Tvättstuga: The Swedish art of doing laundry

In November 2018, I moved to Sweden. After the initial shock had temporarily subsided, I took in the details of our rental apartment. It didn’t take long for me to realise that there wasn’t a washing machine in sight. 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 ‘tvättstugan’: the laundry room.

Many people in Stockholm live in apartments because, like most capital cities, there’s a supply versus demand versus space issue. This means that when you’re lucky enough to actually find somewhere to live, there’s probably not enough space to justify a personal washing machine.

The Swedes came up with a practical solution to this in the form of tvättstugor. These are communal laundry rooms where all the residents in an apartment block can go to do their washing. Use of the tvättstuga is typically bundled up into your rent or mortgage payments, so you don’t have to worry about breaking into a tenner for change. That’s already half the battle won.

Tvättstugan: The laundry room
Tvättstuga: Laundry room
Tvättstugorna: The laundry rooms
Tvättstugor: Laundry rooms

How does the tvättstuga work?

An old-style key and board booking system in a Swedish laundry room (tvättstuga). 

Photo by Natasha Ellis-Knight.

First thing’s first: you need to book a slot.

In our 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 side. 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. The first one begins at 7am and the last at 7pm.

Only one booking per household is possible at a time, and you can use your booking key to stop other people entering whilst your washing is on. This isn’t the case in all tvättstugor, however, and I’ve heard tales of slots or clothing being stolen. Should this happen in your laundry room, I’m told the wrath of the victim will be unleashed— in the form of an angry post-it note.

Once you enter the laundry room, you’re faced with a grand selection of industrial-sized equipment. This can vary from tvättstuga to tvättstuga, but most will have at least two washing machines and a tumble dryer. In ours, we have the added luxury of a pair of heated drying cabinets and a mangle.

How to find the tvättstuga

Drying cabinets in the Swedish  tvättstuga. Photo by Natasha Ellis-Knight.

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 often eerie nature of the tvättstugor themselves.

A strange little room in the basement of our apartment building, our tvättstuga doesn’t exactly scream inviting. In fact, it has 1980s horror movie written all over it, and Jack Nicholson wouldn’t look out of place shouting ‘HERE’S JOHNNY’ through a hole in the door.

Many of the apartment buildings in Stockholm have been here for a while. 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. It’s almost as if by stepping into a 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 antiquated charms.

Keeping the tvättstuga clean

A poster explaining how to use the tumble dryer in the tvättstuga.  Torkanvisning TT 165. Photo by Natasha Ellis-Knight.

The number one 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. 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 insides of the washing machines.
  • Clear the copious amounts of lint from the tumble dryer’s filter.
  • Sweep the floors of the room (and those of the drying cupboards, if you’re lucky enough to have them).
  • Finally, turn off the lights before you exit, making it seem like you were never there at all.

In sum

The mangle. A common feature of Swedish tvättstguor that is used for pressing items. Photo by Natasha Ellis-Knight.

Thanks to the Swedish laundry room, gone are the days of an ugly clothes horse blighting your home with its presence. Even better, I now have access to multiple, industrial-sized laundry machines meaning I can get all of my washing done in one go. Dirty clothes and a king-sized duvet set? No problem.

On the other hand, ‘putting a wash on’ can no longer be a spontaneous act. Impromptu night out and you’d like to quickly launder your favourite jeans? Not a chance– you don’t have a slot booked until next Tuesday. About to take a shower and realise you’re all out of clean underwear? Guess you’re going to have to go commando and stop making poor life decisions.

Sweden is synonymous with high taxes, cleanliness, and societal equality. And the tvättstuga plays by the exact same rules.

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