Nature's Dryer Revisited

Leslie Aun and daughter Samantha McClain, 11, let the sun and wind do the work on the deck of their Reston home.
Leslie Aun and daughter Samantha McClain, 11, let the sun and wind do the work on the deck of their Reston home. (By Dayna Smith -- The Washington Post)
By Leslie M. Aun
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 17, 2006

I don't know about where you live, but in our neighborhood the word "clothesline" is almost a dirty word. People who faithfully recycle bottles and newspapers, drive hybrid cars and wouldn't dream of brushing their teeth with the water running turn up their noses at the lowly clothesline.

They are actually banned in our neighborhood covenants. Install a clothesline anywhere on this corner of Fairfax County paradise and risk the wrath of the Piney Run Meadows Architectural Review Board. I ought to know: I helped write those rules, and I never gave it a second thought when we added a section that made "permanent clotheslines" a punishable offense. Who among us really wants to be confronted with a neighbor's yard decorated with boxer shorts and other intimate details?

But with global warming in the headlines, local temperatures soaring and energy prices headed into the stratosphere, I've had an epiphany of sorts. Around our house we're calling it the Great Clothesline Experiment -- an experiment a decade in the making.

I grew up in a house in North Arlington equipped with both a washer and a dryer, and the last time I'd seen a clothesline in regular action was back in the early 1970s. Our elderly neighbor Mrs. Melin had the type of washing machine I'd seen only in books. It had rollers on the side, used for wringing garments before they were taken outside and pegged on the clothesline. It seemed like an ancient relic -- about what typewriters must look like to kids today -- and when she passed away a few years later, clotheslines passed out of my daily life as well.

Fast-forward to the late 1990s, when my husband and I visited my college friend Kathy and her family in England. After showing me how to work her washer, which, like all European appliances, was a fraction of the size of what we're accustomed to here in the land of giant refrigerators and jumbo televisions, she then demonstrated the household "dryer" -- a wooden rack that was lowered by rope from the kitchen ceiling. It turns out that indoor clotheslines are not uncommon in a nation where the weather is often damp and high energy costs make dryers a scarce commodity.

"Besides, I like the way laundry smells when it's hung out to dry," Kathy said, clearly making the best of barbaric living conditions.

Then, visiting friends in Australia last January, I again found myself in a nation where hanging the laundry out to dry is just what you do.

After my initial shock at being handed a basket and a stack of clothespins -- truth be told I had never actually hung up an entire load of laundry before -- I felt a sense of satisfaction at having enabled the forces of nature, rather than Maytag, to dry my things.

"Sunshine is the single most powerful natural resource we have," one Australian friend said. "Why should we dig up fossil fuels to dry our laundry when we have a renewable source that costs nothing?" Indeed.

The clothesline tipping point came for me during a recent family vacation to France. We had rented a house in the Bordeaux region, where the dryer consisted of two white clotheslines strung between trees. This time I embraced the clothesline like an old friend. The ritual of hanging up our wet laundry and waiting for it to dry in the gentle breeze suddenly seemed so civilized, so smart, and so energy-efficient. All over the world, sensible people do it. Why has it become stigmatized in America?

Energy Department statistics show that appliances account for 20 to 25 percent of energy use in U.S. homes, with refrigerators, washers and dryers at the top of the list. About 90 percent of American single-family homes have a dryer, the average family drying about 400 loads a year.

The energy cost per dryer load is about 40 cents, which may not seem like much. But if every household in the country hung out a few loads of laundry each week, the savings in energy consumption could be sizable. And clothing manufacturers say clothesline drying results in much less fabric wear and tear.

Lest you dismiss me as some demented domestic goddess with way too much time on her hands, let me assure you that I am your typical multi-tasking wife and mother who also works 60-plus hours a week as a corporate executive -- complete with cellphone, BlackBerry, laptop and never enough time. Still, my entire family -- my husband, daughter, son and I -- have enthusiastically embarked on this experiment. For as long as the weather holds, we're going to hang our washing out to dry. Towels will be the one exception because they seem to lose their softness when dried on the line.

Of course, we can't put up a line in our neighborhood (partly my fault), so we purchased a drying rack. It's not remotely big enough to hold all our clothes, so we'll also be hanging things on deck railings and from the odd piece of patio furniture, doing our best to keep out of the neighborhood's view.

Turns out the clothes dry more quickly in the sunshine than in our pricey, high-performance dryer. And, after burrowing her nose in a stack of freshly dried garments, my daughter said, "Mom, they smell like sunshine."

Now if we can just figure out how to soften those towels . . .

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