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Washing Lines and Clothes Pegs

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What is it about washing billowing in the breeze on a washing line?

Is it not just so gloriously suburban and romantic, to see white towelling nappies strung out in rows, telling us that this is a house where a baby is loved and cared for? Lots of little tee-shirts with Mickey Mouse and Superman indicating a lively three-year-old; lacy underwear; long underpants; towels and sheets; football strip; it's so uninhibited, and they all tell volumes about the occupants of the house they are adorning.

Rhymes from our childhood call images of it to mind:

The maid was in the garden, hanging out the clothes
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose.
She made such a commotion that little Jenny Wren
Came down into the garden and pegged it on again.
What's the time? - Half past nine
Hang your knickers on the line.
When they're dry, bring them in
And iron them with the rolling pin

This theme is also repeated in other cultures. But why?

  • Were we all pushed out into the garden in our prams as babies to watch the gaily-coloured garlands of washing dancing in the breeze?

  • Is it that there is something reassuring about linen being washed and cared for?

  • Is it the pleasing sight of white sheets waving in the wind against a background of grass and trees with daffodils or roses flowering (an image which so often inspires the imagination of washing powder advertisers)?

  • Is it the thought of snuggling down in a bed, or pulling on a shirt which exudes the fragrance of fresh air?

  • Is it the feeling of abandon and unadulterated joy we share with the clothes as they regally wave and happily flap about?

It is probably a mixture of all of these, the impressions which invoke the childhood we had (or would have liked to have had) coupled with the fact that mothers or, in past centuries, maids and washerwomen, spent many hours1 doing the washing, while at the same time entertaining the small children of the household.

Traditional Equipment

Below is a quick look at some of the technology which has been with us since time immemorial.

The Washing Line

Other than a big rock, this is the one of the most basic pieces of equipment for drying clothes. No more than a length of line, from which the freshly washed clothes may be hung in the great outdoors.

A long line, stretching across the garden is far more satisfying than the rotary type of line which can be hidden away in the garage when not in use, leaving just a little hole in the lawn. Admittedly, the advantages of this newer type of line are numerous, for example there isn't as far to walk if there is a whole basket to hang out, and the more shameful items can be hidden in the middle. Also many people's gardens are so tiny that this system saves space. However, the air doesn't seem to get to all the washing properly and it can be boring to be practical.

In France and Belgium the lines are strung at two levels, a lower line for the 'smalls' being very useful and saving space. Also fun for children who like to help.

The Dryer

In upstairs flats, on the Continent (mainland Europe), there may still have a line fixed in front of the window. Older parts of southern Europe still have the washing lines strung across the street, and where the houses are built in blocks, each family will have a line on pulleys, which reach across the courtyard. Heaven help them if someone dropped something down six floors into the dustbins!

Failing this, there may be a balcony to stand a clothes horse or similar stand on for the washing to dry in the fresh air. The last resort is to stand the dryer near an open window.

The Clothes Prop

A long pole with a nail knocked in near the top or with a 'V' cut out of the very top, the clothes prop is indispensable in Britain because of the size of the double sheets (a subject which would go too far if included in this entry).

When you have hung all the washing on the line, you hook the clothes prop under the line somewhere near the middle and use the prop to raise the line to make a further 'post' and give the washing even more room to play.

Clothes Pegs

Clothes pegs can be made of wood or plastic. The wooden ones can be a primitive stick with a slit in the end which is pushed over the washing to fix it to the line, or are in two pieces with a spring, so that they open and then pinch the washing to the line. The plastic ones are of the latter design.

The advantage of plastic pegs is that they do not discolour when wet. The disadvantage is that they can break easily. Wooden pegs, on the other hand, are more durable, but get black and stain the washing if left out in the rain, or in contact with wet clothes, for too long. The type with the spring may stain light coloured clothes with rust if it rains while your washing is out on the line.

The ultimate choice is a matter of personal taste. In all cases, it is best to buy a large amount of pegs and replace them frequently.

A box of pegs was a favourite toy with small children in wartime and can still provide hours of pleasure. The type with the spring may be less suitable as little fingers could get pinched; that is also some of the fun, however.

Modern Household Technology

A whirlwind tour of the two labour saving devices which have impacted most on washing clothes in the past 50 years.

Washing Machines

Washing machines are an absolute boon, and really replace hours of back-breaking work out of the housewife or husband's weekly chores. A washing machine is simply a drum into which clothes, water, and washing powder are put and spun round. Then the dirty water is removed, fresh put in and the clothes rinsed. However, washing clothes is a really big topic and will not be covered in any more detail here.

Tumble Dryers

Tumble dryers, on the other hand, take a similar drum but pass hot air over the clothes, evaporating the water. The air is expelled, with the water vapour, and so the clothes dry. This constant heating of the incoming air does mean that tumble dryers are the greatest consumers of electricity in the home, and when belts are being tightened, they are a good place to start economising.

Why repress the atmosphere which has so many of the reassuring homely elements missing in today's hectic life? Why not take those ten minutes to peg out the washing, rather than shoving it in the dryer?

This relieves the strain on the environment on two counts; the tumble dryer is using less electricity and you are saving on chemicals in the wash, such as softener or perfumed washing powders (nothing is more natural than plain fresh air and no fragrance more suited to clean laundry).

Techniques for Hanging out the Washing

If hung up properly, much of the washing will require no further ironing. All laundry should be hung as flat as possible, and not folded over the line. With good strong pegs, it is quite feasible to place the hem of the article along the line (without folding it over) and to peg along the hem. A good quality tee-shirt or sweat-shirt will require no more than a little rubbing at the points where the pegs made their impression and can be folded up and put straight away.

There should be sufficient pegs to hang everything individually - ie, not to use one peg for the end of one shirt and the beginning of the next. Overcrowded washing lines can also be avoided by washing little and often, which is less of a strain on the textiles, too, as it causes less creasing. With the method described above, at least three pegs are required for a tee-shirt or shirt. Jersey articles should not be stretched, but hung loosely, as they tend to get wider and short during washing. Hanging them like this will help them regain their length. Woven articles, however, should be stretched horizontally as well as vertically and pegged by the hem, so that they are taken up by the wind and blown out into a bag, which is as good as being ironed.

Towels and sheets benefit best from being hung out as a 'bag', too. Take the corners and peg one side along the line, fold the opposite side up to meet it and peg well along the two sides, leaving a space in the middle where you only peg one of the sides. Towels will rub against themselves and come up really fluffy, sheets will be stretched and be ready for folding up straight from the line.

Many good quality cottons and all cotton mixes will be ready to wear or to put straight away after their stint on our solar-powered, environment friendly washing line. Any impressions made at the corners or along the bottom by the clothes pegs can be removed by loosening the fibres in the affected area, taking a small piece of the cloth near the mark in each hand and rubbing together.

Rain, Wind, Sun and Bird Droppings

The Sun, of course, dries the washing. It also has bleaching properties. Stains will sometimes just disappear miraculously, even if they didn't come out in the wash. However, the sun alone will just parch the clothes and petrify them with all their creases.

It's the wind that pulls the garments and linen back into shape. This is why it is important to hang everything out as flat as possible. Even without sun, washing will dry in the wind.

Rain does not harm the washing at all. It is good, soft water, better than the kind that comes out of the tap, in most places. In fact, white tee-shirts in particular seem to acquire a sort of creamy thickness if left out in the rain, coming up beautifully smooth if they subsequently dry in the wind.

Large areas of white (sheets and tablecloths) are the favourites of the birds in late summer. They help themselves to elderberries or blackcurrants and then fly over the washing lines with their purple ammunition having competitions and doing target practice on them. Birds may even take to sitting on the lines with similar results at other times of the year. This is a warning, as unfortunately there is practically no successful method of preventing it!

So - what are you waiting for? Let's make this world a prettier place and let it all hang out!

1At the end of the 19th Century, in an average house, a whole day was devoted to washing clothes every week.

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