Hanging Out The Wash


Several readers recently mentioned that they dried their laundry on a clothesline outdoors which reminded me that I had more to say on that subject than I wrote here a few years ago. It seems to me that drying wash out in the sun is one of the easiest ways to save on energy. It also carries its own reward because of how fresh and sweet sundried sheets smell when you crawl between them. We also dry clothes sometimes next to our wood-burning stove in winter which not only saves on electricity but puts much needed moisture into the air.

But as some of you intimated, not everyone likes outdoor clotheslines. In the subdivision where our daughter lives, they are verboten, which mystifies me no end. Do clothes fluttering in the wind really look ugly to some people? I think a Monday morning backyard of flapping sheets looks lovely and I remember how as children, we used them as sort of impromptu tents to play under until Mom would stop us.

Maybe the problem is that underwear on the line seems a bit lewd to some? Looking at the women’s lingerie catalogs flooding our mailbox these days, I can hardly imagine that.

So what gives here? In a talk a few years ago, I extolled the savings in electricity that could come from using outdoor clotheslines, or even indoor ones in inclement weather. When I finished an elderly, kindly-looking lady in the front row stood up and really took me to task. By heaven, she had worked hard all her life, slaving away at washing and drying and cooking and cleaning, and by heaven, she loved her electric appliances and by heaven, she did not like it when a man, a man, who probably never had to do the laundry, dared to suggest that she was wasting energy by using an electric clothes dryer.  I was flabbergasted at how perturbed she was and immediately retreated, hoping to calm her down a bit with a droll but true story. I actually did do a lot of laundry as a young man in boarding school and once we ignorantly hung the sheets out on the line in below freezing weather. They froze solid. Removing them from the line was like handling plywood panels. It was really very funny, but the lady who hated clotheslines would not even smile.

I have a theory, as usual. When we first moved to our sanctuary among the trees, I started cutting wood for home heating. Our farmer neighbor had always done that which gave us something to talk about. I asked him why more farmers did not avail themselves of their dead trees this way. He smiled and replied. “Many people my age think that only poor people heat with wood. It’s beneath their dignity.”

For the forty years we have lived here, we have run a clothesline from the deck on the back of a house, which is about ten feet above the ground level, to a big oak tree in the yard, using pulleys at both ends. (There’s a photo of it above, and in a 2011 blog post Backyard Clotheslines and Washboard Secrets) We can stand on the deck and reel the clothes pinned to the line out and in. Very handy. We got that idea from the Amish, who often extend a clothesline this way from their porches to the sides of a nearby barn or windmill.

The drawbacks to outdoor clotheslines are walnut trees, birds and bugs. A falling walnut husk leaves a brown stain on clothes that looks like you-know-what. And birds leave stains that are you-know-what even if they are whitish. Sometimes bugs get on the wash which will tempt you to say nice things about electric dryers too. But in all these years Carol has rarely had to re-wash anything. When we first took up housekeeping in a log cabin in the woods, that was not the case. We made the mistake of running our first clothesline under a walnut tree.

Back then we really were too poor to buy an electric clothes dryer. Does that mean that poor people are the real heroes today, the ones properly addressing climate change?


Another nail on the head! Yes, the stigma of being poor still haunts us, even in our language. White bread vs. whole grain bread, “dirt poor” and other soil-related references. I’d love to hear your take on these sometime.
I’d like to think it’s becoming cool to be poor, or at least choose the less-impactful of several roads as they diverge into the wood, or weeds. Are people really more mindful of their choices? Are there age-related or geographical differences? I sense a great deal here in northern Michigan, a sort of Mecca for foodies and earth-muffins. The area is also a playground and summer home for Midwestern wealth, and a bastion of conservatism. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

    Kirk, I too am most interested in the possibility that a new kind of “poor” is upon us. A society that uses home economy rather than profit economy, at least in food and fiber production. I am into it in my next book, but am stymied. I am not smart enough to say what my instincts tell me might be a possibility. How much of our food today is being produced and consumed outside the profit economy? Gene

I live in the southern California desert. I can dry clothes easier and quicker on a line than a dryer for 10 months out of the year, and it’s easy enough to work around whatever rain/damp we get for the other 2 months (if we GET rain!). The first thing my husband did for me when we moved into this house two years ago, was set up a clothes line for me. Best gift ever! It’s under a shade cloth which protects it (and me) from too much sun. The breeze flows down the hill and right through that area, making the whole process of hanging and drying clothing very pleasant and easy. It is a bit more work than just tossing the clothes in the dryer (which is what I grew up doing), but it is one of those household chores that I LIKE doing – I like taking that bit of extra time to hang the clothes, I like knowing it’s just air that is drying it (not electricity), I like knowing that there is less wear and tear on the cloth itself, and at least in terms of big blankets and sheets, I like knowing it is EASIER to dry them on the line than it is in a dryer. It is the zen of hanging clothes on the line 🙂

That being said, most folks I know tend to look at me funny when I wax rhapsodic about using my clothes line. Some of it is poor shame, some of it is time crunch, and some of it is snobbery – all of which I ignore as I happily hang my clothes out to dry.

Although I can appreciate those that continue to use a clothesline and actual remember how to hand things correctly. I am in the minority here but I use my electric dryer. I HATE to hang clothes on the line. My washer is in the cellar and I can not carry a full basket of wet clothes upstairs. Nor do I want to split that up into 3 manageable baskets.I probably could use the exercise. As a child, we had clotheslines, 5 of us children. WE had a farm with lots of animals and children playing king of the manure pile. Mom never used any of the insecticides and neither do I so we had, as I do know, lots of birds that light on the line to watch for flying bugs and promptly thank us by shitting on our clothes . I also have been stung by yellow jackets that were accidentally folded in colorful underpants. Think about that sting location for a couple seconds…….. I heat mostly with wood and cook with it in winter, have a solar hot water panel, use LED light bulbs. I use no ‘cides’ of any kind in the gardens or orchards, I chose to not reproduce and add to the pressure of overpopulation on this earth. So my foot print is fairly small compared to most. I want one luxury. Give me my dryer or give me death!

The trophy home developement across the the road from me has a covenant that bans clotheslines , chickens, cows , pigs, horses, firewood stacks, and who knows what else! I have everything they have banned . They must love me ! The one owner up there is an Enron big shot that got away

As a child of back-to-the-landers, my second most hated chore was hanging laundry. I can’t remember why exactly, although cold chapped hands in the winter, and embarrassment when my friends saw my fathers underwear probably had a lot to with it. I remember thinking that when I grew up, I would have a clothes dryer, a dishwasher, and a in-house bathroom. I got all those things, and now I find myself hanging my laundry on the line anyway, and not just because it’s more energy efficient, but because that’s one more chore that I can do outside in the sun, which is where I really want to be. Being free from the office, the car, and other indoor responsibilities has become more of a luxury than the fancy appliances. These days, I bet I wouldn’t even mind having a nice stroll through the woods to the bathroom!

I was absolutely flabbergasted when I moved from Europe to Colorado for two years to find there was no clothesline outside and the man who installed our washing machine asked when we were going to get the dryer. He was most perplexed when I said I had no intention of getting one. With over 300 days of sunshine a year, what on earth is saved by using an electric dryer? You still have to bundle it in and fold it when finished. I used to dry all the clothes indoors on a clothes rack brought from Denmark where we lived prior to Colorado. At least it raised the humidity in the house. It made me laugh to think that people also bought humidifiers because of the dry atmosphere. I tried the clothes rack outside, but it was often too windy and since it was a rented house, no chance of putting up the clothes line.

I did buy a dehumidifier that acts as a drier here in Latvia because we have an apartment that is heated with communal heat. One year the weather was wet in early autumn and they didn’t turn on the heating till much later, consequently books started to go mouldy and our clothes never dried. If we had a choice in heating, we wouldn’t have bothered.

There is also a right to dry in many States, so I found out on doing some research

When my wife and I were first married we used nothing but a clothes line. Both of us grew up with one although she was the designated laundry person for a house of 7 growing up.
After we moved to a much nicer place we kept a large garden but the clothes line was banded by my wife. She had enough and enjoyed the new drier in the new house.

I think if you grew up and had to wash and hang clothes out for a family then a drier looks like a welcome treat. I would suspect that is one reason more people do not garden….they were made to do it when they were kids and grew to hate doing it.

    I cannot comment directly on outdoor clotheslines (yet). My wife and I hang-dry our clothes indoors, though. Right up until my late teens, my mother gardened to feed her family. It was a large garden so she employed her children to maintain it … and, I’ll admit, we weren’t fond of it. However, my reasons for not gardening after striking out on my own were not motivated from hatred of the task. In fact, I enjoy it immensely. Living in apartments at first was a huge factor (community gardens weren’t common then) but, until recently, I just never felt I had the TIME to maintain my own garden. So I think that the observation by life of the hand – life of the mind regarding convenience really applies here. I suspect the same would hold true for using clotheslines.

Must be the “poor” factor. We live in the country a quarter mile from our nearest neighbor. She informed me only dirty trashy people use clothes lines. And her husband felt the same way about our TV antenna . Everyone over the age of 50 (they’d be 70 now) was disgusted at the fact I breastfed our baby ( very modestly) They also felt the eggs from our chickens weren’t somehow sterilized and clean inside like the store bought eggs, and that they were in danger of contracting avian flu from us at any moment. A friend who lives 2 miles from here also got the same talk from her neighbor. Over the years I have been perplexed but the “poor” factor seems to be the winning answer. Kind of sad I think.

    Karen (and everybody) your examples of the “poor factor” are really fascinating! I wonder if any cultural studies have looked deeply into this. I see many more topics for blogs here. Gene Logsdon

Yes, there is a residual shame of poverty that follows hanging out the laundry (and gardening and farming, etc). But there is also another factor that works against the clothesline: convenience. What the masses should really be ashamed of is their love of convenience. Most of the ugly things in the world and many of the sins are born of convenience.Managing convenience: who even thinks of it?

Not on a Monday Gene!The powers that be here in Ontario have a sliding scale for electricity prices depending on time of day and day of the week.One price for weekends and 7 PM to 7 AM weekdays and more during the peak usage times.(7 AM to 7 PM weekdays at varying rates depending on time and season.)I work afternoon shift so I do the laundry on the weekend only or at night if I need to.Showers and the dishwasher also run at off peak times.

It just makes sense to use that free energy from the sun and wind to dry clothes and save money by not running the electric dryer . I have an electric dryer for emergencies but the majority of my clothes drying is by the sun and wind. Against the law to have a clothesline in town???!! That makes no sense at all. People who choose this method of saving money (and ultimately the planet) should be rewarded, not punished.

When we built our house, we wired for a clothes dryer, but never purchased one. I knew I’d never use it and now I have that much more room to store things…. But when someone takes over the house from us, they have the option. I LOVE hanging clothes. It’s true, that towels can be a bit stiff and not “fluffy” … but if we’re lucky enough to have a real WINDY day for drying, the towels are as fluffy as if from a dryer!

An EPA report some years ago found that about 6% of American residential electricity use was due to clothes dryers! An astonishing amount. And clothes lines are banned in many American communities! We’ve been using a Hills Hoist for years as our solar powered dryer (See photo at our blog http://pragmaticsustainability.blogspot.com.au/2014/06/becoming-more-sustainable-things-you.html) with a clothes rack in front of our wood heater for wet days and occasional use of a dryer. Using what we call our solar/wood hybrid drying system saves money, reduces emissions and in our opinion is better for the clothes than a dryer.

What your commenters say about lower environmental footprint for lower income folks has been found by several studies. For example, PV uptake in Australia – over 10% of Australian homes now have PV’s – has been higher in lower and middle income suburbs. PV’s have become so cheap in Australia that home owners can save money on electricity bills by installing them. It would appear that lower income folks are keener to achieve these savings while wealthier homeowners aren’t motivated by either environmental outcomes or reducing the cost of their electricity bill.

Always look forwards to reading your blog, Gene. And we recently bought your book on small-scale grain growing. Cracker of a read!

All the best


I find your post very amusing because in Australia, you’re hard pressed to find a house without a clothesline! In fact, when you sell your house, you have to specifically state in the sale contract if you want to take the clothesline with you. Indeed it would be weird to have a house without a clothesline!

Well, the clothesline are not nice to look at, usually. I live on a country where there is no poor stigma attached to it, and even most buildings have clothesline on their roof (you wash your clothes, take the elevator to the uppermost floor, then some stairs and there is your clothesline) Many people has a small, cheap centrifugator to help on wet days (and if the clothes are not dry enough, we use to finish drying them with the iron) but almost nobody has the sort of driers you use (I know only one family, and they have come back after having lived abroad for decades)

And even then, we always avoid showing the clotheslines, having them on secluded spots hidden from the view. And when somebody gets their clothes on view, we feel the beauty of the house gets diminished. It’s not a poorness/wealth sign, but an aestetic thing.

Excuse my poor english…

My mother was raised on and hated an Arkansas cotton farm in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. She had a sister and 7 brothers and HAD to do many of the things as a homesteader I CHOOSE to do. Before she died, I think she was embarrassed by and couldn’t understand my choice to live a life that she felt she’d clawed her way out of. She declined everything I tried to give her from my place–the farm eggs were “too yolky,” the honey “too sweet,” and everything just involved too much work. “Why do that when you can just go to the store and get what you need?” she’d ask. She could have been that lady in your audience who gave you such a hard time.

I think if I’d lived her life, I might feel the same way–if the choice was taken away and it was something I had to do day in and day out to live? If all my chores were directed by someone else? If I had to wash clothes by hand for a family of 11 and hang them out to dry, as well as starch and iron them, all while tending the garden, collecting eggs and butchering a couple chickens for Sunday dinner, and making all the meals for the rest of the family who were busy working in the fields?

The day my parents went to town to get married, my grandmother did not attend because she was at home doing laundry! What did you say that lady’s name was?

I am in my 50s and remember when I was in my early 30s I asked my grandmother to teach me how to make butter. Her incredulous response was, “Why would you want to MAKE butter?” 🙂 Raised on a farm in Norway, she grew up making butter, drawing water from the river, washing clothes in the river, cooking on wood stoves – etc. – and loved that she didn’t HAVE to do those things any more. But she was an amazing “energy saver” in other ways: she knit, canned, didn’t own a car and frequently hired people to cut her hillside with scythes. Oh, and she NEVER bought a dryer; she always hung her clothes out (or in during winters) to dry. I think people simply do what they can in a way that works for them. 🙂

Yes, Gene. It was always the “poor” people who had/have the smallest “carbon foot print”. When I was poor I did not have a car. I did not consume this material “society” the way that most “monied” ( or Credit worthy ) did and still do. Now that I have this filthy paper I have noticed that my “footprint” is indeed larger than when I was without this filthy paper ( or credit ).
I notice that my “poor” ex-inlaws are still alive…AND in moderate to good health due, in large part, to their monotonous diet of home cooked meals made from scratch. Yet, I languish in some medical limbo due to consuming copious amounts of chemical additives my paper and coin purchased. Oh, the irony!

“Paper” ( and credit ) challenged people don’t go jetting around the world in search of their “authentic life” or some obscure “meaning” by living vicariously through the misery of those they meet along the way. The “poor” already know the meaning of life…..survival through self sufficiency and innovation. ( Sometimes it is not so meaningful being poor when chasing the “modern life”. It can be downright pathetic. )
“Poor” people don’t write books that require millions of trees to be sacrificed. Not saying that books are not important…but, in truth, do we really need “Sharky’s Machine”? “50 Shades of Filth”? There are a lot of people that should think twice before opening their mouths and spilling the contents of their vacuous minds. Such a waste of trees….such a waste of energy.

I could list a plethora of things that “poor” people do not consume nor engage in because they are…well, just too poor to actualize their desires. Mind you, I said desires…as opposed to vision. Most monied people have little to no vision….unless it is self serving.
And it is true that such an innocuous chore, as hanging laundry on the line, can and does inspire sneers and jeers from those who deem it beneath their dignity to do so.

I think that it is apparent that it is the privileged and entitled that have the largest and most destructive “footprint” on planet Earth. I could never envision such a person engaging in anything as real and necessary as hanging out laundry.

There really are worse things in this life than being paper, plastic and coin deficient.

Here’s my theory: I honestly think that it has to do with people being offended by things that show that you are either poor or cheap, even if you’re doing it more for reasons of frugality and environmental impact.

They are wealthy enough to afford an electric dryer and therefore will use it, and they think that they deserve to be in a neighborhood where everyone is at the same level of wealth. Seeing a neighbour who hang-dries laundry must mean that the neighbour is poor, so they’re no longer in that wealthy neighbourhood, which offends them and devalues their status.

Marsha - aka Homegrown June 18, 2014 at 10:55 am

I am SO glad that when I was young, I was too poor to live where they banned clotheslines! I wonder if what goes on IN those tracts of boring dwellings is as banal as the streets look in those places. I call it ‘faux prosperity’… poor saps up to their eyeballs in debt in plastic houses.
After years of frugal living and elbow grease, in addition to luck, I have substantial wherewithal. I pity the fools who still live paycheck to paycheck after many years because they fritter away their hard earned money, and not because of back luck setbacks, but because they are slaves to interest. If they had a clue as to what we have salted back for the inevitable rainy day, I daresay they’d faint. Guess what. I still hang out my clothes, rinse out baggies if they’re not really soiled, conserve water because I used to have to carry every drop to the house, and generally live like some would consider ‘poor.’ Poor, hell. Living is a joy like this.
UNSIGHTLY BLOOMERS? No problem. Common practice is to have a three line drying setup and hang the indies on the middle line. Keep up the great work Gene. I don’t always comment, but I always like what you write.
P.S. We think of you when we use the 5 gal bucket with the toilet seat under the carport which I dilute (just urine and a little paper there) and use on the garden. My cabbages are the size of weather balloons, grin. If people who rave on about how gorgeous all my veggies are only knew… they would exclaim (aka Brando on Apocalypse), “Oh, the HORROR!” heeeee

I enjoyed this article immensely as I too hang my laundry out to dry. Like you mentioned, not only is it cost-effective, but the smell of freshly-aired laundry is wonderful. Good for the endorphins. The reason I moved out to the country was to be able to do this and so much more such as gardening, as well as canning, preserving, etc. I’m sure some people find this nuts and think, “why don’t you just buy the processed food in the store as it’s so much cheaper”. Well I don’t want all of those non-pronounceable words — chemicals that can cause one more harm than good.

We use a clothesline when the weather permits, and have a rack over the 3’x3′ floor register over the wood furnace in the basement for drying wet clothes in rainy weather. Heating with wood gives me much needed exercise in the summer up the hill in the cool trees.

Gene, at the risk of further offending by my meanness, these are things which can have an immediate, and cumulative effect, and put money in our pockets. I thnk it was Mr Clemmons said, “Whenever you find yourself in the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect”. I agree.

A Prius has a larger carbon footprint, whatever the hell that means, than a conventional gasoline poweredd car.

And the BTU’s captured by a photovoltaic array during it’s useful lifetime was, in the recent past, less that the number of BTU’s taken to manufacture, and transport it to it’s final destination.

Drying my clothes, raising a significant portion of my food, re-using items, particularly the quality made items for the past, can do more to save the earth than solar energy and hybrid vehicles, despite the lack of any warm fuzzies to vo with…..

    We’ve had solar panels for over three years and produce more energy than we use, primarily because we are very conservative. We’re talking zero dollars spent on electricity last year and currently have a credit. We do all the other things you mentioned; dryer racks, wood heating, veg. garden, repurposing items, water conservation, etc. No Prius though. Just a beloved, used Subaru with over 135,000 miles. I like the warm fuzzies. 🙂

    Constant Gardener June 23, 2014 at 8:30 pm

    I guess we should laud Steve for his courageous refusal to apply solar or drive a hybrid like he apparently thinks the majority of Americans do! Seriously, Steve, what does that Twain quotation even mean? About 20% of American actively work for environmental issues, no majority there, and a tiny, truly tiny percentage, have solar or hybrids. You couldn’t be more squarely in the majority if you tried.

    Going back to my post that ruffled you to the point of senseless Twain quoting: to be fair to you, Steve, I assumed your neighbors were interested in advancing social and environmental justice. Due to that assumption, I reasoned they don’t think you’re white trash. It’s the social justice thing. I find that people with those interests abjure the notion that some of us are trash. Of course, they might have solar and drive hybrids because they’re cheap, and in that case, who knows what they think, amirite?

    Now, not being a neighbor of yours, I don’t have any opinion of you personally, but your arguments, sheesh… stinky. Not sure what you mean by “recent past” but here is a paper, relying on research going back to 1978, that demonstrates that solar pv panels produce between six and thirty times the energy needed to produce and transport them. http://alpha.chem.umb.edu/chemistry/ch471/evans%20files/Net_Energy%20solar%20cells.pdf Not to put too fine a point on it, but for at least 20 years your assertion has been wrong by orders of magnitude. Best retire it.

    As to the embodied energy in a Prius versus a… well, you are so vague as to make engagement impossible. I mean, you do mean embodied energy whey you say “carbon footprint” right? Because if you mean carbon emissions, that would be cra-crazy. Then there would be no comparison at all, the Prius would win going away.

    Based on your solar pv thing, I have to wonder, maybe you are referring to the hoary internet myth that a Prius has more embodied energy than a Hummer? Cause that’s plain wrong.. http://www.motherearthnews.com/green-transportation/embodied-energy-prius-vs-hummer-zb0z1206zmat.aspx#axzz35WGUD3f5.

    Or, maybe you were referring to the question whether it’s better to drive your present car into the ground or get a greener alternative? That’s a little murkier, but it’s certainly true that when it’st time for a new car, the greenest alternative is best. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/aug/17/car-scrap-energy-efficiency

    Love your garden and that clothesline, though!

Ha. So glad you are addressing this! My husband and I got reported to the Home Owner’s Association in Alabama for hanging towels out to dry. There was one (and only one) angle from which one could see our offending towels, and that was from our next-door-neighbor’s side yard. So when the HOA helpfully attached a photo of our drying towels with the reproachful note, we had a pretty good idea of who had reported us. Being tenants, we had no choice but to dismantle our clothesline.

Now renting in Texas, we are trying a new tactic to save the environment without annoying the neighbors. We strung a line up right behind the house, where no one can see it (unless one stands in the empty lot behind us, and peers over the fence!) So far, so good. Next time the military moves us, we’re planning on buying a farm (inspired by your great book The Contrary Farmer!!) Then the only folks to complain about the clothesline will be the chickens, and I doubt they’ll care.

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