The Clothesline Lady

“Hi. I am one person who often does the clothesline thing in the hood. I would be happy to show you my collection of clothes lines.”

I had seen her mentioned on the listserv — “the clothesline lady,” a neighbor who knew all about line drying and would help you get started — so I posted. I was feeling green and virtuous. I was about to start cloth diapering a baby, for goodness sake.  But I wondered if I could line dry all this laundry. Would hanging wet diapers and dripping jeans take over my whole life (great cocktail conversation, that)? Would it really be worth all the extra effort? She quickly replied to my inquiry: “Hi.  I am one person who often does the clothesline thing in the hood.  I would be happy to talk to you and show you my collection of clothes lines.”

Cheryl Mitchell-Olds has been taking her “clothesline roadshow” to the streets of Durham since she moved here in 2004 and got involved with Watts Busters (an energy-efficiency group in our neighborhood, Watts-Hillandale). The Busters would hold information fairs in the local park with CFL lightbulbs, clotheslines and push mowers, trying to get neighbors to think about their energy use. I asked if she has always been interested in educating people. Not really, she said, but she has always sought out places with vibrant community and feels strongly about environmental issues. Besides, she noted, line drying is so easy, it doesn’t make sense that we all aren’t doing it.

She and her family used to live in Montana. She often line dried their clothes, but it just wasn’t viable in the snowy winter. Then they moved to Germany for several years. The house they lived in there didn’t have a dryer — no one did, in fact; everyone line dried their clothes. There she was part of a neighborhood where people’s children played together up and down the street while the parents sipped coffee or wine, where the ladies got together on Thursday nights to work on whatever craft project they had going, and they would share tips and techniques. They taught each other new knitting techniques, how to pit cherries with a bobby pin, chatted while darning socks, and made traditional holiday decorations like paper stars. It was casual and organic, but people were always sharing their knowledge with their neighbors. That sort of thing just feels natural to Cheryl.

Back in the US, she continued line drying the clothes for her family of four. The house they bought in Durham had a dryer, but they gave it away and replaced it with shelves. In NC, she can easily line dry year round. She has used a variety of lines and shipped her favorite models from her local hardware store in Germany back to the states. Now her hardware of choice is a combination of a rod in the laundry room, drying racks on the screened-in porch, and an umbrella-style outdoor line. Her favorite, a 5-line retractable that she had used in the basement in Germany, didn’t fit into the current backyard, so she passed it on to a friend.

Stopping by Cheryl’s house, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Not surprisingly, it was really casual and organic. She showed me her setup — the various lines and racks and what sorts of items she puts where. She shared a couple of helpful tips and told a few stories about her time in Germany. I asked a couple of questions, and the whole thing took 15 minutes. That’s the great thing about sharing with your neighbors — it doesn’t have to be elaborate or specially planned to make a difference.

Here are some things that Cheryl taught me about line drying:

  • It takes her 10 minutes to hang up a load — about the same time it takes to unload the dishwasher.
  • Between the short rod in her laundry room and her two drying racks, she can hang up two whole loads.
  • Everyone wears underwear — you don’t have to be bashful about drying your undies.
  • Hang shirts up by the hem and you won’t get peg marks on the shoulders.
  • Concerned about whites? The sun has amazing bleaching powers that will brighten them.
  • Spring or peg-style pins? Spring.
  • You can line dry in the winter — temperature doesn’t affect drying, relative humidity does. If it’s raining, just use racks in the house positioned near the air vents.
  • There is no such thing as an EnergyStar dryer.
  • In two hours of drying, your dryer has sucked the entire volume of air (that you’ve paid to air condition) out of your house and vented it to the outside. You now have to pay to re-condition all that air again.

Inspired? I was, especially by her indoor racks. I have been able to dry a remarkable about of clothes on a couple of racks without setting up a permanent line. You can find all the materials online at a place like the ClotheslineShop, but Cheryl notes that now there are a lot more choices available at the local hardware or big box store. And if you’re ever in town, you’re welcome to stop by, and she’ll show you her clothesline collection.

Our neighborhoods are brimming with knowledge. Do you have a story about learning a skill from a neighbor or someone that you’re dying to ask questions of? The lady with delicious homemade pickles, the older gentleman with gorgeous roses, the guy with a perfect lawn and only a push mower. Share your story in the comments!

Cheryl and her umbrella clothesline

Clothes pin holder make from a child’s shirt

Drying racks on the screened-in porch

The laundry room with no dryer

A small rack for socks and undies

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