Why you should ditch the tumble dryer and use your washing line
Washing lines, strung up in back yards or criss-crossing courtyards, have become an image of a domestic past. According to the Energy Saving Trust we are all using our washing lines less and tumble dryers take a bigger share of the load. Washing lines, they argue, should not be a thing of the past but have a vital energy saving role in the future. But is the humble line still a useful tool in modern Britain?
If you take a look at the earliest images of laundry, there is not a washing line in sight. Instead clothes are spread out to dry upon meadows or draped over bushes. An Elizabethan map of London shows Moorfields in the days when it was still an area of open land on the edge of the city; little figures sit on the ground next to pegged-out clothes, the shape of shirts clearly visible. The best published advice on laundry matters, such as Henry Mascell’s Profitable Book of 1597, suggested drying your washing over lavender bushes for an additional bleaching effect.
The washing line is a child of coal fires. Medieval and Tudor laundry relied on wood ash to remove grease, after which the laundry was taken to a local river or stream and beaten to drive out the dirt. But from the 1660s onwards, wood for fires was slowly replaced by coal. Coal ash did not take the grease out of clothes as wood ash did, so people had to turn to soap, and early forms of soap only activated in hot water. The age of the washing copper heater and the washing line had begun.
Gradually more and more people did their laundry at home, far from the drying fields that had lined the rivers and streams of Britain’s towns and cities. Outdoor drying, however, remained the preferred option. Back yards were too small, and generally too dirty for a family’s wash to be laid out flat, but draped over a line, and pegged in place, sheets and shirts could still benefit from sun and fresh air.
Up and down the country the emergence of a washing line in the back yard on a Monday, the product of a clean change of clothes on Sunday, became a sign of housewifely competence and respectability. The poorest of the Victorian poor were unable to join in this weekly ritual. With one set of clothing in constant wear, they could only achieve clean clothes if they were washed late in the evening when the family could be naked in bed, and dried overnight to be put on, probably still damp, in the morning. The Monday washing line was a public statement to all your neighbours that, while you may not be exactly rich, nonetheless your household was holding its head high and managing to do more than just survive. The washing line could be a badge of pride, its absence a symbol of shame.
So what of today’s laundry needs?
Increasing numbers of us live in flats with little access to outdoor drying space and laundry habits have to adapt. Washing lines over the bath make for damp air and clutter, so a preference for tumble drying clothes is understandable. Even for those who do have access to outdoor space, tumble dryers offer the chance to defy the weather.
But there are still two very good practical reasons for hanging on to your washing line, in addition to the ecological argument about energy use, not to mention that unbeatable feel and scent of line-dried clothes. Sunlight bleaches beautifully, if you would like the whitest of whites then there is nothing so effective as hanging them out in the sun. But the strongest practical argument for a washing line comes from the anti-bacterial effect of sunlight: UV light kills the bacteria that may survive a cool wash, both those that might have a health impact and those that cause clothes to smell.
Our ancestors knew a thing or two about laundry and were keen to get the best results with the least expense or labour. So whether you dry it flat on the lawn, draped over the hedge or hanging from a line, don’t forget that good old fresh air and sunlight still have a lot to offer.
In these days of energy conservation it is a crime to use a drier, even in an apartment, there are solutions.