When I think of my childhood backyard—a large, rambling plot on the Alabama Gulf Coast—the first thing that comes to mind is the clothesline. A thick, green wire suspended between burly T-posts, the line was a focal point in the back half of our five acres. I can faintly recall dashing in and out of bed sheets as they flapped in the wind. But the years marched on, younger siblings arrived, and laundry eventually became an exclusively indoor event. The last time I saw that clothesline, it was nothing more than a pair of dilapidated posts, defeated by an almond-colored Kenmore and a box of Bounce.
Since then, clotheslines have become a rare sight for me. But a new crop of sheet-washers is attempting to return those archaic “solar dryers” to the American backyard. Armed with promises of fresher-smelling linens and lower energy bills, they trumpet the virtues of clotheslines—and warn that our “right to dry” is being slowly eroded.
Skyrocketing electric rates and an interest in sustainable energy sources have created a “ripe audience” for clothesline use in recent years, says Alexander Lee, the founder of Project Laundry List, a Concord, New Hampshire–based group that promotes line drying. But Lee says some communities are discouraging would-be line dryers by crafting rigorous covenants that outlaw the use of outdoor clotheslines. “We’re seeing it more, not only in townhouse developments, but in certain single-family home communities where they have homeowners’ association regulations,” Lee said. “Nothing can be seen from the streets, and all that.” He adds that the rules sometimes even carry over to solar-based electric or hot water systems.
Fort Lauderdale resident Poppy Madden can attest to this. In both 2000 and 2004, Madden was ordered to appear at a hearing for violating a city ordinance requiring clotheslines to be at the rear of one’s property. Madden maintained that her clothesline, located in her side yard, was less visible there than it would be in her backyard, which could be seen easily by boaters passing through the adjacent canal. “I don’t know why they insisted on having them in the rear,” Madden says. “So many houses around here back up to the water.” After two hearings, the city agreed with her, and she was allowed to keep her clothesline in place.
Madden’s battle was aided by a Florida state law that prohibits restrictions on clotheslines and similar “energy devices based on renewable resources.” But residents in other states often aren’t as lucky. Only one other state, Utah, has a law on its books to protect line drying.
In response, Project Laundry List maintains an online registry of communities and towns that restrict or ban the use of clotheslines, and features photo galleries with artwork illustrating the beauty of hanging laundry. The group has also tried its hand at lobbying: In 1999, members worked with former Democratic senator Richard “Dick” McCormack of Vermont to introduce the “Right to Dry” bill, which would have limited the ability to ban clotheslines. (The legislation died in committee.) However, the organization’s chief objective is to provide information and dispel myths about line drying. In addition to savings on electric bills ranging from 6 to 10 percent, Lee says, drying clothes on a line preserves them and gives them a fresher smell. Even stiff fabrics like denim can be mostly dried outside, he adds: “You can just throw them into the dryer for a couple of minutes at the end.”
Yet for all its benefits, a clothesline is still a rarity in the laundry world. So what’s standing in the way? It may be the need for immediacy, says Tor Allen, director of the Rahus Institute, a nonprofit group dedicated to resource efficiency. “We’re in this age of 'I need everything done now',” Allen says. “We have microwaves and everything is cooked in a minute. Line drying is sort of the slow-cook approach. It takes maybe a little extra effort, as opposed to just popping clothes in the dryer.”
Madden has a more blunt outlook. “I think people are lazy,” she says. “It’s so much easier for someone to stand at the washing machine, which is right next to the dryer, put stuff in the dryer, push the button, and that’s it.”
Ready to kiss your dryer (mostly) goodbye? Check out these clothesline options.
Traditional: The oldie-but-goodie—two posts connected by pieces of rope or wire—is ideal if your wash loads are large and you don’t mind a permanent fixture in your yard. Components are readily available at most home-improvement stores; or check out http://www.clotheslineshop.com for an everything-included kit.
Drying Rack: They won’t hold a full load of laundry, but these folding metal or wood racks can provide effective drying in inclement weather or yardless apartments. See models at http://www.abundantearth.com.
Umbrella: Made of folding aluminum parts, these upright units can be set up and taken down with a minimum of fuss. Perfect for small yards.
Pulley: No yard or floor space? This simple rack-and-pulley device allows you to hang your laundry from the ceiling for out-of-the-way drying.
Story by Jennifer Acosta Scott. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in April 2007.