The Tangled Nest

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The Stockings Were Hung…On Winter Clotheslines

December 7th, 2009 · 12 Comments ·

About a month ago, I called my friend T who, like me, is something of a clothesline evangelist.  With the rains coming and school starting, I had fallen way behind on my laundry, and finally did about four loads in one day.  I popped them all in the dryer.  “Oh my god,” I told T, “Now I remember why I used this thing!”  T’s husband MegaFlava has rigged up a beautiful indoor line in their basement (see below), but T sweetly commiserated with me.  “I know!  The same thing happened to me!  The clothes come out so warm and fluffy and fast.  I’d almost forgotten…”  We laughed.  Time to get back to it.  Dryers use a shocking amount of power to do something that the air can do naturally–outdoors or in.  But this isn’t about eco-guilt, right?  It’s about creatively sustaining ourselves and our families in ways that feel good, simple, artful, and true.  And as the right to hang clothes continues to be questioned, clotheslines–odd as it sounds–can lend a little thrill of the subversive.  So here’s one from the archive, and one of the very first Tangled Nest posts.  Africa, inspiration, and how-to:

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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!).

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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.

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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.

For more, have a look at Laundry Outlaws, and my clothes-hanging tutorial.

(As always, thanks to my sweet hubby for the beautiful photos!  See more at his Flickr site.)

clotheslines, energy use

12 Comments so far ↓

  • k.a.m.

    I found your blog after hearing you on New Dimensions. There are so many things I like about your attitude and your self proclaimed Luddite ways, yet maintaining the NOW. ( an ipod is a clothesline for the ears…. so funny)

    I’ve started reading your book on Crows online.
    It is fascinating stuff. Especially when you get into all the “spirtual” stuff people think that crows portend.

    Anyway…. love your stuff, your blog, your way of looking at things etc. Keep up the great wild life, (notice it’s two words) life.

    A New Fan from Facebook

  • kate

    I loved this post when it first came out, because it nudged me to set up our clothesline, which turned out to be great timing. Our dryer died days later, for good. It was a really old one with a belt that’s no longer available.

    This last weekend we finally bought a “new to us” dryer, and I was also shocked at how warm & fluffy they came out. It had me & my husband giggling as we folded clothes!

  • Erica

    I’ve been following your blog for a few months now, and was so excited to hear you on New Dimensions! We’ve been hanging our laundry for a couple of years — at first it was because we had funky wiring and was too scary to keep using the dryer. THEN we figured out that we were saving about $50 a month by hanging the laundry. THAT money funding the new breaker box – but we still hang the laundry. I use the savings to help fund a trip somewhere warm in the winter.

  • Birdsong

    The incredible thing to me is that any community could get away with banning drying clothes on the line! I can relate to the frozen-board part of that description, having lived in the Sierras for the past 23 years… I suspend a rack from the pulley for the emergency Coleman lantern in winter, to take advantage of that heat that migrates up to the ceiling.

  • fanta

    I heard you too on New Dimensions and your words struck deep cords within me and I will get your book. Thanks for the reminder of purchasing at indie bookstore. I have felt a special connection to crows for a long time…maybe because they are so numerous in the NW. I appreciated your saying that shaming ourselves into saving our mother earth and her sister creatures, trees etc. are not sustaining or self nurturing ways to go about it. PS I have been hanging my clothes a long time thinking I would get more wear out of them. Thank You for sharing your wisdom!
    In Love and Gratitude to you.

  • Opa

    Your dear relative Lourice had her modesty as well as her four clotheslines in the back yard. She made a practice of hanging her sheets and towels on the outside 2 lines, and all undergarments then went up in between, out of sight.

  • June

    The circle of life…I loved nothing more than playing between the sheets as they hung in the sunshine. Now we hang ours on wooden hoop-racks on the back porch during the summer or in the girls’ playroom in the winter. The girls scurry right under the sheets and revel in the sweet-scented solitude.

    I keep hoping for lines in the house. Thanks for the tip about the coated line. Seems worth the investment.

  • michelle

    I am enjoying your posts and heard you interviewed on the radio. Our clotheslines is made of Dacron and is from a boating store. This line is designed not too stretch very much. Plus we have it tied to a heavy duty spring on one end so it never sags. Coated line is from a form of vinyl, the most toxic plastic on earth to create, use and dispose of, (it off gases, too). We also spaced our poles so we can hang a hammock when there are no clothes hanging to dry and the weather is nice!

  • mary

    My dryer quit working about two years ago and we have never replaced it. We use a couple clothes drying racks. What I like about them is that they are so portable. I can move them to which ever space is not being used and I can take them outside when ever the weather cooperates.

  • Anna

    Great post! I love hanging our laundry outside in the dry season, and would like to do it year-round. I’m wondering what the humidity is like in your house– I live in Seattle as well, in an old house with a cold basement. We heat only the kitchen and living rooms, and when we dry clothes inside (or boil pots uncovered) there during the winter, mold grows on the windowsills and the clothes smell sour after spending two or three days on the line. Running a dehumidifier might be a help, but I can’t bring myself to buy another appliance. Any thoughts?

    • lyanda

      Thanks, Anna. Hmm. Have you tried just hanging them in the cold basement? If your basement is dry, it could work–clothes don’t really need warmth to dry, though it helps. It’s true we don’t have a very humid house, and our basement is a dry one (chilly though!), which definitely contributes to the success of an indoor line. Let us know if you find anything that works, and I’ll keep pondering.

      • Sildah

        I’ve embraced line drying this year and am looking toward our Seattle rainy season with dismay for the first time. Any thoughts for Anna? We’re in the same situation.

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