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As an energy-saver, the clothesline makes a comeback

A 'Right to Dry' movement is growing, with some states introducing legislation to override clothesline bans.

By Caitlin CarpenterContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 24, 2007



It started out innocently enough. Concerned about global warming and her family's energy consumption, Michelle Baker wanted to hang her wash outside. She scoured stores for a clothesline durable enough to withstand Vermont winters and classy enough for her Waterbury backyard. She came back empty-handed every time.

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So Ms. Baker and her husband made their own: a few lines of pristine white rope hung between two Vermont cedar poles. Soon, friends and neighbors were enviously asking where they got it. Born of enterprise, enthusiasm, and wet shirts flapping in the breeze, the Vermont Clothesline Co. debuted in April.

And just in time, as a national clothesline – or "Right to Dry" – movement escalates. In fact, Vermont is the latest state to introduce a bill that would override clothesline bans, which are often instituted by community associations loath to air laundry even when it's clean. Now, clothesline restrictions may be headed the way of bans on parking pickup trucks in front of homes, or growing grass too long – all vestiges of trim and tidy hopes that may not fit with the renewed emphasis on going green.

"This trend ... is about people making a little change to help the environment as opposed to something like solar panels which is much more of an investment," Baker says.

Baker's orders have steadily risen. While most initial buyers were fellow Vermonters, the company now receives orders from across the United States, including such places as Tennessee, Texas, and Arkansas.

Over in New Hampshire, clothesline activists have asked for legislative advice from Project Laundry List – the first US clothesline activist group – according to the group's founder, Alexander Lee. And North Carolina recently passed a law invalidating city or county limitations on "energy devices based on the use of renewable resources." In addition, the clothesline movement there is hoping to find a "test case" to legally establish clothesline rights in North Carolina, Mr. Lee says.

"We get e-mails and calls every day from people wanting to know where they can get the materials to hang out their clothes or how to deal with homeowners' association rules," says Bryan Wentzell, the group's chairman of the board. "[The Right to Dry movement] could take off all across the country," he says, noting that independent states like Vermont will be the first to jump on the bandwagon."

Maybe. In June, Vermont's Gov. Jim Douglas (R) vetoed an energy bill with Right to Dry language – though not because of the clothesline clause, according to state Sen. Dick McCormack (D). Proponents are now revising a bill to be introduced in January, one similar to legislation in Florida and Utah that prohibits "state or local laws or regulations or private contracts from limiting the ability of dwellers to erect and use clotheslines for the drying of clothes."

Dryer data

At last count, in 2005, there were 88 million dryers in the US, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. Annually, these dryers consume 1,079 kilowatt hours of energy per household, creating 2,224 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions.

Besides the global-warming and cost-saving aspects of clotheslines, proponents say hanging out clothes requires exercise and time outside – elements that are missing from many Americans' lives. "So much of our lives have become automated," Mr. Wentzell says. Plus, using a clothesline makes "your clothes last longer and smell better."

Despite clotheslines' purported benefits – and a scent that can rival dryer sheets' "fresh rain" fragrance – "the overwhelming majority" of community associations regulate or ban them, says Frank Rathbun, vice president of communications for the Community Associations Institute in Virginia. Sixty million Americans belong to one of 300,000 homeowners' associations, according to the institute, a national organization of community association leaders and management firms.

The rules exist for aesthetics, residents' expectations, and property values, Mr. Rathbun says: Environmental leanings have to be balanced against the desires of those who find their neighbors' blue jeans, khakis, and the occasional flannel nightgown to be unseemly, unsightly, or both.

Senator McCormack dismisses such concerns. Amid growing concern about global warming, he says, governments have a responsibility to protect people's right to voluntarily conserve, if not actively support energy conservation.

Protesters and quilters

On Sept. 14, Project Laundry List will participate in an event at the energy company Hydro-Québec, protesting the diverting and damming of the Rupert River. Such damming would not have to occur, Lee says, if people adopted energy-saving methods like clotheslines. The group will display messages on T-shirts and sheets hung from – what else? – a 400-foot clothesline.

The group is getting the word out through other art forms, too. Several painters and quilters who specialize in depictions of clotheslines have donated work to Project Laundry List to be auctioned off, with proceeds going to the cause.

And, hoping for more, Wentzell is thinking outside the box and beyond the laundry room: "Hey, maybe we'll get some celebrities taking up the cause by hanging out their laundry behind their mansions!"

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