The Nickel Pincher: How to Refresh Rugs, Bedding, and Furniture Naturally

Natural fabric fresheners can do wonders to remove musty odors from curtains and dust mites from bedding.

May 19, 2010

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Keeping your home sealed up all winter can lead to some funky odors developing in your mattresses, curtains, and bedding. And springtime rains don't help much. The added humidity can lead to mildew or musty smells in even the cleanest homes. With near-universal access to automatic washers and dryers, we have slipped into thinking that the only way to remove odors and freshen fabrics is to wash—or worse, dry-clean—but fresh air and sunshine are great fabric fresheners—and they're free and nontoxic!

Solar Cleaning

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There are certain items that just won't fit, or will get destroyed, in a washing machine—wool blankets, bulky comforters, curtains, pillows, stuffed animals, and stale-smelling, musty mattresses. But rather than take them to a dry cleaner, who likely uses the toxic cancer-causing chemical perchloroethylene, you can save time, electricity, chemical exposure, and wear and tear by putting the sun to work.

It's simple: Just put items that need freshening outside on a dry, sunny day. Give each item a good shake if you can, and hang it on a clothesline. You can also lean your things against something or place them flat on a surface, but be sure the surface is clean so things don't get dirty. Turn items every couple of hours to air out all sides, and bring them inside before the evening dew starts to settle.

You can crank up the solar power by sealing a musty item in a large, clear plastic bag, and putting the bag in the sun for a day or two to "solarize," which generates enough heat to kill dust mites very effectively. For best results, the bag should be airtight so it can hold the maximum amount of heat to treat all parts of your item. For extra power and to leave a nice aroma when you are finished, add a few drops of eucalyptus, lavender, or rosemary essential oil before sealing the bag.

Large, clear trashcan liners are available at cleaning supply stores, or you can ask retail stores that receive large items in plastic bags, such as computers, office equipment, or furniture, if you can have their cast-offs. If you need a really BIG bag, you can make your own out of contractor's clear plastic (it comes in rolls at hardware and home-improvement stores): Wrap your item in the plastic and seal all the edges with clear plastic packing tape. If you remove the tape carefully, you should be able to use the plastic again and again.

Fight dust mites between solarizations (or in bulky items you can't drag outside) with a little vodka. Add 20 to 30 drops of essential oil to one cup of vodka and use a spray bottle to mist potential mite-motels once a week. This is especially good for heavy curtains, rugs, and upholstered furniture. Just be sure to test the color-fastness in an inconspicuous place first.

If just airing isn't enough to chase odors away, sprinkle the item liberally with dry baking soda, let it sit for 30 minutes to two hours, and shake off or vacuum up the baking soda. You can also do this indoors for things you can't move outside, such as carpets.

Chances are, your clothes don't smell too great after being packed up all season either. Here's an Amazing Food Trick for bringing them back to life, too!

Eau de Stale House

Opening doors and windows to let a breeze flow through is a great way to freshen indoor air—unless pollen counts or air-pollution levels are high. If that's the case, use your oil-and-vodka spray to freshen indoor air. Combine your choice of oils with vodka, and spritz it high up in an odiferous room to freshen the air. Avoid getting the mist in your eyes or breathing in the droplets before they evaporate, though.

For those who prefer a nonalcoholic air freshener, set a few saucers of white vinegar around the house to absorb odors, or douse a few cotton balls with two or three drops of your favorite essential oil and put those in room corners, drawers, cabinets, or anywhere else that needs freshening up. Keep them out of reach of pets and kids, though, as some undiluted essential oils can be hazardous if swallowed.

Rug Beaters

Long before the vacuum or even the carpet sweeper was invented, people got the dust and grit out of rugs by beating them. Housewives 100 years ago had rug beaters that looked sort of like giant fly swatters, but you can still get dust out of things by giving them an enthusiastic shaking outside, swinging them against a wall or post, or beating them with a broom handle (do any of these on a day with a good breeze and stand upwind of the dust cloud you create). It's effective, free, and nontoxic (as long as you don't breathe the dust), and it burns calories, too!

The idea behind beating a rug is to get the dust moving fast enough to fly right out of the object. Hang rugs over a sturdy wash line or strong suspended rope, and grab a broom handle or a four- to five-foot length of a one-inch-diameter wooden dowel. Stand at one edge of the rug—ideally, upwind of the dust that will start to fly—and make sure that when you hit it, the entire length of your beater hits the rug at the same time. You can whale away at a thick, sturdy rug with all your might; for lighter fabrics hit just hard enough to get the dust moving. When the dust stops coming out, turn the rug over and have at the other side. The same technique works for other bulky items like futon mattresses and large pillows. Put those on a clean, flat surface (a sturdy picnic table is a good height and will save your back) and beat on them there, turning them every so often.

Beating a rug is great physical and psychic exercise! Put on some music with a good beat and pretend the rug is everything you'd like to whack (but can't). Have some fun!

Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on Rodale.com.