Growing up in a rural community, I thought everyone used clotheslines, as line-dried clothes were the norm for my family and many of our friends. But as an adult living with much closer neighbors who don’t use clotheslines, I’m pinched between the practicality and stigma of using this seemingly outmoded practice.
I recently tried to string a retractable clothesline between two posts on my back porch. The weather had been hot and dry, and my memory and conscience told me not to waste power using the automatic dryer; air-drying would be more efficient.
But my attempt to affix the line failed after I discovered the posts weren’t far enough apart to make the line taut. The idea of my wet clothes drooping on a loose line made me self-conscious—a feeling that grew when I realized my neighbors would have a direct view of the line from their front yard. I’m not in the jurisdiction of a homeowners association that might prohibit clotheslines, but I dreaded attracting enough dirty looks that I’d have to wash my clothes again.
I gave up on the clothesline and headed inside, scolding myself partly for a defective design but mostly for being embarrassed about using this energy-efficient drying method because of how it looks and what people would think. Worse than that, I felt like not using a clothesline was betraying my roots.
Acting before the contemporary “green” movement, my parents dried clothes on the line because it was sensible and economical—drying power from the sun was a free and abundant resource. I remember Mom saying she probably saved a quarter for each load she didn’t put in the dryer. So nearly every week of my childhood, I’d hang out with Mom while she hauled wet laundry in a hamper—a collapsible metal frame on wheels with a hand-sewn denim basket—out to what I now realize was the mother of all clotheslines.
On the sunny south side of the house, five lines of strong, twisted galvanized wire ran between 5-foot-wide crosspieces welded onto two vertical steel pipes mounted in concrete 18 feet apart. The design provided around 90 feet of clothesline.
For a long time, the clothes washer and dryer (we had one, but I don’t remember using it much) occupied a small building separate from the main house and next to the well house, close to the clothesline. Even after moving the machines inside, Mom made the trek outside to hang up clothes.
The task made Mom’s arms strong, and when she came in from the line and hugged me, her skin was warm from the sun.
Not even winter daunted her from her mission to dry clothes without an automatic dryer. One frosty day, Mom fetched the jeans from the line to find the wicked wind had frozen them stiff. So she brought them in and draped them over bedroom doors.
In spring, our cottonwood trees pollenated and sent white seed puffs floating through the air like snowflakes. They’d go up your nose when you inhaled or land in your eyes before you could blink. But that didn’t stop Mom. When she went outside, she donned a straw hat swathed with white tulle, beekeeper style.
Besides providing a practical way to dry clothes, the clothesline was, to me, a child’s wonderland. Below it, I’d amuse myself by pulling lamb’s-quarter greens out of the sandy soil to marvel at their roots and bite the small, spinach-like leaves. I’d tickle the sides of tiny funnel-shaped pits of antlion larvae in the dirt and then try to catch the doodlebugs. The poles were like a jungle gym, and I’d twirl around them until their silver paint rubbed off onto my palms, like the Tin Man’s hands.
One time when the sheets were hanging out to dry, I rearranged them to form the vertical sides of a rectangular prism, carefully folding the edges over the line and pinching them with wooden clothespins to secure all four sides around me.
Then I stood in the center and looked up at my swatch of sky—so indefinite, so indigo. A white flat sheet with pink daisies billowed in the breeze, forming a belly, damp and cold, that pressed on my cheek. The wind filled the sails of my imagination, and I believed I was on the leeward side of a ship, embarking into unknown oceans but certain adventure.
As I got older, I helped hang up clothes and learned the tricks to making line drying more effective. Hang shirts by the tails rather than the shoulders so the pin indentations don’t show. Use just three clothespins to hang two shirts by making the center pin do double duty. Drape dried clothes over the edge of the basket—or better yet, fold them on the spot.
Because nearly everything washed in our house went out to the line, I figured scratchy towels, jeans so rigid they could stand up on their own and the occasional mud dauber, wasp or bee that accidently got folded into clean clothes were just facts of laundry life.
I was pretty surprised when I spent the night at a new friend’s house and discovered that her towels were soft and smelled like dryer sheets instead of being scratchy and smelling like wind and minerals. When I got home, I asked my mom if we could make an exception for how we dried towels, but she just laughed and said to be grateful for the chance to exfoliate.
Remembering Mom’s dedication to drying clothes outside—despite the labor, conditions or what anybody thought about scratchy towels—makes me realize it’s time for me to give this proven laundry method a respectful effort. This time, I’ll use a little more imagination to find the line between practicality and image by creating a sturdier design. And while I have the privilege to have a clothesline on my property, I won’t flaunt it in my neighbors’ view.
Once it’s up, I know I’ll think of the money I’m saving with every load I hang on the line. More than that, I’ll think of my mom.
Suzanne Haberman, staff writer