Last summer the three of us traveled in Kenya and Tanzania for two months. Our first stop was a volunteer stint at Colobus Trust on the coast of Kenya, where we worked on Colobus monkey conservation, and lodged in the organization’s simple rooms. Our packs were light, with few extra clothes, and it was the cusp of the rainy season. When our freshly washed clothes were hung in the open-air windows, they sometimes took days to dry, even though they were under cover–the air was so thick and moist. Midway into our week there, I’d been wearing my only dry shirt for a few days, and was starting to feel quite funky. “Do you think they’ll ever dry?” I lightly asked one of the staff, who lives in a village nearby. “Oh sure,” he told me, “when the sun comes out, they’ll dry right away.” “Well, you know how impatient we Americans are,” I joked, “used to just popping things in the dryer!” “The what?” “Um, the clothes dryer,” I said meekly, suddenly remembering that I was speaking to a man who’d lived his whole life with several other family members in a one-room house the size of my daughter’s bedroom, made of simple earthen materials, and without power.
Many of the people we talked to in the villages of Kenya and Tanzania know that Americans’ houses are too big, and that we own cars, but the thought of clothes dryers was inconceivable. Using an expensive machine to do something that the air does naturally came across as profligate, idiotic, and I suppose even indecent. At the Colobus Trust, my Kenyan friend started to laugh, and I was about to laugh along, when I realized that this was a private laugh, tinged with bitterness–a laughter I was not invited to join. I resolved in that moment to sever my dryer dependency.
We’d had an outdoor clothesline for some time, but in rainy Seattle outdoor clothes-drying is a part time proposition in any season. So when we got home from Africa, we rigged up a retractable line that stretches across the length of our long basement, over the empty guinea pig cage (Nicholas and Clover, RIP), past the camping gear, and finally making a nice little curtain for Tom’s corner bike workshop. It works great, and now we can line-dry our laundry no matter what the weather is doing. The clothes dry in about half a day, and we almost never use our dryer anymore. If you need your line-dryed items de-wrinkled or softened, you can pop them in the dryer for a couple of minutes before you fold them (really–two minutes is enough!).
We now realize that since our basement ceiling is quite high, we don’t really need the retractable line–we never take it down, so we could have just strung a rope across the room. But for a basement with a lower ceiling, the retractable line would be nice. In any case, we recommend using coated clothesline line, even though it’s more expensive than cotton or nylon, as the latter quickly slackens.
Our friend MegaFlava is more of a tinkerer, Make-zine type. His basement isn’t long enough for a line such as ours, so he rigged up this amazing rack on a frame made of bent electrical conduit, and criss-crossed with clothesline.
It lowers and raises on a pulley system, so after you hang the clothes, you can pull it up to the ceiling and still use the room. Wet clothes are heavy, and MegaFlava had to work on balancing the pulleys so that the full clothesline could be hoisted without too much exertion.
Of course, hanging laundry on the subterranean line isn’t as delightful as time spent hanging clothes outside on a sunny day, but it is still meditative, and I find it pleasant. Occasionally I do a simple multi-task–my two faves: singing, or practicing recorded French lessons with headphones (yes, a clothesline Luddite with an iPod).
My dad grew up in Iowa, dryer-less of course. He tells me about how his mother would bring the clothes in from the winter line, the shirts frozen solid as a board. I like to think of her, My Grandma Carrie, as I hang my family’s clothes in our warm basement.
(As always, thanks to my sweet hubby for the beautiful photos! See more at his Flickr site.)