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In defense of the clothesline

You know me.

Or, rather, you don’t know me but the clues I leave fluttering on my clothesline in the front yard lead you to suspect several things about me. Whites hanging alone, no darks: she’s fastidious you think. But wait, are those diapers hanging amongst the whites? Hmm, diapers washed with t-shirts—not so meticulous. 

Three days’ worth of laundry hanging on the line and only one pair of socks: don’t tell me she wears the same socks for three days in a row? A row of silky size zero negligees and beaded evening gowns: who does she think she’s kidding?! 

Yes, that’s me. Disrupting the bucolic atmosphere of my neighborhood with my rows of damply flapping clothes.      

But one thing you might not know about me: I have a clothes dryer. I just don’t use it.

Ah yes, the electric tumble dryer. The second-most used appliance in the household (right behind the refrigerator), the 5000-watt dryer spins for an average of 24 hours per month in the typical 4-person household, using over 1000 kilowatt hours of energy per year and generating more than 2000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions. Multiply this by the 88 million household dryers in the US and you’re talking about a lot of greenhouse gases. For an appliance whose function can be surprisingly easily replaced with a piece of rope and a few burned calories, this contribution to global warming seems a bit extravagant.

Expensive, too, with electric dryers representing five to ten percent of domestic energy consumption. Still, with the low electricity costs in North Central Washington it’s unlikely that people are going to switch from electric drying to air drying simply to save money. And with energy conservation providing a sometimes vague and worn out appeal, the incentive to air dry must come from elsewhere. So if self-actualization from air drying is a bit of a stretch, would you settle for a modest sense of contentment?

There is a certain satisfaction in hanging clothes neatly on a line: pinning t-shirts shoulder-to-shoulder, clamping matching socks with a single clothespin, doubling up sheets so they fill with wind and flutter crisply. I find the clothes hanging process surprisingly gratifying if I aim for an aesthetic final result, even if it takes me slightly longer than hanging things haphazardly. 

Years ago I worked at Outward Bound with a moonlighting cowboy who hung his clothes with military precision: socks paired and hung in order of length, bandanas strung corner-to-corner and grouped by color, jeans pinned at the hip and all facing the same direction. It looked like a Wrangler catalog; my side of the clothesline looked like the remnants pile at the Goodwill. I resolved to produce an equally impressive exhibit one day. 

There are, admittedly, a few drawbacks to line drying. Stiff towels, lumpy diapers, elongated socks, and misshapen t-shirts are familiar to even the most painstaking hanger. While the fresh air infuses my laundry with a genuine fresh air scent (distinctly different from the synthetic fresh air fragrance of dryer sheets), dust from the omnipresent construction around our house fills our garments with an equally authentic fresh dirt scent. 

Pine pollen billows copiously, coating our laundry with a layer of fine yellow particles. And most of my favorite SmartWool socks have small holes chewed in them, while the mice and squirrels around our house line their nests with brightly colored bits of merino wool.

Another disadvantage is that your neighbors see things you would normally hide from everyone except immediate family members: a grungy nursing bra, ragged boxers, stained diapers. There are few arenas in which one’s private things are displayed so publicly as in air drying. 

We hide medications and beauty products in medicine cabinets and behind shower curtains while kitchen cupboards neatly disguise a jumble of cans, spices, and condiments. But a clothesline reveals items you wouldn’t leave lying on your living room floor when guests come over—jeans one size larger than you claim to wear, bras with elastic springing out, your lone thong—with unabashed publicity.

But the biggest deterrent to air drying is that hanging out your clothes takes time, which is probably why most people eschew this task. With lawns to mow, dishes to wash, carpets to vacuum, kids to entertain, and—oh yes, jobs to go to—who has the time to complete a task that can be eliminated entirely by a single household appliance? The answer should be “all of us.” 

At the risk of sounding self-righteous, I will contend that any able-bodied adult can spare the time it takes to hang a load of laundry a few times per week. Even with a full load of small individual items such as socks and napkins, hanging a load of laundry takes less than fifteen minutes. Loads of big items—sheets, tablecloths—can be hung in less five minutes. Who can’t spare fifteen minutes here and there?

Air drying enthusiasts air dry our clothes because it’s free, because it’s an easy way to conserve energy, and because in a place with a mind-boggling evaporation rate and 300 precipitation-free days per year, it’s hard to think of a good reason not to. But let’s face it—the driving motivation is the sense of self-superiority the clothesline user confers upon herself. The proud clothes hanger heads outside with a basket of laundry feeling smug about her diligent efforts to save the planet, one clothespin at a time.

A dubious (some might say grasping) attempt at self-importance, no doubt. But hey, in a valley where nearly everyone else seems to be a world-class athlete, a former world-class athlete, a dotcom mastermind, or a retired 40-year-old, I’ll take what I can get. Oh, by the way, the size zero satin nightgowns? They’re my daughters’ dress-up clothes. 


  • www.projectlaundrylist.org
  • www.eere.energy.gov (US Dept. of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy web site) 
  • Carpenter, Caitlin. As an Energy Saver, the Clothesline Makes a Comeback. Christian Science Monitor, August 24, 2007.
  • Gardner, Marilyn. In Warming World, Time to Reconsider the Clothesline. Christian Science Monitor, April 25, 2007.