Laundry Forensics

Jerry Seinfeld has a bit about what happens to the missing socks in the laundry. They had to go somewhere right? That’s the law of conservation of matter and energy. But for some reason, they disappear. Never to be seen again.

We have a bundle of socks tied together in our laundry basket. It rides along every time the laundry is done and never does anything but sit there. The intention is to, at some point in the future, match them up with their mates once they come home to roost, but that hope is never realized. So what is there for this lonely bundle of singles to do? No matches to any of the socks exist. But there are close to 10 of them in there that have accumulated over the last few years. My question is, why do we keep ’em?

Shouldn’t there be, maybe, someplace where they can all go to be together with other partner-less socks. Perhaps long lost sock pairs can be reunited after many years apart. Threadbare, with a little sock cane, wrapping what’s left of their elastic around each other and crying lint tears. Or maybe two different socks can fall in love and have footies or a completely new kind of sock. Maybe, just maybe, two socks that are very similar, but not a pair, can get together. Nothing wrong with that. Every sock needs another sock. It just seems unfair that they should just be bundled together, forgotten in the bottom of the laundry basket with all those hangers.

One day, I saw that bundle and it got me thinking. I wasn’t thinking about the loneliness of being a single sock but more about the science of laundry. This science isn’t the chemicals used to clean, proportions or fluid dynamics and how finely tuned the agitator has to be to make sure the clothes get exposed to the proper mix of water and soap. And I’m not talking about finding that long lost sock, although that could be a specialty branch of the broader field of investigative laundering.

What I pondered was the study and evaluation, the piecing together, and finding the origins of the things you find mixed in the laundry — The non-textiles, if you will. If you have kids, you have to be very specialized in this field with a certain number of years of studying the detritus of laundry loads before going out on your own to tackle the harder cases.

Consider the evidence at the scene of a laundry load:

Stones – This is pretty easy. A kid is walking down the street, sees a stone, picks it up and puts it in their pocket. It doesn’t have to be a particularly interesting stone at all. Not to anyone else anyway. But it will make it into the dryer and you’ll know it by the sound.

String and lint – Simple enough. Found or left over from the last load of laundry.

Streaks on the side of the dryer
– blue or black, it’s pen. Uh oh, check the other garments, we could have an epidemic on our hands.

Stones over the course of many loads – Serial finder or stone enthusiast. Perhaps a future geologist.

Many stones at once
– This is a little more difficult. Were there many interesting specimens on the road during the nature walk with class? Or was there a particularly aggressive game of tag going on that induced the players and the suspect in question to slide through the pea gravel, turning his pockets into mini front end loaders? Only careful questioning and delicate dissection of the facts will figure this one out.

Rubber bands – Another one that looks simple at the outset – took the rubber band off a stack of 3×5 cards and stuck it in their pocket – but could be more complex than that. They could have found it on the road during that nature walk, or traded it for something else…rubber bands can be currency. Things are not always as they seem.

Bits of metal – if they haven’t rusted (other tasks in life necessitated leaving the load in the washer for longer than anticipated) and stain the garment in which they were found causing the finder to gruffly throw away the evidence before it could be evaluated, these will come in many forms. Most from the male suspects: Bottle caps, flat bars, coins, wire, partial pieces of die cast metals, pop tops. The possibilities are numerous. This was likely something unearthed during a session on the playground or, again, on that nature walk.

And then there is the last bit of evidence that one might find. One that taunts the investigator, haunting the very best. Will they be good enough this time? Can they crack the hardest of all laundry cases?

The white or sometimes multicolored wad is the brass ring of laundry CSI. It was once paper which could be of varying weights. The harder the wad the heavier the starting weight. But however it started, it is a wad. Just a mysterious lump that tells no tales.

What makes this particular find challenging is the deconstruction. These are important laundry artifacts and this is what will challenge the most seasoned laundry forensic examiner. Why? Because this could be a permission slip, a note from the teacher, homework or even the drawing someone made that you’d really like to see. Worst case, it’s the phone number of the cute girl with dimples that if lost will close the book just as the first chapter was being written.

A delicate touch is needed for teasing out the secrets of the wad; first at the obvious cracks along the outer surface, then with more precision within the inner layers where the individual edges of the paper can be seen. Decisions sometimes have to be made to sacrifice one section to tearing in order to get at and discover another seemingly more important section. Is that an edge where there probably isn’t any writing? Or is it a fold in the middle of the page on the other side of which could be the Rosetta Stone?

Prying, lifting, tweezing, the investigator must carefully weigh each movement and each path they find. Using a practiced eye to determining if they are on course to revealing the secrets within or are they going to rend the entire wad asunder.

There are times, when no amount of careful dissection can uncover these secrets. Soft paper that has melded around and into itself, thin paper that is nearly dissolved. Even the impatient hands of the examiner can destroy the piece and forever keep the mysteries hidden.

But sometimes there is that moment, when the folds suddenly bloom, and the paper parts, letting go of its hold like the final moments of solving a wooden puzzle. This is the payoff: Springing the lock and getting to the heart of the precious contents within. It doesn’t matter if it is just a phone number, or a name or nothing at all. In the end, the satisfaction of knowing that once again the code has been cracked brings the most joy. After that, one can go on confident in the fact that when faced with another artifact of the laundry, they will again be able master it.

The fact remains, however, that every Laundry Examiner’s nemesis has always been, and will always be, the socks.