Washing machines for home use have been manufactured since as far back as 1691, and automatic machines, similar to the ones we have today, have been available since the 1930s. By the 60s roughly 90% of US households had one. Clothes dryers, though they were available to households around the same time, weren’t as popular. By 1955 only 10% of homes in the US had them. Prices were about the same for either type of machine, so I think that what kept people from buying dryers was either A) that their houses didn’t have the electrical capacity to run a dryer (appliances that generate heat use several times as much electricity as other electrical devices, and mid-century homes had much smaller fuse boxes than modern homes) or, B) they didn’t see the need for an appliance that did what nature could do for free.
Although just about every American has a dryer in their home or apartment building these days, they aren’t so popular elsewhere. When Matt and I honeymooned in Ireland in 2007 we spent a week in a cottage that had a top-of-the-line front-loading super-high-efficiency washing machine . . . and no dryer in sight. We didn’t find the clothesline before we left so our wet towels were sitting in the washer when we departed. (We did make the bed, wash the dishes, and take out the trash before we drove off, though.)
A friend of ours, who blogs under the name of Cedeham, lived for a few years in Italy. There, too, dryers were a rarity: “The cobblestone streets of back alleys are street-level to top floor filled with clothes drying on laundry day!! . . . Levi’s would get stolen, however, so that was considered a ‘high end’ item. The clothes washer that was in the apartment in which I lived on the economy left much to be desired! Used lots of water, was inefficient, and the clothes were mostly soggy when it was done.”
But airing laundry the old-fashioned way is seeing a renaissance here in the States. Line drying can supposedly save you 6% on your yearly electricity bill (according to LaundryList.org) and since use of a clothesline is against covenants and other rules in many fancy-pants cities and developments, using a clotheslines is becoming the new quietly radical, mean-green thing to do. Honestly, I just do it because I like the smell and I enjoy doing things the old-fashioned way.
Unfortunately, we have been without the practice long enough that clothesline know-how is not so common anymore. Even in my vast collection of back-to-the-land books, which detail a dozen methods of handwashing clothes, the drying of the clothes is always omitted. So much of what I know about airing I have learned through trial and error. I asked around for some tips from friends and family, and here’s our collective wisdom:
A clothesline can be as simple as a line stretched between two poles, buildings, or trees. It can have pulleys so that you don’t have to walk up and down the line. It can be retractable or otherwise portable. You can have multiple lines, if necessary. I use the rotary kind: like an inside-out umbrella on a central post. I prefer my umbrella-type clothesline for two reasons: 1) It is removable (easily, too), which makes it a lot easier to mow around, and 2) I can hang my underwear on the inside rungs and then hide them from public display by hanging larger items (pillowcases, T-shirts, etc) on the outer rungs.
If possible, put your clothesline in the shade. It seems counterproductive, I know, but it isn’t the sun that gets your clothes dry, it’s air movement. The sun will bleach your laundry, which is helpful for whites, but not so great if you favor the all-black wardrobe, like Matt. We don’t have any shade in our backyard, so I hang most of Matt’s clothes inside out.
Hang shirts by the hem – not the shoulders. Hanging by the shoulders, especially if the fabric is high in cotton or is very heavy, can stretch weird-looking peaks into the shoulders. If you tuck in your t-shirts the crease in the hem created by line-drying can be easily hidden. If you don’t the bottom of a t-shirt is much easier to iron than the shoulders.
I store our washcloths folded into quarters. So I hang them on the line like this cleaning rag, folded in half.
If an item requires a fold – such a crease down the center of your slacks – hang it in such a way that the fold dries in (saving you some ironing). Use pants stretchers or slack hangers to help get that crease in dress pants.
Keep an eye on the neighbors. In some locales this is necessary because they might steal your clothes – but in our case it’s because just as I finish hanging three loads on the line they decide that’s the best time to burn their trash – leaving all that clean clothing smelling like burnt plastic.
Hang towels by their woven band, which does not stretch like the rest of the terrycloth. That way they will still be rectangular when you take them down.
Cedeham says: “Making sure there is plenty of air flow around each clothing item, whether indoor or outdoor drying, seems to be a big factor into how well and how quickly the items dry. Bunching stuff up causes wrinkling and slower drying times, in my experience.” A good point. I have found that my stuff dries a lot faster if I use every other line on my dryer instead of each and every one.
The biggest hang-up (hah!) that people have about line-drying their clothes is the issue of crunchiness, particularly as applies to towels. My mother and I prefer line-dried towels because we think that they are more absorbent and we like the exfoliation. My brother Ryan says we are masochists.
There are some ways to mitigate or avoid the cardboard factor. You can still cut your electricity bill significantly (and still have that better-than-bottled fresh scent) by airing your clothes until about 2/3 dry outside and then finishing them in the dryer. Supposedly adding 1/2 cup of white vinegar to your rinse cycle works as a softener, but I have never tried it.
There is also the issue of inclement weather. It rains here. A lot. When it rains, I still use the dryer. What I have been intending to do (for 6 years) is install a ceiling-mounted indoor drying rack (as opposed to the cheaper, easier-to-use expanding models that take up floor space we don’t have). We also live in a temperate zone, where we get freezing weather during the winter. But your clothes will still get dry when there’s snow on the ground (as long as there is no precipitation) even if it freezes in the process. When the ambient temperature is below freezing the wet laundry freezes but the frost then sublimates, leaving the items dry. It takes longer to dry items outside when it is freezing, but drying them indoors removes heat from the air, so you have to pick the lesser of two evils (or fire up the tumble drier).
 “Washing Machine” article from Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washing_machine Accessed 04/07/12.
 Woods, Drew. “The History of Washing Machines” article from eHow.com. http://www.ehow.com/about_5367221_history-washing-machines.html . Accessed 04/07/12.
 Morris, Margaret. “The History of the Clothes Dryer” article from eHow.com. http://www.ehow.com/about_5081538_history-clothes-dryer.html Accessed 04/07/12.
 “Clothes line” article from Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clothes_line Accessed 04/05/12.