Drying Clothes On The Clothesline

Save money, cut carbon emissions, and extend the life of your clothing—all with a few bucks’ worth of rope.

Jean Nick May 17, 2011

Line drying is back! True, electric clothes dryers aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. But, as you may find simply by strolling around your neighborhood on the next sunny Saturday, it seems like more people than ever are returning to the tried-and-true combination of sun, wind, and clothesline to dry their clothing and linens. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times reported that the trend was becoming popular among celebrities, even as some ordinary folks had to battle with local home owner associations that banned the practice as “unattractive.” Hanging your laundry out to dry instead of firing up your dryer reduces your electric or gas bill, lowers carbon emissions, helps your clothing and linens last longer by eliminating some wear and tear on the fabric (saving you more money), is a great excuse to get outside, and gives your fabrics that natural, fresh outdoor smell (no need to use chemical fragrances that claim to mimic it). Even if you don’t hang every wash load, each time you do, you save yourself money and help protect the environment.

The Line
There are all sorts of drying line setups, but all you really need is a length of clean, strong rope that you can tie between two trees or poles. Having a tightening mechanism of some sort is a good idea, as every type of line I’ve used has stretched over time. You can buy tighteners at a hardware or home improvement store; they attach to the line and make it easy to take up any slack without having to untie and retie the rope. Be sure you hang your line high enough so heavy washed items won’t brush the ground. Pick a site where no one will run into the drying laundry and also consider how far you will need to carry your laundry. Avoid putting your line under trees that drip sap or where birds tend to perch. If you are short on space, you can buy a retractable clothesline, which attaches to a wall and lets you extend the line when needed, or an umbrella-style clothesline, which is like a patio umbrella but has clotheslines in place of umbrella fabric. These options require a bigger up-front investment, but you’ll recoup the costs.

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The Clothespins
Once you have a line, you’ll need some clothespins to hold your wash on it. I prefer the spring clip type, and I’m partial to the wooden kind. Buy the sturdiest ones you can find—in my experience, the cheap ones lose their grip in even the lightest breeze and fall apart easily. Keep your pins in a portable bag or other container that you can hang on the line while pinning up your laundry. But store the bag inside when not in service; if your pins are left outside, they will get dirty and may stain your wash. Plus they won’t last as long. You can make a very serviceable clothespin container out of a stiff plastic milk or water jug: Cut off the bottom of the handle to make a hanging hook and cut away some of the jug’s top for easy access to your clothespins inside.

Hang ’em High!
If you want to speed up the drying process, you can run your laundry through an extra spin cycle in your washer. (When I have plenty of drying time, I actually prefer to reduce the spin time and let the clothes hang outside longer, to save even more electricity.) When your laundry’s been spun, grab your clothespins and tote your wash out to the line. Give each item a good snap to minimize wrinkles and attach it firmly to the line with the pins. I like to gently stretch collars, the strips down the front of buttoned shirts, and seams that are prone to shrinking, pulling them to their normal lengths before I hang them. But be careful not to overstretch anything. Fold the top edge of each item of clothing over the clothesline and clip the fold to the line. Clothing dries fastest if it’s hung a single layer, with nothing folded in half over itself. If space is limited, you can scrunch things closer together; it will all just take a little longer to dry. Hang small, thin items like dress socks together in pairs to save on pins and space and overlap the corners of larger items so one pin can hold both. On windy days, use extra clips to make sure everything’s especially secure.

Here are some other tips to help you become a line-drying believer:

Watch The Skies (And The Weather Forecast).
Line drying does require some weather awareness and forward planning. If you have a covered outdoor area, such as a porch, where you can hang a rainy-day line that will expand your options. If you use an umbrella clothesline and the weather won’t get worse than a gentle shower, you can hang your clothes on the inner lines, toss an old shower curtain or sheet of plastic over the hung washing, and clip this cover to the outside lines to hold it in place.

Know Your Fabrics.
Sunshine is a natural germ- and odor-killer and can help bleach out stains. But it can also fade bright clothing. Hang sun-sensitive laundry inside out, or in the shade if possible, and bring those articles in promptly as soon as they are dry. Certain fabrics are prone to stretching, or will show puckers where clothespins were clipped to them, so hang those on plastic coat hangers (metal ones are likely to rust and stain) and then clip the hangers to the line.

Tumble Your Towels.
Line dried clothes and towels don’t feel the same as those that have been tumbled dry in a dryer. I grew up without a dryer and much prefer the feel of a line dried towel on my bare back when stepping out of the shower. But you or your family members may find crunchy towels or stiff jeans a turnoff. Hanging out wash on a windy day can reduce stiffness, and so can filling the fabric softener dispenser in your washer with white vinegar. If those measures aren’t enough, dry everything on the line and then toss problem items into the dryer for a few minutes—set on air fluff—with a couple of clean tennis balls or sneakers to soften them.

Eliminate Lint.
While line drying does lengthen the life of your clothes by not sucking bits of them into the lint trap, it doesn’t remove loose lint and pet hair (a big deal in our multi-pet household). You can toss any line dried but “furry” items into the dryer set on air fluff, with an all-natural dryer sheet, to loosen and remove offending fibers. I don’t have a dryer anymore (it gave up the ghost last year, and not replacing it was part of my 2008 carbon footprint reduction effort), but I do have a secret weapon: A damp hand rubbed firmly over the surface of hairy or linty items picks up the offending fibers better than any lint or pet hair remover I’ve ever tried.

Extend The Drying Season.
Drying laundry indoors can be an option, though in humid weather it will take a long time, boost indoor humidity levels, make your AC work harder, and perhaps exacerbate any mildew problems. In dry climates and in the heating season when indoor air tends to be too dry anyway, drying lines or wooden racks in the house are a great option. I have wash lines in my basement for winter use, and I use a box fan to move air gently through the drying laundry to speed up the process. In spring and fall, you can hang wash outside on cold days; try wearing rubber dishwashing gloves (or a larger size of rubber gloves over a thin pair of winter gloves) to keep your hands warm while handling the wet items.

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