Old-fashioned clothesline making a comeback

The clothesline, once a back-yard staple, gains advocates because it's so eco-friendly

Contributing WriterApril 17, 2010 

  • Why line-dry?

    Dryers use 10 percent to 15 percent of domestic energy in the United States. Here are 10 reasons to use a clothesline, from www.laundrylist.org.

    10. It saves money — more than $25 a month on electric bills for many households.

    9. Clothes last longer when line-dried.

    8. Clothes and linens smell better without exposing your body and the environment to potentially toxic chemicals in many detergents, bleaches and fabric softeners.

    7. It can conserve energy and the environment, while reducing climate change.

    6. It is moderate physical activity that you can do indoors or outside.

    5. Sunlight bleaches and disinfects.

    4. Indoor racks can humidify in dry winter weather.

    3. Clothes-dryer and washing-machine fires account for about 17,700 structure fires, 15 deaths and 360 injuries annually. The yearly national fire loss for clothes-dryer fires in buildings is estimated at $194 million.

    2. It is fun. And it can be an outdoor experience that is meditative and community-building.

    1. Line drying clothes demonstrates that small steps can make a difference.

Outdoor clotheslines are old-fashioned and newfangled at the same time. And with the growing "green" movement, the clothes-drying tool is gaining attention after all but disappearing for decades.

Local architect Illona Beresford is an enthusiastic clothesline advocate. Beresford, who has lived in Lexington since 2001, grew up in Ireland. She says the weather is wet 300 days a year there, yet about 90 percent of clothes drying is done outdoors.

As a child, she says, she earned pocket money by hanging clothes. She had to stand on a chair to reach the lines.

Even in the humid tropical climate of Hong Kong, where she also lived for a while, laundry was dried on lines strung across balconies. Now, at her home just off Alumni Drive, Beresford is teaching daughters Aisling, 5, and Maeve, 2, the benefits of air-dried laundry.

"I can't believe how few people have clotheslines here in Lexington when the climate for at least six or seven months of the year is perfect for their use," she says. "I use mine all summer long here, and think it's a no-brainer from an energy-conservation perspective."

With a smile, she shares professional advice in calculating clothesline costs savings. She works at RossTarrant Architects, which earned LEED Gold certification last year for the eco-friendly renovation of its office building.

Beresford says a family of four in Lexington, drying about eight loads of laundry a week, can save about $100 on its electric bill over 30 weeks in warm weather. That would prevent about 2,400 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions. The cost of umbrella-style drying poles varies, starting about $80.

She shares entertaining laundry stories about coping with rain showers, the benefits of using a hint of fabric softener, and the best kind of clothespins to use.

She even has a strategy for keeping delicate personal items concealed from inquisitive passers-by: She dries them behind towels on a modern, umbrella-style spinning post.

You might not expect a clothesline to be a controversial topic, but it can be. Banned by some planned residential developments and neighborhood associations, it is sometimes considered an eyesore.

But as we shift toward greener attitudes, there is a change in the wind about the clothesline, and a "right to dry" movement is gaining momentum. There is an online petition at www.right2dry.org, requesting a symbolic clothesline at the White House.

Lisa Keeney, who lives in the Boston Road area, is an outdoor clothesline user. She learned how to hang laundry from her mother and grandmother while growing up in Columbia, Mo., and is showing her daughter.

"People call me old- fashioned," she says, "but I don't mind a bit. It's a 'green' way to go, cheaper, good for the environment and better for the clothes. I liked the way diapers were sun-brightened when my kids were little, and my sheets smell great. The only things I don't dry on the line are towels."

Alexander Lee, the founder of a non-profit group called Project Laundry List (www.laundrylist.org) is the force behind the establishment of National Hanging Out Day, which is Monday. Lee sees great benefits in outdoor line-drying, and he has one notable goal: a reduction of the estimated 10 percent to 15 percent of total domestic energy consumed by tumble dryers in the United States, with a mission of "making air-drying and cold- water washing laundry acceptable and desirable as simple and effective ways to save energy."

The Web site has a wealth of information, including a recent Pew Research Center survey that indicates a drop in the number of those who consider dryers a necessity — from about 80 percent in 2006 to 60 percent in 2009.

Clotheslines have even been advocated by state legislatures. Florida and Utah have enacted legislation prohibiting clothesline restrictions, and about 10 other states have similar legislation regarding solar- and wind-energy generating devices.

Central Kentucky has many planned unit housing developments whose residents agree to restrictions imposed by developers or neighborhood associations. Clotheslines are often prohibited.

If you live in such a regulated area, check the association's rules before you install an outdoor laundry line. The Masterson Station Neighborhood Association includes about 2,200 homes just off Leestown Road. Property manager Sara Barber says the association has had no requests from to install laundry lines, but it is open to suggestions and opinions from residents, which might be taken to a special neighborhood committee for a vote.

Half a century ago, almost everyone's back yard had fixtures for putting out clothes to dry. A pair of T-shaped poles with lines strung between, a pulley system from back porch to shed, and even wooden racks for indoor use were commonplace.

Beresford wants to bring back the naturally green clothes-drying method.

"It's a simple concept that previous generations used and that our generation has forgotten about," Beresford says.

Outdoor laundry hanging takes a bit more time and planning, but it affords some exercise, a bit of meditation in the sunshine, and reduced energy use, which is good for the environment and the wallet.

Reach master gardener Susan Smith-Durisek at durisek@aol.com.

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