The Clothesline Makes a Comeback

As opposed to a throwback to a bygone era – of neatly trimmed lawns with lines of clean, white sheets billowing in the wind like flags of the American dream, and of A Streetcar Named Desire separation of the classes with undershirts, bras, and tired nightgowns strung from urban balconies – perhaps if we renamed it a solar-drying device, the clothesline would seem more contemporary for today’s green movement. Either way, its time has come around again. The clothesline is back.

On the Vineyard, where we tend to step outside the lines when it comes to mainstream thinking, the clothesline might have gotten less of a bad rap over the last several decades than elsewhere in North America – where homeowners’ associations and even towns have banned clotheslines. Still, if you had one in your backyard here, you’d keep it on the down low. And though there are no bylaws prohibiting clotheslines on the Island, some private communities, like Dodger’s Hole in Edgartown, do have restrictions that ask homeowners to keep clotheslines out of sight from neighboring houses and roadways. Fair enough, but now with our growing eco-consciousness, airing your laundry might even be hip.

“When people come by our house, they love seeing it – particularly when there’s a lot of color on the line, on a sunny day with the clothes blowing around,” says Richard Hamermesh about his clothesline at his summer home in Chilmark.

“We do a lot of laundry – we have a guest house, we have two grown kids with their own kids, we have friends who visit,” says Richard, an entrepreneur and professor at Harvard Business School, who lives in Newton off-season. “When I was a kid, my grandparents were immigrants, living in Brooklyn in the tenements; everyone had clotheslines.” Since then, he notes, “a lot of things with our energy habits have sort of wandered.” So line-drying laundry is one way to reduce his family’s carbon footprint.

Karin Nelson says she has used a clothesline all of the fifteen years she has owned a home in Vineyard Haven. For her family of four, she says, “we didn’t even have a dryer for almost ten years.” They finally got one, partly because in the colder seasons the clothes would end up smelling like smoke from neighbors’ wood stoves. Also she says, “In the winter, it takes so much longer to dry on the line, or it’s too cold and they just freeze up.” Now when the thermometer dips too low, Karin dries the laundry indoors on a large wooden rack placed near the heater.

She does use the dryer on occasion to soften items like towels and linens. Karin says taking damp towels off the line and tossing them in for ten minutes will do the trick, and you won’t lose that wonderful, fresh-air scent. She also emphasizes the green aspect of conserving energy. “It’s incredible how much money I save from not using my dryer. Our electric bill can vary twenty bucks a month depending on how much we use it.”

And she can often dry two cycles of laundry on the line in one day. “On a really sunny, dry day, with a light wind, you can put a load out, and they dry fast enough that you can get a couple of loads done in a day.”

Karin also notes that clothes last longer when line-dried. “When we first got a dryer, all our clothes shrunk...which can be good, I guess, like when your jeans have stretched out.” Nevertheless, air-drying is easier on fabrics, especially delicates. And the sun’s ultraviolet rays act as a natural disinfectant and can brighten whites.

Nowadays there are not only pulleys that allow you to remain in one spot, but automatic pulleys (that will rotate the cable and even pin the clothes), self-standing clotheslines, and retractable clotheslines that disappear from sight once the job is done. (There are also systems for indoor line-drying.)

“We have ours strung between two trees, with two lines coming off of it,” says Karin, who doesn’t use a pulley, though she has tried one before. “It didn’t work very well. So I just leave my pins on the line, and move along. I use wooden pins – my mother bought plastic, because she thought they’d last better, but they break down in the sun, so I like the wooden ones. I do have to replace them every once in a while.”

Green advocates such as Project Laundry List, based out of Concord, New Hampshire, are working to eradicate the clothesline’s tarnished reputation by pressing state governments for right-to-dry legislation that would override bans, and by promoting its ability to significantly reduce the average household’s carbon footprint. The clothesline is high on the list of small changes that can have a big impact. Last year, the primary electricity provider in Toronto gave away 75,000 clotheslines and estimated that if those households used them to dry even one quarter of their laundry, they’d save enough electricity to power nearly 2,000 homes.

Are there drawbacks to air-drying your laundry? “Well,” Karin muses, “birds can be a problem, if the birds are hanging out on the branches in the tree above the clothesline.”