Winter Laundry

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I have never been really keen on sending my money to the electric company. Please don’t misunderstand me. I love electricity. There is no good substitute for electric lights or refrigerators or washing machines. That said, why use — and pay for! — what I don’t need. I can always find better uses for my cash.

I grew up with my mother hanging laundry on a clothesline. She was very happy to get a dryer but still hung the wash out whenever she could. At the time, I could not understand why my mother didn’t use the dryer for every load of clothes. Once I acquired my own electric bill, I understood a little better. When Bill and I got married, I moved from my apartment into his house and for the first time in years, had a clothesline again. So, I started using the clothesline every sunny day. We lived in South Carolina then, so there were a lot of warm, sunny days, even in January. I did not have to use the dryer that much.

Then we moved up here to central Pennsylvania. It is lots colder in the winter and not quite as hot in the summer. It takes longer to warm up in the spring and cools off quicker in the fall. Winter days tend to be shorter with less daylight and sun. Which is to say, the clothesline season is not nearly as long as it was in South Carolina. I used my dryer frequently. When it was raining, when it was cold, when it was convenient, when I hadn’t planned ahead, when I had a load of towels and I wanted them snuggly soft. My electric bill went up. When the rates were raised, it went up some more.

I went back to Amy Dacyzyn and “The Complete Tightwad Gazette” and recalculated how much I was spending, every time I used the dryer. You need to know about how long the dryer runs, what its wattage is and how much you pay the power company for each watt used. Electric utilities bill by the kilowatt-hour or KWH. A KWH is 1,000 watts used in one hour. Your dryer (or other electrical appliance; this works for all of them) should have the wattage marked somewhere on it and, maybe, in the instruction manual. Multiply the wattage on the dryer times the number of hours you use it per load and divide by 1000. This is the dryer’s KWH usage. Multiply this number by the electric company’s fee per KWH which is on your bill. This is how much it costs to run that appliance for however many hours you use it per load. Don’t forget to add in the cost of any magic dryer products you use. For us, it worked out to about fifty cents per load. So, if I dry thirty loads of laundry per month then it costs me fifteen dollars a month in electricity plus a box of dryer sheets now and then. We won’t count the wear and tear the dryer inflicts on clothing.

As we are very, very serious about our goal of financial independence, we always look for ways to spend less. Using a clothesline is free, so this was an easy choice. I planned ahead and all the laundry went onto the line, weather permitting, in spring, summer, and fall. On rainy days and cold, gloomy winter days, I used the dryer.

This cut our electric bill noticeably, but still not enough. I wash more laundry in the winter because we wear more, heavier clothing. What in the summer might be one load of shorts and t-shirts, becomes two loads of long pants, turtlenecks, and sweaters. Thus, my costs are higher.

I became more aggressive about hanging out the laundry on iffier days. Gradually, I began using any day that it wasn’t actually raining or snowing. Heavy, humid mist and fog counts as rain. Outdoor temperature became immaterial and so now you see me, in a parka, putting wash on the line in 15 degree weather.

suburban-stockade-clothesline-1

Hanging Out in Winter

Hanging laundry in the winter is quite different from the summer. In July, it really doesn’t matter what time you hang it up as long as you get two or three hours of daylight. In the winter, every hour of daylight is precious.

To start with, you have to get outside with the laundry basket before ten AM. If you have a second load to do, get started washing earlier and wash the heavier, longer drying items first. Things like polar fleece and acrylic sweaters dry pretty fast. Jeans, heavy wool and cotton sweaters, and bulky layered fabrics take a lot longer. That load has to be washed first so it can go on the line first. Then it has some additional drying time while load two is being washed. This extra hour can make the difference between being dry enough to put away and still wet garments that have to finish overnight on the racks.

Winter laundry should be spaced so that there is air flow around each and every piece. Clothing or towels that are overlapped because you don’t have enough clothesline space will not dry. If you haven’t yet set up your clothespoles, think about how much space you will need for multiple loads of winterwear and plan ahead for extra line space. T-poles with three or four lines are much better than those square clotheslines. The laundry won’t shade itself and hangs freely with more space for air and sun. If you have a choice in locations, put the poles in full sun and at right angles to the prevailing winds. Avoid the square clothesline unless you have no space for anything else.

I went into huge detail in the “Hanging Laundry” post how to exactly hang everything you own so I will try not to repeat it here too much. In the winter, you have less sun and less time in which to extract moisture from the laundry so clothes management matters.

Sort your laundry inside the house! A pile of wet, tangled garments will freeze into a solid mass and that gets difficult to work with. I arrange my laundry on the line so it is easier for someone else to bring it back inside and put away. As I pull clothes from the washer, I shake out each garment, open any buttons, snaps, zippers, or Velcro and lay them out flat in the basket. I put the lighter weight stuff (like socks) in the basket first and end with the heavy sweaters and jeans. They take much longer to dry and they freeze up fast so they go on the line first. Shake out every wrinkle and smooth every collar and flap while you are still inside and warm. Crumpled clothes will freeze up and won’t dry well and they get permanent press wrinkles as well. I also pull out any pockets so they hang free, and undo and smooth out any ties or sashes.

I keep a special pair of gloves by the door for laundry use. Heavy gloves get in the way of my hands and I end up taking them off. Holding wet, frozen laundry in twenty degree weather is a good way to court frostbite so find a pair you can live with. My gloves are a cheap pair of Joe Boxer two layer knit gloves from K-Mart. The pair consists of a full, inner glove of some cheap polyester knit and an over, fingerless glove of the same cheap knit. Worn separately, the gloves are pretty poor at keeping the cold out. Together, they work fairly well at a) keeping your hands from freezing and b) allowing you fine muscular control of your fingers so you can manage the clothespins. The other reason I like these gloves is the fingerless portion (the over-layer) can be separated and worn while typing in our cold house.

Once I have put on my parka, hat, and special laundry gloves, I head outside. A full sun day with a breeze will dry almost all laundry no matter how cold it is. Overcast and windy will work pretty well too. No sun and no wind mean that only things like sheets will dry completely. Everything else has to finish on the indoor drying racks. Fortuitously, my clothesline is at right angles to the prevailing north wind. We lucked out here; we put the clothespoles alongside the existing sidewalk. This means I, sometimes, get sun on the front of the garments and wind on the back. If the day is windy, with no sun, I will hang the laundry from the back side of the clothesline so that the wind blows through the garments. This is especially helpful with heavy pants, to have the wind blow down through the legs. Any openings on the garments: sleeves, necklines, legs, pocket flaps; if you can face them into the wind, then do so. The wind will blow into the garment, separating front from back and it will dry far faster. As you hang everything up, shake out wrinkles and crumples and open up legs, sleeves, pockets, and the legs of socks. Two layers of fabric frozen together will take far longer to dry. Having an airspace speeds up the process.

In the summer, I may hang tops by the shoulder seams or by the bottom hem, depending on the garment. In the winter, all tops get hung by the bottom hem as the sleeves, especially the armpit area dry better. When a pullover is hung by the shoulder seams, the sleeves hang down alongside the body of the garment and the underarm area just won’t dry. Regular sweatshirts and pullovers get four clothespins, evenly spaced on the hem, to support the garment. I don’t want to stretch out the hemline. Sweaters get five, seven, or even nine clothespins on the bottom hem to keep it smooth, well supported, and unrippled.

Putting the wash outside in the dead of winter cut my dryer bill down substantially. I only used it when it was raining or snowing or to finish off slightly damp laundry. But I wanted to do more. I knew about indoor clotheslines (Amy Dacyczyn has one in her attic and I saw, while house hunting here in Pa, a few basement clotheslines) but we had no space for one. The drying racks I had seen were tiny and flimsy. And then, there they were. Waiting for me at Wilhelm’s Hardware were an array of Amish made heavy duty, solid wood drying racks of various sizes. The biggest ones had just shy of forty-eight feet of total drying space.

I bought two racks in the largest size for about 115 dollars for the pair. We have had these racks for eight years now. They get used on a regular basis and have held up beautifully. They see some use in the summer when it rains, but they really shine in the winter. It took a few years of use to pay back their initial cost and now they cost me nothing but some time and floor space. Since purchasing my two lovely racks, I have trash picked some others and been given a few racks as well. None of them hold as much as my big racks, but they allow for overflow.

Now that I have a bunch of racks, I can see that there are things to look for. Solid wood construction is at the top of the list. Anything else just won’t hold up. How the rungs are arranged can affect how much clothing you can put on the rack. Tippyness is a big defect. My best trash picked rack is solid wood and is clearly designed to hold underwear and socks. Get the very biggest racks you have space for! Underwear, socks, heavy sweaters, pants; they all take an amazing amount of rack space. Consider that a big clothesline may have 150 feet of linear drying space. You will need several big racks to come close to that amount of room. You also have to have storage space for the folded racks that is easily accessible (so you use them instead of the dryer) but not too much in the way. The biggest racks hold the most clothes. They also take up quite a lot of floor space when in use.

When you go shopping for racks, start with old time, local hardware stores. They are more likely to have well made, wooden racks than Wal-Mart or Lowes will and they can use your business. Antique stores may have old wooden racks too. Ask around; many people have a rack or two tucked away that they inherited when Grandma got her dryer. Solid wood racks can be repaired with new dowels and rubbed down with butcher block oil to restore them. If you have to put butcher block oil on a rack, let it stand for a few weeks before using so nothing gets on your clothes. Lehman’s catalog and the Vermont Country store both sell wooden racks but they are expensive and the shipping for a big one gets costly. Go local and ask around first.

Laundry that goes straight to the racks from the washer gets handled a little differently than laundry that goes on the clothesline. Clotheslines have far more room and it is all in a straight line. Racks hold a lot of garments in a very small space with rungs close together and the bottom-most rungs only inches off of the floor. So if I have two loads, I wash the smaller, lighter stuff first and fill the rack from the bottom up and the inside out. The second, heavier load gets washed last so as to go on the top and outside rungs. Underwear, socks, and napkins go closest to the floor and I will arrange and rearrange until everything is on the rack, without any overlap or crowding. Practice has made me a lot faster in loading a drying rack. I wash most of my laundry inside out to prevent sun and washer fading of the fabric. I put the garments on the rack inside out and then, at the end of the day, I turn the clothes right side out to finish drying overnight. Racks do take more time to dry heavy clothes completely; far more than an outdoor clothesline ever will so be prepared for this. Don’t put away even slightly damp garments as they get a mildowy, musty odor from this practice.

I use the racks to finish drying any wash that is still damp from outside. When the weather is bad, the laundry goes directly onto the racks in our living room. Depending on the item, it may take 12 or more hours to dry, but everything is always dry by morning. The only laundry the racks don’t do well are sheets and large towels. This is a function of acreage, not drying ability. You have to have a huge rack in order to spread out a king size sheet. As large as my racks are, sheets have to be folded over multiple times to fit and then they don’t seem to dry as well. So, I let the sheets wait for better weather.

Eventually, we may set up a clothesline on our Florida room so as to dry sheets, towels, and other large items when the weather is bad. I am flexible in my laundry schedule, I have storage space for some waiting laundry, and the racks let me dry all the regular stuff so this hasn’t really needed to be done. A Florida Room clothesline would give me more flexibility with sheets, fabric yardage and such so I keep revisiting the idea when we have bad weather for days and big stuff piles up.

Exercise, fresh air and savings

So, a fair amount of work to save fifteen bucks or so a month. But hanging clothes outside in the winter isn’t as much work as it would be to earn that money. That money adds up over time. Earning extra money would be taxed. I am not levied an additional tax when I choose to keep more of my income in my pocket. As a side benefit, I get a little exercise walking back and forth, fresh air, and much needed sunshine.

I look at winter laundry as an exercise in mindfulness and goal-setting. How serious am I at achieving financial independence? Do I really want to be able to never set foot off of my property unless I really, really want to? Am I willing to live my beliefs of caring for my environment and not sending dollars to terrorists and heartless corporations? Or am I going to take an easier way, a less organized way, a more costly way that says I don’t want to be bothered with meeting my values; that I don’t believe in them when it takes some time and effort. Winter laundry is a way of saying my goals matter to me. Do your goals matter to you?

Next Week: Pulling the Plug on Television