2009 comebacks: Line-drying clothes

clotheslineEver since the invention of the tumble dryer, it's been a mark of status to show the world that you don't have to air-dry your clothes anymore. Housing developments and apartment buildings around the country have banned the practice, ostensibly because seeing all those clothes is unsightly, but really because their presence made a home seem like it was worth less if its occupants couldn't afford a dryer. Within the space of a generation, hanging your clothes on the line became something that the lower classes did.

Now that we're entering a less wasteful age in which we want our stuff to last as long as possible, that stigma is dying. One group, Project Laundry List, is successfully lobbying state governments to allow you to dry your duds any way you wish. So far, Florida, Utah, and Colorado have all supported "right-to-dry" laws. Change is in the wind, along with a lot more underwear.

The fact is that hanging your clothes on a line to dry is better for them. Colors linger longer, giving your clothes a longer life. The fabric holds up longer--dryer lint, after all, is nothing but a thin layer that has been sheared from your clothes. The high heat of a dryer can also play havoc with the size of your clothes, so that something with a perfect fit comes out misshapen or, worse, six sizes smaller.

And then there's the fact that when you line-dry something, you're not eating up electricity. In terms of energy, dryers are by far the most wasteful appliance in the house, gobbling up 6% of your electric bill. The Wall Street Journal reported that eliminating the dryer portion of your laundry chores will cut an astounding 4.4 pounds of carbon emissions. One ecological watchdog calculates that as the equivalent of losing 16 square feet of natural habitat per load.

If you're not the type who cares much about your carbon footprint, consider the simple economic benefit. If you don't run your dryer, you don't pay for all that electricity. The British, who are much more tuned in to this kind of thing, actually have a website that tracks each brand of tumble dryer and calculates how much it costs to run each year using various electric companies. The BBC, in fact, is reporting that despite Britain's soggy weather, clothespins are enjoying a resurgence.

These American versions are more generic to tumble dryers as a genre, but the numbers are pretty eye-opening, particularly when the cost to air-dry your clothes is nil (once you buy the rack or the clothespins). Run a dryer for two hours only six times a month, and you're spending at least $70 a year, based on a national average of 12¢ per kilowatt-hour.

If you do your laundry at a communal machine where you don't pay the bill, there are still benefits: You don't spend the extra money or waste the extra hour of time babysitting your duds. You just load them on your line or your rack and use that hour to do something else. And that's before you start to calculate the wear-and-tear damage that will cause you to buy new clothes sooner than you have to.

A few years ago, I bought an indoor drying rack for about $30 at my local Bed, Bath & Beyond, and since then, most of my clothes haven't seen the inside of a dryer. When a load comes out of the washer, I just pop it onto the rack, and a day later (usually less), my stuff is dry. Fading is no longer an issue, nor is sudden shrinkage. And my clothes haven't smelled like burnt fabric or chemical softeners for years. They actually smell fresh.

The only time I use a dryer these days is for towels and for stuff that I simply have to get done in a hurry, such as bedsheets two hours before houseguests are coming. We may not be where line-drying clothes has completely lost its stigma--those consumerist biases about class are hard to overcome--but at least its benefits to the bottom line are back in vogue.
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