Editor’s Note: I wrote this article for a college course in magazine writing in 1995. See also my newer article on line-drying laundry.
Lurking in many American homes, in the basements of apartment buildings, and in storefront shrines is a boxy beast which destroys clothing and gets paid to do it. People feed it quarters or pay for the electricity it guzzles, and they sigh in annoyance as garments cling together at the end of the ordeal. The beast demands the frequent sacrifice of a single sock, but people shrug and continue to feed it. They don’t realize that the automatic dryer causes problems which can be eliminated by air-drying clothing.
Many Americans, misled by the term “labor-saving device,” assume that air-drying their clothes would be a waste of time and effort. Others, having lived all their lives with convenient access to dryers, don’t realize they have options. Actually, reducing or eliminating your automatic dryer usage will bring you only a little extra work and a number of benefits.
Air-drying is better for your clothes. Laundry machines toss clothes around, causing wear on the seams and sometimes snagging things with zippers. If you use a washer and dryer, you subject your clothes to twice as much tumbling as you would if you used only a washer. The heat of the dryer causes elastic to break down and T-shirt lettering to peel. It also can distort the shapes of jeans and knit garments.
Air-drying reduces wrinkles. If you remove clothing from a dryer immediately and hang or fold it, most items are relatively unwrinkled; however, this requires careful timing. How much time does your dryer save if you have to hang around waiting for the cycle to end or face a session of tedious ironing? Clothes which have been properly hung for air-drying will dry in the right shape, virtually wrinkle-free, and will be waiting when you’re ready to get them.
Air-drying completely eliminates static cling. Electric dryers produce static electricity by rubbing clothes over each other repeatedly. Avoid this process, and you’ll avoid the static! You’ll also save money on fabric softener. True, air-dried clothes feel a bit stiff at first. Just remind yourself that the stiffness means clothes are freshly washed, and soon you’ll find that those “nice soft clothes” seem dirty!
Air-drying is good for the environment. In many areas, electricity is produced by coal-powered plants. Reduce your electricity consumption, and you’ll reduce the burning of irreplaceable fossil fuels and reduce air pollution.
Best of all, air-drying is free! If you use coin-operated laundry machines, you know that dryers account for at least half the expense. If you own a dryer, you’re paying for extra electricity and repairs. Just read these tips, set up your own air-drying system, and you’ll never pay another cent to dry your clothes.
When you think of hanging laundry up to dry, the image that probably comes to mind is of a 1940s housewife with a clothesline in her backyard or of city tenements with lines of laundry strung between windows. While outdoor clotheslines can be efficient and are best for that back-to-nature feeling, they have disadvantages. The most obvious one is weather: You can’t hang clothes outdoors in rain or snow, and bright sunshine can fade colors. For people with pollen and spore allergies, wearing clothes dried in the fresh air can be a miserable experience. In a warm, dry climate, however, outdoor drying can work very well.
A covered porch or balcony, if you have one, is a more practical choice. In cold climates, a porch is slightly warmer than the yard because of its proximity to the house. This proximity also means a shorter walk with your basket of damp laundry. Even a small porch can dry large amounts. My own balcony is six feet square and on a corner of the house; I have three clotheslines extending from the corner post to nails in door and window frames. This gives me twenty linear feet of hanging space, and I also have three hooks in the ceiling for clothes on hangers.
If your washer is in the basement, you may have a great drying location right next to it! A basement area that is currently unused may be perfect for a clothesline. Just make sure the basement doesn’t have a strong smell (which could transfer to the clothes) or a lot of airborne dust. Basements with moisture problems also are bad locations because the evaporating water can only increase the humidity. If your basement is clean and dry, it may be the best place for your clothesline. In apartment buildings, landlords and other tenants are often more tolerant of a basement clothesline (if it’s not positioned to strangle them as they walk in) than of one outdoors.
Indoor locations within your home are more practical than they sound. Although people often hang hand-washed items in the bathroom, this actually is a poor location for drying because baths and showers humidify the air. Any other room will do. You may think you don’t have space, but look carefully. A clothesline can go across the corner you rarely walk into, in front of the window you never use, a few inches from a wall, or near the ceiling so that you walk under it. Remember that clothes which have been through the washer’s spin cycle are only damp, not dripping, so it’s okay to hang them over beds and carpet. Many heating systems make the air very dry in winter; water evaporating from your laundry will help to humidify the house. Indoor drying takes some getting used to, but you may learn to enjoy the unusual decor!
Hanging laundry takes less time than you might expect. I can hang a large load in ten minutes. The drying time, however, must be considered in your plans. Wash items a few days before you need to wear them, and you’ll have no problems.
Many variables affect the drying time, including temperature, humidity, and time of day. I’ve found that clothes hanging indoors or in warm weather outdoors are dry in twelve to eighteen hours. Outdoors in colder weather (approximately twenty to sixty degrees) it takes about two days. At temperatures below twenty degrees, it’s still possible to dry clothes outdoors; they freeze, but the ice evaporates after three or four days. (If you need a particular item quickly, bring it inside and hang it near a heat source. Freezing does not damage clothing unless you handle it roughly while it’s frozen.) By noting your drying time under various conditions, you’ll soon learn rules of thumb for your own climate.
When possible, fold items as you take them off the line. This saves time and reduces wrinkles. If you take down one category of clothing at a time (shirts, then pants, then socks) it’s simple to unload from the basket right into your dresser drawers.
Like any change in household routines, switching to air-drying may sound confusing and difficult. It isn’t. You’ll soon get into the habit, and you may find your new routine is more soothing, with no buzzers beckoning you to the laundry room and no static cling to fight. Soon you’ll wonder why you were wasting money to let a machine wear out your clothes!
Some Tips for Clothesline Use
- Make double levels for small items. If you hang a second clothesline about a foot below the main one, you’ve got twice the space for socks and underwear.
- Shake out wrinkles. Snap an item briskly through the air, and most of the wrinkles will disappear. Remove any remaining by pulling the item smooth after hanging it.
- If an item will be stored on a hanger, put it on one while it’s damp, pulling collars and pockets into the proper position. Hang the hanger between items on the line or on a hook nearby. Outdoors, wire hangers can be bent around the line to prevent them from blowing away.
- Put hosiery and lingerie in a nylon mesh bag in the washer, then hang them on the line.
- Hang T-shirts by the tails and socks by the toes so clothespin marks won’t be visible.
- Hang jeans and towels folded over the line. Halfway through drying, turn them so they’re folded the other way, and they’ll dry all the way through.
- Put heavy items near the ends of the line to reduce sagging, which can cause the supports to come loose.
- When hanging clothes outdoors, don’t let them touch walls or posts, which may be dirty.
- Hang fitted sheets folded over the line with the pockets on the inside, so they don’t catch leaves or other debris.