Make: Backyard Laundry Lines

temporary art made from what your family wears


I have never been a tidy person. Messy bedroom, messy desk, messy hair. The demands of keeping a tidy house are not easy for me. Nor is the notion of a clean house. The idea that we must keep clutter at bay while also scouring the floors of grime is entirely too much. I try to keep on top of the toilets and sinks, keep the dirty dishes moving through the queue. Vacuuming is my least favorite: it’s loud and the vacuum is heavy and hard to harangue through all the tight spaces. For a short while, we paid a woman to come clean twice a month: she did the floors and two bathrooms. It was too good to be true, really; the guilt at knowing I’m able-bodied and hate mopping the floor defeated me.

There is one chore that I adore, however, and that is washing clothes. There is something meditative about it, something basic that makes me feel like a sound, accomplished adult. We all need clean clothes. We all want to have options when we emerge sparkling new from the shower. There is a sense of rightness I feel when I fold and stack and put away all the clothes in my house. I feel the freight of my relationship with my clothes, the way my wardrobe is an ongoing project of my own identity. All these socks, sweaters, jeans, shirts, hanging up, placed in drawers, piled in stacks: this represents my personal costume. The snapshot memories others will have of me. This black t-shirt, this embroidered skirt, this wool cardigan. All part of the ceremony, the public viewing, the creative and the comfortable, the technology required to keep my warm and street legal.


The best part about doing is laundry is that, unlike other housework, it is a fundamentally clean experience. No grime or dust, no soapy residue, no sticky rags or dirty water. I am lucky to have my own washing machine; all the stink, sweat and effluvia is removed from the fabric and scuttled down a drain long before the cycle ends. I pull the clothes out, wet and twisted, and, if the weather is right, I bring them outside, to bake under the sun, to dry in the wind. A little field trip before returning to their duty.

I’m not an outdoorsy person by any stretch. The green space in my backyard is just enough to meet my nature needs, and since I don’t like gardening, hanging laundry on the line is the perfect outside activity. I’m in the sun, I’m being productive, I’m not adding to my gas bill. Also, I’m usually by myself.

There’s a science to hanging laundry, of course, some of which is intuitive, and some of which I learned from these excellent book by Cheryl Mendelson called Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House. Absolutely beautiful book.

Socks are pinned at the toes, pants by the waistline with pockets flattened, voluminous items like sheets or dress shirts arranged to allow maximum billowing, like a sail on a ship. Every time I hang washing, it’s a little puzzle. A race to use as few pins and the least amount of laundry line as I can. A beautiful gusty day means I can get to the bottom of my hampers (towels excepted) and so every bit of real estate matters.

So. A line of Adrian’s t-shirts take up the whole back line. Quick to dry, easy to pull down.

The front line has no pins on it; I reserve that for quilts and bedding. Add a few sheets, maybe a blanket. Now I’m sandwiched inside of a fortress of cloth.

In the middle goes any underthings. I don’t really care about who sees my unmentionables, but my kid sometimes does. A whole line bras and undies, a row of socks. (There’s a reference to this habit in my fifth book, The Whitsun Daughters. Laundry preoccupies me across time and space, no question.)

I leave the fourth line open. This lets the breeze to do its job. I’ll monitor the t-shirts, and once they’re dry, pull them down and add a new section. But sometimes the weather doesn’t hold. The air will swell with humidity or dark clouds appear, fat with rain. The forecast will tell me not to try it with the comforters; they’ll never dry in time. Each session on the line is a new configuration that factors in the fabric’s heft, the strength of the wind, the clearness of the sky, the other tasks I have on the docket.


Then, comes the artistic part. The pin positioning. The light. The sounds of wind in the trees. The fabrics your family chooses to cover their bodies. Your distinct geographical dot on the map. All swaying and flapping, all afternoon long. You go in and out, adding new garments, removing others. You toss out snapped pins. Pull a few weeds. Pick up dog shit. Sit at the picnic table and survey your domain. Listen to nothing. Listen to the sounds of your neighbors around you. Listen to your own thoughts, attend to your suspicions about the changing weather. That cloud over there, that drop in temperature. All of it, right now, right here, the world turning, time clocking forward. All of your good work, warming beneath the sun and fluttering in the breeze, everything dismantled and brought in just as twilight comes.

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