Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Hiding The Clothesline

"Sheila" photo courtesy Flickr 
Note stove pipe slanted for maximum heat distribution.
Saturday I discussed the politics of laundry with a couple of veteran housekeepers. We agreed that air drying clothing in plain sight of the neighborhood is a legitimate issue. We also agreed that younger folk are likely never to have witnessed the fine craft of hanging clothes to dry. Setting things out with deliberation and care, ensuring that the grain of the fabric is squared off, is a part of producing well-finished laundry, which should look like new. Even easy care fabrics look their best when handled this way, and things last forever. Cheryl Mendelson's Home Comforts has a section about clotheslines that is sheer poetry. If you're even thinking about line drying, read this book as a guide to righteous management.

When electric clothes dryers came on the Seattle market in the early Fifties, my mother couldn't wait to buy one. This, to put it mildly, is not an ideal climate for hanging clothes out to dry. Even in July, a basket of wash is likely to mildew before it dessicates. Clothesline resistors have good arguments besides the slattern factor: security and privacy are obvious considerations, allergens and air pollutants accumulate on things dried outdoors, and sun (a fragile bone of contention in Western Washington) damages fibers.

There are many more subtle ways to air dry clothing than outdoors on an assembly of lines, however. Any Seattle basement of a certain age will have at least the holes of the hooks that held clothesline pocking the  joists of the first floor. String plastic-covered cotton clothesline with a turnbuckle to keep it taut, and wipe it with a clean cloth before hanging things up. Drying in a basement close to the furnace guarantees that the house will be adequately humidified during heating season. I dislike working overhead, though, and prefer to dry on a rack or hangers set on a pole.

The ancient Greeks invented the attic, as in Athens, specifically to dry things. My antique attic is ideal for drying clothes and came with a nail in an obscure corner that's obviously placed to hold my vintage ironing board. The west window, with its view of the Sound, is a good spot to iron, if necessary. Catch things when they're just tender-dry. 

Traditional housekeepers of Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, dried clothing flat on the roof. Drying flat is very kind to textiles.

I use a folding hardwood drying rack that I mail-ordered from the Manchester Country Store. I used to set bamboo poles in the lattice corner of the back porch, and an Asian friend told me that was how her family managed drying in the old country. A large diameter pole dries faster than a line. Hanging bamboo poles in the basement worked well, as did hanging a rarely-used window washing pole in the attic. One classic strategy is to set poles across the backs of two chairs. Flimsy folding plastic sawhorses would work, too.

I set a spring-loaded shower curtain rod across the basement stairwell and hang clothes and bed linen on plastic hangers to dry in the subtle current of rising air. Even leaving an incandescent light bulb on in the stairwell is enough to stir the air effectively. Friends have a generous laundry room whose high ceiling is fitted with a big-bladed fan. I often hand wash kitchen laundry after breakfast, spin it thoroughly in the little centrifuge that is half of my portable twin tub washing machine, and set things to dry on the long towel rail that runs the full length of the sink section of the kitchen. The sink is old school, open underneath, and an incandescent night light set in a wall outlet is enough to beat mildew in the wet wash.

It's easier to line dry small batches of clothes, so I wash frequently. Doing so keeps the house smelling remarkably fresh-try it no matter what system you use. Washing frequently also keeps soil from setting in fabric. I find that gentle handling is enough for anything this household is likely to generate. In fact, I now wash everything by hand, but that's another post.

I heat the house as little as possible, and a heated towel rail in the bathroom is the key to living with dignity in a cool interior. The rail is ready to dry anything I want in a hurry or the odd cotton knit that's slow to dry on its own. Any fiber dries faster than cotton. I can also set a stack of barely dry things on a radiator to finish when nobody's looking.

If you wash with a conventional machine, put things through an extra spin cycle to speed line drying.

My great-grandmother had an "outdoor room" in her garden, a twelve-foot square hedged with laurel with a narrow opening through which one could slip. My guess is that the rotating clothes drier lived there when the children weren't playing in the space or someone wasn't sunbathing. In a perfect world, the laundress has a rosemary hedge to dry linen flat and bleaching in the sun.

In my experience, there are only two really burdensome aspects of  doing laundry when one has access to running hot water. One is wringing the wet wash, and a spinner of some kind or an old school wringer protects fine motor skills. The other is coping with the half-informed bullying of one's fellow washerpersons.

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