The World Through the Hole in a Hanging Sock
UNITED STATESIAN LAUNDRY CULTURE
Texas, 1996, a rural location
My dad stared at our laundry line. “We used to do that.”
“I remember helping Mother hang it when I was little,” I said.
“Yep,” he continued. “We hung it up in the 60’s, then in the 70s people started buying dryers, and we broke down and got one. I guess to save time and effort.”
“It doesn’t take that much time,” I said, “and we like the way it smells.”
“I imagine you have lots of fresh air out here.” He was still staring.
Back in the city, I usually didn’t hang my laundry. Because most there didn’t. Because I had a dryer. I only hung out hand wash items, vintage dresses and swim suits. But when we moved to the country, we had no dryer and loads of space to hang it, and plenty of dry sunny days in that north-central Texas climate. The equipment needed was simple: a line, damp laundry, a basket and a hat–our faces were getting burned to a crisp working outside a lot, living a rural life.
There, I learned a lot about this under-acknowledged art.
Statistics: Drying time in the sun at 113F/45C = 7 minutes. At 75F/24C = 1 hour 17 minutes. At 43F/6C = three hours. With wind, less time!
In the hot summer, towels dried outside turned to a stiff cardboard texture and had to be karate-chopped to fold.
An occasional bird flies overhead and . . .
In times of wind and drought, laundry gets dusty.
EUROPEAN LAUNDRY CULTURE
When I moved to Europe, I was startled to learn that many hung laundry to dry. I didn’t expect it in those climes.
In 2000 we moved to a farm in Austria at 1000 meters altitude, a region some only half-jokingly called Siberia because it was famous for being cold, often damp, with long snowy winters and two week summers. Yet I saw that these people were dedicated hangers. I learned it from the grandmother (oma) Ottilie who came with the farm we bought. She lived with us and taught me by showing, since I could not understand a word of her obscure dialect, except for the words mice and lice. She was quicker than I, though, and soon picked up my English word okay.
In spring, summer and fall when the weather was sunny or cloudy, she motioned me to hang it outside. “Okay?” She’d give me a look. If rain or snow, she took me to hang it in the large utility room (took 3 days to dry). Sometimes, she hung hers in her room over the radiators and on lines strung across the room. (I wish I had photos.) She still had a scrub board which she used to hand wash if I couldn’t wrest the laundry from her to do in the machine. She also had a spinner machine to spin out the water after handwashing. This relic sadly broke one day and flooded her room, which already tended to mustiness due to the laundry. Afterward, I tried to get her to hang her wash in the utility room if the weather was bad. Her room was molding over!
She was 86. It was hard for her to change her habits, which included 78 years of scything and raking the meadows to make hay and chopping binkl for firewood starter kits. She knew that work kept her going. “Okay?”
She wasn’t alone. The neighboring small farms all had laundry lines. On the next farm the Oma Maria even hung outside during winter. We’d see the shirts and pants hanging above the snow on icy days. Freeze drying, I suppose.
Laundry hanging in Upper Austria showed the amazing resilience of those people, over 600 years, in a raw area inhabited since 1400. I picked up some of their strength: I confess I broke down and got a dryer for winter usage.
We moved to Italy in 2006. In Verona, most people lived in apartments. Even these people, with no land attached to their living quarters, were dedicated hangers. They hung laundry on lines and drying racks on their pristine and flowery balconies—year round—though winter in Verona could be a frigid gray affair, and in summer, dust accumulated from the streets has to vacuumed off the floors every three days. They hung even in the time of the afa, the pollution, which does lower the air quality and breathing ability substantially. Cough!
I liked to set up our drying rack on the balcony and look out at the neighboring apartments and see the friendly grandmother across the way. She’d hang on her little rack, and then sit beside it, and wave over at me, “Cara! Come visit me! With the children! I’ll give them caramellas!”
“Sì,” I’d call back, “pronto, domani, Nonna Zampieri!”
“Ciao, bella!” she’d sing, blowing me a kiss.
Italians could even make laundry a passionate community affair. Laundry was joyful and colourful, artfully arranged. It brightened balconies—red hues on that one, blues over there, a yellow range on the floor below.
From the Italians I learned color choice and zest.
In 2007 we moved to Geneva where again most people live in apartments, and many still hang their laundry to dry. Even in a place with such a swanky reputation.
The weather didn’t always cooperate for outdoor laundry hanging. In summer, in most of the year in fact, blew the cold breeze politely called La Bise. However, there were sunny days and a real summer that afforded balcony hanging. Then as autumn approached, people whispered ominously, “We always have several months with no sun.” They looked nervously about when they said this, as though superstitious that just talking about it would bring it on.
Sure enough the clouds locked arms overhead in November and when we took the children to the park on Sundays, some days were bitter cold. Yet if the sun came out for even a few minutes, we saw a strange thing. In the park here and there would stand a person, stock still, face raised to the sun, eyes closed. A Du Pont retiree told us, “They’re sunning themselves. That’s normal here.” And so they would remain, standing, for ten, twenty even thirty minutes, without twitching a muscle. Looking like human sun flowers.
Apartments generally had a laundry room in the cellar area that all tenants could use to dry their washing. Ours was a dark, dank room with racks for spreading out clothing and I always wondered what lurked in the corners. However, the room was equipped with a machine which circulated air to help things dry out. The machine ran for thiry to forty minutes and then stopped. So I had to travel down to the depths to turn it on several more times before all was dry. A few hours usually did the trick.
A friend Caroline clued me in to save all that trudging up and down the stairs and waiting (twice I locked myself out of my apartment while checking on the wash, and while wearing slippers and skimpy clothes while snow leered from outside, and I spoke not a word of French to explain my predicament to the neighbor). Caroline was from Canada and an expert: “Just put it on a rack next to the radiator in your own apartment,” she counselled. Et voilà—much easier!
In Geneva, I learned the power of radiators and un certain savoir faire.
Arriving in 2009 in a small town in central England, I encountered the biggest surprise laundry-wise. The neighbors, grandmothers, people my age and younger couples, regularly hung their laundry outside in good weather, inside in wet. Some have no dryer; some do. Whether they do or not, they still hang.
In fact, I believe the hanging of laundry has reached its highest form in the British Isles, a place famous for rain. They have raised it to a sport.
The game goes something like this:
Cool sunny day at 7—wash. Hang out at 8.
Cloud cover by 8:15. Sprinkle at 8:47. Bring in.
Sun at 10:09—hang back out.
Heavy rain at noon when the clothes were almost dry. Now all is soaked—leave out.
Sun at 12:32 and the laundry begins to dry again. Getting cloudy at 1:38.
At 3 the sky looks like rain so bring the wash in slightly damp and hang on railings and radiators. Move around frequently to aid the drying.
I know they do this. I’ve heard them talk. And even before I knew they did this, as though through osmosis, I began to do it too. I’m now British by laundry habit. It’s addictive.
Everyone knows the plusses of laundry hanging:
Economical and saves energy usage and bleaching agents.
Gives the hanger-outer light exercise.
Makes the laundry smell good if hung out in sunshine and good air.
The sun sterilizes the fabrics, even in cloudy weather.
Builds a strong character and makes one highly attuned to weather fronts.
I can honestly say, my character is stronger from all this. As our Austrian grandmother Ottilie used to say, “Live to work, work to live! Okay?”
Click here to read about an anti-Trump, pro-environmental move by the Massachusetts state legislature which includes clotheslines.
Click here to read about the battle over allowing clotheslines in certain private U. S. communities.
Click here to read a New York Times article about clothesline struggles in Canada.
Click here to read about similar recent battles in a British community.
Click here to read the first story in Laura Grevel’s Texas Ranching Adventure series.