The clothes and linens always smelled so fresh. Everything about the laundry was fun. My brother and I played hide-and-seek in the rows of billowing white sheets.
I remember this as I’m studying energy-saving tips from Al Gore, who says that when you have time, you should use a clothesline to dry your clothes instead of the dryer.
A clothesline. It strikes me that I haven’t seen one since 1991, when I moved to Rolling Hills, Calif., a gated community about an hour south of Los Angeles. There are rolling hills, ranch houses, sweeping views of the ocean and rocky cliffs — plenty of room — but not a single visible clothesline.
I decide to rig a clothesline as an experiment. My mother died many years ago and the idea of hanging laundry with my own daughter, Isabel, who is 13 and always busy at the computer, is oddly appealing. I’m also hoping to use less energy and to reduce our monthly electric bills which hit the absurdly high level of $1,120 last summer.
That simple decision to hang a clothesline, however, catapults me into the laundry underground. Clotheslines are banned or restricted by many of the roughly 300,000 homeowners’ associations that set rules for some 60 million people. When I called to ask, our Rolling Hills Community Association told me that my laundry had to be completely hidden in an enclosure approved by its board of directors.
I briefly considered hanging our laundry in the front yard, just to see what would happen, but my family vetoed this idea. Instead, I settled on stringing two lines in a corner of the backyard, a spot not visible to neighbors or officials. I’m supposed to submit a site plan of our property and a photograph of my laundry enclosure. But I don’t have an enclosure, unless the hedge qualifies.
Looking for fellow clothesline fans, I came across the Web site of Alexander Lee, a lawyer and 32-year-old clothesline activist in Concord, N.H. In 1995 Mr. Lee founded Project Laundry List, a nonprofit organization, as a way to champion “the right to dry.” His Web site, laundrylist.org, is an encyclopedia on the energy advantages of hanging laundry.
Mr. Lee sponsors an annual National Hanging Out Day on April 19. He plans to string a clothesline at the State House in Concord, N.H., this Saturday as part of a Step It Up 2007 rally on climate change, where he will hang T-shirts and sheets with the slogan “Hang Your Pants. Stop the Plants.”
Inspired, I moved forward with my project without submitting the site plan and photograph for approval. My daughter agreed to help me hang the first load.
“It looks beautiful,” she said when we stepped back. “It looks like we care about the earth.”
The experiment was off to a good start. The first load dried in less than three hours. The clothes smelled like fresh air and wind. As we took them down, the birds were chirping and the sun was shining.
But there was a downside. “The towels are like sandpaper,” said my husband, Dan, after stepping out of the shower.
Not only that. Heading outside to the clothesline and hanging each load takes about 7 minutes — 6 minutes and 30 seconds longer than it takes to stuff everything into the dryer.
As the months rolled by, no one from the community association complained. Of course, since the clotheslines are in a lowered corner of the backyard surrounded by hedges, they cannot be seen from the street, the neighbors’ houses or even our own house. But the rope lines started to sag, allowing the sheets and heavy wet towels to drag in the dirt. The wooden clothespins soon became weathered and fell apart.
Meanwhile, my daughter lost interest after the first load, dashing my hope of recreating the happy times I spent hanging clothes with my own mother.
I briefly gave up — the dryer was so much easier — but then tried again. I bought stronger lines, plastic instead of rope, and switched to plastic clothespins. I also learned that tossing the clothes in the dryer for just a few minutes after they have dried on the line makes them softer.
Everyone now seems happy enough with the fresh smelling laundry, which is just slightly stiff. Of course, I still haven’t asked our local board of directors for approval. If they object, I could be forced to take my laundry down or build an enclosure, an inconvenient confrontation I’m simply avoiding. In the meantime, our electric bill has dropped to $576 in March from its high last summer, reflecting a series of efforts to cut energy. (That’s still too high, so we’re about to try fluorescent bulbs.)