Sunday, 1 July 2007

Hanging Out

Thursday was a blanket day. That is what my mother would have called it. A sunny day with low humidity and a good breeze, not too windy, and warm. When I was a girl and such a day would manifest itself in late spring, I would be sent to haul the woolen blankets downstairs to the washer and we would peg them out on the clothesline where they would flap away and dry all fluffy and sweet smelling.

It amused me a great deal to find, in a glossy magazine, instructions on how to acquire and use a clothesline and how environmentally meritorious such an act would be, with specific instructions on how to hang things out, in detail. It amused me because, unreconstructed dinosaur that I am, I have been hanging my laundry out for the last 40+ years. 'Tops by the bottoms, bottoms by the tops' my mother would chant as we plunked the wicker clothes basket down between us and she strung the lines from the garage to the pole. This was Windsor in the '50s, and if you left the clotheslines up all week they would be blackened by smoke from the coal fired generators upwind in Michigan. And as soon as the white wash load was dry, it came down and into the kitchen where it was dampened and rolled, and on Tuesday night, while listening to the ball game on the radio, my mother would iron it. Or I would, except for my father's white shirts which I was not allowed to do until I was 14 or so.

I hang out all of the big pieces I wash. Socks and underwear and some permanent press things go into the drier, but the rest goes out to the clothesline. Summer and winter. (If you use surgical gloves, in really cold temperatures, the springs of the clothespins will not freeze to your fingers.) In the winter, the towels and shirts often are still half frozen when I take them down and so I put them on a line in the basement to air dry and the whole basement smells wonderful. In the summer I have to get the dried items back inside as soon as possible because both hummingbirds and mourning doves love to sit on my clothesline and while hummingbird poop can be spot cleaned (you never heard that here!) the clothes with dove chalk on them have to be rewashed. In spite of these drawbacks, I still put the clothes out both because they smell better and because the shirts are easier to iron.

It was lovely to be told I am helping the environment.

When you line dry your clothes, you have to be aware of the weather. You track percentages of rain and when the front is expected to arrive. You have to have enough socks and underwear for everyone to be able to last from washday to washday. You have to put up with your husband and kids complaining that what they want to wear is not clean and back in the closet yet. 'It's been rainy for the last two days,' you explain more than once. 'Wear something else'. I guess you have to be a bit stubborn. And you have to have the time to hang out and take in, and the space to put the clothesline. There's still a suburb in Ottawa, I believe, where clotheslines are forbidden by municipal regulation. They're unsightly, you see.

In the days before clothes driers, laundry hanging was part of everyone's life and, believe it or not, a subject of competition and stress. A woman whose white sheets were not pristine white would lose homemaker points. My grandmother lived on a farm where the houses of two of my grandfather's brothers were visible on either side. Who could get the wash out first became a seriously competitive exercise. My grandfather would come in from milking and announce that Mabel had her sheets out and my grandmother would snarl. The family joke was that Mabel put her sheets out dry just to one up my grandmother. My husband's grandmother had a running war with a neighbour who had a degree in home economics and insisted that Granny was hanging her shirts wrong. 'The interfering old thing', Granny snarled. The woman in question was at least a decade younger than Granny, but the insult was at least some relief to her feelings. Granny was from an era when you were Trained At Home for household tasks and homemaking was a vocation.

It's not, for me, but you will see me stamping out in my boots and parka with a basket of steaming sheets until arthritis shuts me down, keeping a weather eye on the clouds and thinking evil thoughts about doves and BB guns. And blanket days are perfect for airing duvets.


  1. I have never dried my clothes on a line because I live directly beneath some ponderosa trees & they drop pitchy needles irrespective of season. It never occurred to me that, um, the trick would be in bringing the laundry in ASAP.

    I dry a lot of my clothes on a rack in my living room. We have very low humidity here & believe it or not, drying clothes in the living room makes a huge difference. It doesn't smell as nice, though.

  2. I miss the smell of line dried clothes. My mother, and grandmother taught me the "right" way..which sounds just like yours!

    Now, here in Windsor, you don't hang out your smells awful afterwards...and they don't look clean. I will hang out blankets to "freshen" but only for a short while..and on my neighbours we do not have one.

    Thank-you for visiting my site....

  3. I just got in from hanging a load of dark clothes on the line--no lie!

    I love hanging out our laundry, but am still too chicken to do it in winter--means I'd have to shovel the yard!

  4. i loved this post, and the line "unreconstructed dinosaur" made me snort.

    i want a clothesline. last summer, i sent Dave to Home Depot and Cdn Tire to try to buy the necessities to build one in our yard, as we cloth diaper and it seemed just plain logical...they only sell the umbrella shaped thingies. apparently the old string clothesline is defunct, at least where i am. i am still hopeful that maybe this summer they'll have realized how cool clotheslines really are so i can bloody well get one.

    btw...why did you dampen and roll your clothes?

  5. bon--look for plastic covered wire i the fastener hanger section of the hardware store. it is usually sold in 50 to 100 foot lengths. it is pretty tough stuff and can last though lots of cloth dipares--did for us!

  6. Mary, what a beautiful post, with all the warmth of summer. We were lucky enough to move into a house with a clothesline and I have made good use of it, but I've had to fight to keep it. Whoever the previous owners were, they were not tall and Joe risks hanging every time he wanders in the backyard without paying attention. We'll be doing some work out there next summer and that will hopefully mean moving the line a little higher, but still within reach.

  7. Of course, it didn't stop me, because the by-law forbid hanging up clotheslines, not putting up those umbrella-shaped thingies. (I've put up (or made J put up) a clothesline everywhere we lived. One was on a second floor apartment and used to break occasionally, scattering the clothes over the parking lot.)

    I do it because I like saving money, but mostly because I love the smell. My kids think I am nuts, the way I walk right into the sheets on the line and start inhaling deeply, but there really is nothing like it.

  8. Oh, I have missed you. What a lovely celebration of the clothesline.

    When I was a kid, my mom was a single mother with 6 kids, a wringer washing machine and no dryer. Whenever I start to bemoan my middle-class, part-time job, one-child life, I think of that wringer washer and I think of bringing in frozen shirts while bending them into posable figures.

    I've been on my husband for sometime now about needing a clothesline. I think it time I took it to the next level.

  9. My mother-in-law still uses a clothesline and so, when we're visiting, we do too. Everything always smells so much better.

    I wish we could do it at home but the trees and birds make it nearly impossible.

  10. This is AWESOME. Beautiful and green. :) I loved the fresh line dried clothes when we went out to the country house. But i hate city line drying. Stinky. Dirty. Ick. And of course here? It rains all the time. In MA I had a line in my basement to use for winter.

  11. Christine is right -- most hardware stores have pulley lifters (Sage, take note) that fasten to the wall and a wheel that you can sneak onto a hydro pole, except in Kanata (way to go, N!) And plastic wire, as Christine describes.
    Kim, sorry to hear that Detroit has still not cleaned up its generators.
    LM and Ponderosa -- sap and birds are certainly hazards. Care to join me in a little target practise?
    Julie and Kim, yes. City drying can be awful. At one time I lived downwind in Ottawa of the E B Eddy pulp paper plant. Ew.
    For some times and things, a drier is a real luxury. Mad, I think there is one terrific difference between frozen clothes b'cause of stubborness (like me) and frozen clothes b'cause you have to.
    The other hazard to my clothes is JG on his riding lawn mower. He drives happily through the sheets, spraying green grass juice.
    Ever hear of 'clotheslining'? I am contemplating it.