Natural Life Magazine

Letting It All Hang Out:
Clotheslines Save Energy

by Wendy Priesnitz

Letting It All Hang Out: Clotheslines Save Energy
Photo © Linda Muir/Shutterstock

When I was a child in the 1950s, I loved helping my mother hang out the laundry to dry. She had a special window installed in the sun porch at the back of the house so she could stay warm inside during the winter while easily reaching the clothesline. My job was to hand her the clothespegs and later to help fold. I still remember the wonderfully fresh smell the sheets had…a scent that lingered even when they were on my bed. I’ve been able to hang out my own family’s laundry to dry occasionally since, but too often, we’ve lived in houses where clotheslines were forbidden on aesthetic grounds or in balcony-less apartments where clotheslines were impossible even if they had been legal.

I'm not alone in having lived where clotheslines are not allowed. In the US, approximately sixty million people live in communities governed by homeowner associations, most of which prohibit or restrict clotheslines.

But these days, concerned about global warming and the cost of energy, we’re letting it all hang out, like hasn’t been seen in a generation. Clothes dryers are going the way of cosmetic pesticides and cigarette smoking in public places. There is even a “Right to Dry” activist movement that is trying to establish clothesline rights. This laundry underground includes those frugal folks who’ve always used a clothesline and are a bit befuddled as to what all the fuss is about, people from countries where hanging out the laundry is part of the culture, those who don’t like other people making up rules regarding their lifestyle habits, and those who realize that foregoing a clothes dryer is an easy adjustment to make in order to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide sent into the atmosphere. 

Although these initiatives are springing up spontaneously across North America (Europeans really never gave up the clothesline) they are networked through an organization called Project Laundry List, founded in New Hampshire in 1995 by a young lawyer named Alexander Lee. Project Laundry List uses words, images and advocacy to educate people about how simple lifestyle modifications – including air-drying one’s clothes – reduce our dependence on environmentally and culturally costly energy sources.

The organization started when students at New Hampshire’s Middlebury College, concerned about Hydro-Quebec’s plans for major dam projects and the expansion of nuclear power, started to hang political messages on a clothesline at protests. Now, its Right to Dry Campaign encourages lawmakers to introduce Right to Dry legislation that would prevent community covenants, landlord prohibitions and zoning laws that stop people from using clotheslines. Its Stop the Ban! Campaign uses a public airing of communities and landlords that prohibit clotheslines in order to encourage their use. Project Laundry List has chapters across the U.S. and Canada, in the U.K., and in Asia.   

Lee and his chapter volunteers are kept busy these days advising sympathetic politicians on how to word and pass bills that override clothesline bans. North Carolina, for instance, has passed a law invalidating city or county limitations on “energy devices based on the use of renewable resources.” Florida and Utah also have laws that prohibit “state or local laws or regulations or private contracts from limiting the ability of dwellers to erect and use clotheslines for the drying of clothes.”

On the other hand, the Oak Bay Green Committee in British Columbia cautions that in some areas – such as their Vancouver Island community – there are “suburban myths” that perpetuate the idea of municipal bans on clotheslines when they really don’t exist.

Those in favor of bans on clotheslines say that environmental leanings have to be balanced against the desires of those who find their neighbors’ blue jeans, undies, and flannel nightgowns to be unseemly, unsightly, or both. However, those against the bans – including Vermont Senator Richard McCormack – dismiss such concerns. He told the Christian Science Monitor that amid growing concern about global warming, governments have a responsibility to protect people’s right to voluntarily conserve, if not actively support energy conservation.

The numbers tell the conservation story clearly. Electric and gas dryers emit an average of 1,440 pounds of carbon dioxide annually, or up to 10 percent of residential energy use. Line drying your clothes in the spring and summer can prevent an estimated 700 pounds of carbon dioxide per household from releasing into the atmosphere.

This is the information that Project Laundry List tries to communicate each April 19 on its annual Hanging Out Day. Handing out wooden clothespins, generating community discussion about simple ways to save energy, and providing basic information about local energy sources are the three central activities of most Hanging Out Day events. Laundry is often used as a beautiful art form to attract public attention. Statistics and sentiments are often painted on T-shirts and pants to make the case for using a clothesline (e.g., “Hang Your Pants, Stop the Nuke Plants”). Now is a good time to gather together your friends and neighbors and start planning for the next celebration.

And who knows, maybe one day the law might mandate that every home must have a clothesline installed!

Clothesline Drying Tips

  • Hang T-shirts by the shoulders with an extra pin in the middle to prevent stretching.

  • Hang pants by the bottom of the leg to speed up drying and fold the legs where you want creases.

  • Fold sheets so they billow in the wind.

  • Use extra pins to ensure heavy items don’t blow away.

  • Hanging clothes (especially diapers!) in direct sun is a great way to bleach them. But be careful about drying black and navy clothing – or anything else that will fade – in the sun.

  • To prevent line-dried items from becoming stiff, add ½ cup of vinegar to the washer to soften them. Although it may seem counterproductive, tossing your towels in the dryer for just a few minutes after they have dried on the line will make them softer... and still save a lot of energy.

  • If you don’t have trees or posts from which to hang a line, or have a small yard (or laundry-intolerant friends or neighbors), try a collapsible “umbrella” clothesline, which can be stored when not in use.

  • An indoor drying rack is a good investment for inclement weather. Avoid raw wood, which can leave marks and odors on your clothes. Avoid drying laundry indoors if your house has a moisture problem.

  • Before you erect a clothesline, check with your condo or homeowners’ association and local bylaw department. Hanging clothes outdoors is still banned in some areas.

Wendy Priesnitz is the co-founder and Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with more than 40 years of experience. She has also authored 13 books. This article was first published in 2007.


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