Saturday, August 15, 2009

Hung Out to Dry

When we moved in to our house a little over six years ago our minds were full of project ideas and new found freedoms. Unlike rental units, in which we had lived for the majority of our adult lives (and for me, most of my whole life), the house afforded us opportunities to express ourselves: wall colors, landscaping and custom alterations. But our first project was a cheap (less than $80) addition that we both felt strongly about: the installation of a clothesline.

Both my husband and myself had fond memories of clotheslines from childhood - those technicolor makers of shade and instant fortresses. But we knew that clotheslines provided much more. Specifically, a clothes line is a solar-powered clothes dryer; a backyard stand against pollution and global warming. We chose a telescoping model for two specific reasons: 1) We have a smallish, urban backyard and didn't want the clothesline to significantly hinder how the space could be used while clothes were on the line, and 2) During cold weather and, say, lawn parties, the pole can be removed from the base, leaving only a small concrete patch flush with the ground. Our particular model can hold about three loads of laundry at a time and was a cinch to install - just one bag of concrete mix and a concrete form was needed.

The benefits of drying your clothes on a clothesline are many.

  • It's free! Drying clothes in a dryer costs on average about 30 cents per load.

  • Environmentally friendly bleach alternative! The sun's rays are quite effective at removing stains. Granted, they can also fade a favorite shirt so drying certain items wrong-side out is recommended. If your clothesline is in a shady area you won't have this concern.

  • Community-building! I cannot tell you how many times I've gotten caught up on the neighborhood scoop while out at the clothesline. Folks lean over the fence to chat when you have a clothesline.

  • Meditation! Hanging clothes up on a clothesline and taking them down are examples of the types of mindless tasks that let your spirit relax.

  • Sunshine fresh! Sun dried clothes smell, well, like sunshine - need I say more?

Of course, there are those naysayers that poo-poo the idea of clotheslines. Here's a few I've heard:

Clotheslines can be such an eye-sore. Isn't it horrible to show your underclothes to the whole world? Well, we make an effort to hang any unmentionables towards the center of our clothes line so that subsequent items block them from view. A three-line long wire clothesline would afford the same option.

Don't the birds poop all over the clothes? Umm, no. For this reason I don't recommend putting your clothesline under a tree, but our current clothesline sits under a power line (aka bird wire) and I'm only aware of one "bomb" in the last six years. The odds are clearly in our favor.

Aren't the clothes wrinkled? The condition of your clothes will only be as good as your technique; if you hang the clothes bunched up and wrinkled then that's how they'll dry. A quick shake and careful pinning and clothes are often removed from the line with less wrinkles than if they sat in the finished dryer for 5 minutes past the buzzer.

But the towels are so stiff and scratchy! True, sun dried towels have a different initial texture than towels slathered in petroleum-derived fabric softeners that were dried in fossil fuel-using dryers. But sun dried towels are more absorbent! Seriously, fabric softeners leave a film on fabric that retards absorption. And that characteristic stiffness is short-lived - as soon as you start using a sun dried towel it begins to soften up.

You're not really saving that much money and energy, so why bother? My family does roughly 4 to 5 loads of laundry per week, which translates into about $1.50 worth of savings per week. No, that doesn't seem like much of a savings. But when you consider that clothes dryers account for an average of 15% of a home's utility usage, you can see how using a clothesline is a cheap and easy way to save a bit of your budget. Plus, if all the homes in the United States used clotheslines exclusively for just 5 months out of the year, imagine the reduction in fossil-fuel based energy demand!

Do you use a clothesline? If yes, what are your favorite things about using one? If not, what's holding you back?

Now, I will be the first to acknowledge that using a clothesline has one serious draw-back: it's seasonal. Like most folks we've used the electric dryer during the colder months, or on a summer day that turned out to be more rainy than sunny. It would be great to have an indoor alternative, especially during the colder months when the drying clothes can add much-need moisture into the air. We've used drying racks inside the house with some success, but their cost ($15 plus dollars each) provides a bit of a set back, since we'd need around 8 of them to dry just one load of laundry. This past winter the husband got creative and hung a sturdy line near the 9 foot tall ceiling of our main living level. It snaked from the dining room through the living room and could hold nearly two loads of laundry (some of you had the pleasure of viewing this oddity). This was a convenient option but a bit of an eyesore at times. And, we had to learn the do's and don'ts of using this type of laundry line (do hang socks in between items to maximize space, don't hang long items in the middle of a walkway).

Does anyone have suggestions on how to tackle this problem? What solutions are available for indoor clothes lines?

Thanks for reading "Rational Living" and providing feedback on this topic. We'll get by with a little help from our friends!

--Rational Mama


  1. ooh oooh pick me pick me ;) lol. We don't have a clothes line. I almost think there is something in the homeowners covenants about them. BUT we do have an electric dryer, and in the winter, matt unhooks the vent hose thingy, puts a pantyhose around the end of it to collect the lint; and has it vent into the hallway-- thus making the warmth and the moisture do a double duty. So for our--what did you say- 30 cents of drying we're also getting some heat and moisture in the winter.

    Summer time I'm pretty much a dryer slacker. Hmm. But I don't use dryer sheets or fabric softener; because I heard they can contribute to allergies, and brooke seems to have sensitive skin to some of them.

  2. Well, ever since reading "Green Up Your Clean Up" last summer and retro-izing many chores around the house, one of my absolute favs was drying outside. There were 3 drawbacks for me. 1) I bought some line-drying rope something or other and tied it between two tress (this was a home-made project by me so nothing fancy, of course) which by the time I hung much of anything on it, the line started to sink. That sucks when your clothes drag in the dirt. 2)I didn't care for the mesquito attack everytime I spent 5 mins in the yard. 3) We had lots of rain/bad storms and I felt like I could never dry outside much. All of those irritants pushed me back in to our dryer. If I could get rid of the mesquito problem (seriously, I'd get about 6 bites everytime I stepped out there- that's 12 per load-no joke)I could deal with the other two problems. In fact if we had less trees, I'd ask Matt to install a little thingy like you all did. As for inside, we have one drying rack, many backs of chairs and many hangers in doorways. Last winter I spent a whole afternoon trying to figure out a way I could hang that same rope thingy inside the house and dry laundry. The "eye-sore" issue tore me away from the idea-- well, that and the fact that I couldn't find a good place to hang it. But in a perfect world, I'd be hanging laundry 95% of the time. That other 5% would be in the winter when I love having fresh hot clothes from the dryer+ the heat from the dryer. I wish I could have seen your indoor line. So creative, you two! BTW-- coffee, soon, please!

  3. I haven't actually tried this at home, but I do love the retractable clothes lines you sometimes see inside the tub enclosure at a hotel. I bet you could hang at least three of those in a regular sized tub and put almost an entire load over your tub. No drips on the floor, no trouble walking around it, and you could probably still take a bath if the clothes weren't too long. What do you think?

  4. Angie, nice job on recycling the moisture!

    Lara, how about planting some mosquito-repellent plants near the laundry area? Marigolds, citronella grass and rosemary are just a few that should make a difference.

    Emilie, not a bad idea at all. Our house was built in 1910 and so the only bathroom is upstairs. This makes me wonder about moving the indoor laundry lines into the upstairs bedrooms (and therefore, out of sight should company suddenly drop in). Hmm...this could be the right track...

  5. I must say that this blog touched me the most as I am currently living in the Czech Republic and well... driers do not exist here. I mean they do but because they are so expensive to buy (per unit), so expensive to run (water and electricity here is very high), and no space in houses and aparments (pretty much they were nor build with an extra space for such huge boxes). Most people here dont even comprehend the fact that such a machine exists! So I do find it funny how people in America seem to not be able to live without them. I must say that when I hang my loundry on the balcony or in the garden I dont even thing about bird "bombs", mesquitos or storms. I simply have to plan to hang my clothes in when there is no storm and when one is coming I simply go get the clothes. It is just like cooking- you have to time it. Pay attention. such worries are thrivolous to me. But I guess it is so normal that it is impossible to think otherwise. I must add that there is one thing that I do think about when I do so- and that is time. I also do about 4 loads a a week and that means that I spend at least 30 minutes dealing with the the clothes (haning it, picking up folding) that is 2 hr a week and if I must iron some... well that is another couple of hours. And giving 3-4 hours a week to clothes is lot at least in my schedule. I guess that is the plus that I see which driers... saves time. But again, in no way to I think it is a necessity.

  6. We had one single simple line stretched between the tree and the chicken coop. But we recently moved the coop to another part of the yard, and my line had to come down... I've missed it terribly!!
    I'm lucky to live in Colorado where we hve many sunny day throughout the winter, so I can still dry outside on those days. If it's too cold, cloudy or snowing though, I use a drying rack inside. they fold up pretty compactly and it's the best thing I've found for drying inside.

    What kind of line is yours? Since ours has been taken down I'm looking for something permanent, and your system sounds great! I do way more than 4 loads per week (I have young two boys, and the youngest is still in cloth diapers).

    Oh - and I LOVE the smell of line dried clothes... especially sheets!

  7. Anisa - ours is a simple inverted umbrella type line similar to the one here:

    As for our indoor drying needs, I think we're leaning towards something like this:

    It will allow us to use it whichever room we prefer but is easily stored away when company comes over!

  8. We use both a dryer (neither fabric softener nor dryer sheets) and a clothesline. Both are in the unfinished basement, so they get year-round use.

  9. We never use a clothes dryer (except for a one year spell after my first child was born and we cloth diaper and I was scared to hang them up; thankfully I got over that!). I've been trying to sell it for a while, lol! We live in an apartment but we have some basement space where we hang the clothes. We have a line and 6 racks. We sometimes hang large things over the railing upstairs. Electricity is expensive here so when we stopped using our dryer, our electric bill literally cut in half, $30 a month we saved.

    I definitely find shaking things out help. We don't' get hard stiff clothes at all. I love hanging everything up to dry!!

  10. We've considered hanging clothes up in our basement, but are a little concerned that they might pick up a bit of the dank smell that naturally comes with a 100 year old basement. We haven't had a chance to purchase the indoor umbrella system I linked to above, so for now we've been using the line strung through the main level. Thanks for the posts!