Queue contemplating how quickly I could return to England and persuade my landlords to let us have our flat—and our washing machine— back. But before I could book myself onto the next flight to Heathrow, I learned about ‘tvättstuga’: the laundry room.

Many people in Sweden live in apartments and this is especially true in Stockholm where, as per most capitals, there is a supply versus demand versus space issue. This means that when you are lucky enough to actually find somewhere to live, it’s likely very small and lacking the space in which to fit your own personal washing machine and/or dryer. The Swedes being Swedes, however, came up with a practical solution to this in the form of tvättstugor a.k.a communal laundry rooms where all of the residents in an apartment block can go to do their washing. Use of the tvättstuga is typically ‘free’, with the cost of operation being bundled up in your rent/mortgage payments, so you don’t have to worry about breaking a tenner for change every time you want to wash your clothes. Result.

So how does the tvättstuga actually work?

The key and board system. For example: number 29 (in red) will do his/her washing on the 20th of the month between 7 and 10pm. Photograph: Natasha Ellis-knight for In the Think

First thing’s first: you need to book a slot. In my building, this means using a quaint key and board system, which lists the days of the month across the top and available time slots down the left-hand side of the booking board. Each apartment has a numbered lock, which fits into any available slot on the board. In my apartment block, there are five, three-hour slots available each day, with the first one beginning at 7am and the last at 7pm. Only one booking per household is possible at any time so you have sole access to the room during your chosen hours and have the ability to use your booking key to stop other people entering whilst your washing is on. This is not the case in all tvättstugor, however, and I have heard tales of slots or clothing being stolen. Should this happen in your laundry room, I am told the wrath of the victim will be unleashed— in the form of angry post-it notes.

Once you enter the laundry room, you are faced with a grand selection of industrial-sized laundry equipment. This can vary from tvättstuga to tvättstuga but most will have at least two washing machines, a tumble dryer and perhaps another method of drying your clothes. In our tvättstuga, for example, we have two, heated drying cabinets available, which are the most useful pieces of equipment I have ever come across. They are the size of single fridges and are full of rails on which you can hang your laundry to dry. They’re a much better alternative to the traditional tumble dryer because they’re less harsh on your clothing and help to keep ironing to a minimum. It was these cabinets that made me forget all about my washing machine back in England and embrace the Swedish way of doing laundry completely. Genius.

When laundry gets creepy

The mangle. A common feature of Swedish tvättstguor that is used for pressing items.

There are two types of fear associated with the tvättstuga: the first is missing your slot and being stuck with a load of dirty laundry. The second, is the basement in which the tvättstuga is usually located. Our laundry room is, in fact, quite an eerie little room within a bigger eerie room that acts as storage for the residents of the apartment block (another practical, brilliant idea from the Swedes). It is a maze of wall-to-wall units fashioned from wires that make it look not unlike a series of prison cells, complete with nooks and crannies in which murderers and ghosts can lie in wait. During my first week in Sweden, I discussed the tvättstuga with a fellow immigrant—Russian, also called Natasha— and before I could share my own tales of breathlessly turning on the lights and checking the spaces behind the washing machines for escaped convicts, she exclaimed “I could be murdered down there!” and I felt a bond, as thick as thieves, form between us. 

And as if the journey there isn’t creepy enough, the laundry room itself isn’t always the most inviting. Many of the apartment buildings across Sweden have been here for a while and this is reflected not only in the old-fashioned elevators with cage style doors but also in the dated interior of the tvättstugor. Custard yellows, off-whites and peeling instructional posters abound and it is almost as if by in stepping into the tvättstuga, you also step back in time. Eventually, once you get used to the underground location of the laundry room and become acquainted with all of the useful items inside, you might even begin to fall for its quaint, antiquated charms.

Keeping the tvättstuga clean

A poster explaining how to use the tumble dryer in the tvättstuga. Photograph: Natasha Ellis-knight for In the Think

The final rule of the Tvättstuga is that you should always tidy up after yourself. I recently had the strange misfortune of actually seeing my tvättstuga successor when leaving the laundry room and after getting over the bewilderment of a) seeing another person and b) seeing that she had arrived 7 minutes too early, I was able to rest easy in the knowledge that I had carried out a thorough clean of the area. If you, too, would like to live an unburdened life free of passive-aggressive sticky notes, you should make sure to do the following before exiting the laundry room: leave no drum unturned and peel away any socks that are stuck to the sides of the washing machine; clear the copious amounts of lint from the tumble dryer’s filter (and then wonder how there are actually any clothes left in the machine because they appear to have been shredded and deposited here); sweep the floors of the room itself and the drying cupboards, if you are lucky enough to have them; and then turn off the lights before you exit, making it seem like you were never there at all.

The pros and cons of the tvättstuga

Drying cabinets are a popular feature of many Swedish laundry rooms. Photograph: Natasha Ellis-knight for In the Think

Thanks to the Swedish laundry room, gone are the days of an ugly clothes horse blighting your home with its presence. Indeed, we had our own washing machine back in England, but in an attempt to avoid ruining all of our clothing in the tumble dryer, we would instead turn to air drying. Days and days of waiting for your clothes to dry in winter and having metres of floorspace occupied by a drying rack. Furthermore, having access to multiple, industrial-sized washing machines and drying equipment means that you’re able to get a lot of laundry done in one go. Granted, it takes a few hours out of your day but once it’s done, it’s done and you don’t have to think about it again until your next slot.

On the other hand, ‘putting a wash on’ can no longer be a spontaneous act, as it once was in England. Impromptu night out and you’d like to quickly launder your favourite jeans because you accidentally spilled bean juice on them earlier in the week? Not a chance– you don’t have a slot booked until next Tuesday. About to take a shower and realise you’re out of clean underwear? Guess you’re going to have to wash a few pairs by hand and stop making poor life decisions. Sweden is synonymous with high taxes, cleanliness and a desire for societal equality. And the tvättstuga plays by the exact same rules.

Posted by:Natasha

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