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Atlantic Canadians love to go the line

By Wanita Bates

Clothes… they separate us from animals.

But who first decided to hang out their dirty laundry? Was it one of Cleopatra’s servants, who beat the royal dirt out of a gown by the edge of the Nile and then strung it up to dry? Although there were no hieroglyphs of great lines of wash ever found in ancient pyramids, it’s a fact—hanging out the wash has been around for a long time.

Even with modern, slimmed-down, super energy-efficient clothes dryers, the trip to the clothesline is a way of life that many people cling to. And it seems that baskets can hold a lot more than just wet clothes. They are laden with memories of mother or grandmother on wash day.

I have a photograph of my grandmother from the late 1920s. Her name is Margaret Poulter, and she’s sitting on an apple basket filled with wet clothes.

She looks to be in her late teens. Her family owned a boarding house and since she was the only girl in a family of boys, the wash day duties must have fallen on her.

She must have not minded wash day, since she went on to marry John Bates and have 18 children. Her clothesline was built over the shed at the back of the house. I remember playing in the yard and hearing the squeal of the pulleys on the clothesline, then looking up to see Granny putting out the clothes.

She’d yell down and ask, “What are you up to?” (She raised 18 kids, remember, and so knew we had to be up to something.) Secretly we hoped something would fall off the line on the ground so we could run it up to her, but it never did. Gram’s clotheslines were hung with precision and purpose. Women like my grandmother were the real pioneers of going on-line.

In some places in Canada, clotheslines are reserved strictly for fine weather use. Here in Newfoundland, however, hanging out the wash is season-less. A friend of mine from Bonavista Bay remembers her Nan taking the clothes off the line in the wintertime and standing them on the linoleum floor in the kitchen to thaw out. They looked like huge puppets until the heat of the wood stove began to thaw them out. Then the clothes would make a noise like air escaping out of a balloon, and they’d topple over.

Don’t get me wrong; hanging clothes out, no matter what the weather, is more work than tossing wet clothes into the dryer and adding one of those spring-scented anti-cling sheets. But oh, the rewards are so great. First, you conserve energy and save money on your electricity bill; second, it’s a great way to exercise. Is there anything heavier than a load of wet towels? Then there’s the weather aspect. When you get that feeling that it’s going to be a great day on clothes, you’re one little degree away from being a meteorologist.

However, the greatest reward of using your clothesline is the fresh, clean smell. As my friend Jan says, “When you bring the clothes into the house after they’ve dried, it’s like bringing in a big basketful of flowers.”

She would know. She is a certified clothesline expert who hangs clothes out all year-round and thinks people who use dryers are cheats. She also believes that hanging out the wash is not only doing something useful, but you also get a little bit of quiet daydream time for yourself.

To some the wash is a chore, while to others it’s an opportunity. I’ll admit I love getting a look at the way people air their dirty laundry.

While out for a drive last year, I met a woman named Jean Legrow. She is 76 years old and lives in Bauline, a tiny outport perched on the edge of the North Atlantic about a half-hour drive north of St. John’s. She had three clotheslines around her house and was busy taking some underwear off a tiny side line. Jean Legrow has had some practice; she’s been doing laundry at her house for 55 years now. Her clothes looked like they’d been organized and colour-coded before they ever hit the outside line. I asked if she was hiding her underwear away. Her reply: “Naturally, I wouldn’t put underwear on the front line. I usually block the underwear off with the towels.”

Everything has its place. The side-line is for unmentionables, the front line is for towels, sweatshirts and pants, and at the back of her house, a clothesline strung high off the ground is for quilts and sheets.

The houses in the small outports of Newfoundland are built tight together and each house has its own clothesline, as though the lines of clothes connect the houses together. I call it a laundryscape.

The clotheslines, though beautiful to look at, can be a tough taskmaster. For some people, once the clothes are on the line, the search for dark clouds on the horizon begins. Is that rain? Then, as if you are racing the raindrops home, there is a mad dash to spare your laundry from a soaking.


If the clothes get wet again, it’s just another rinse cycle, this one courtesy of Mother Nature.

There is something about the simple technology of a rope and a clothespin. However, I’ve discovered that there are not only different techniques for hanging your clothes out to dry, there’s fancy terminology to go with them.

Are you a joiner, or a separator? These are terms clothesline connoisseurs know well. A joiner will overlap the clothes as they go on the line and use shared clothespins, while a separator makes sure each piece of clothing gets its own clothespins.

I’m a joiner, like my mother and my grandmother before me. And I believe this is hereditary, like being able to make gravy without lumps.

There are no wars being fought over which is the best way, but there is subtle propaganda. A separator will tell you that a joiner’s clothes are not fully dry where the clothespins were. And a joiner will tell you that a separator wastes space and clothespins on their line. Who do you believe?

There is one thing that both separators and joiners can agree on—and that’s the flick! This is when you take your clothes and give them a quick snap to shake the wrinkles out of them before you hang them on the line. I don’t know if there have been any scientific tests done on the flick, but watch anyone who knows their way around a clothesline. They will always flick each item before it gets hung up.

My appreciation for the clothesline has gone from aesthetic to practical. And I have learned a couple of clothesline truths: if you use plastic clothespins and they break, you toss them in the garbage, but if you have the old wooden clothespins, you can put them back together.

As for that old complaint about scratchy, stiff clothes, I’m told that if there is a bit of wind blowing on your clothes, they won’t dry hard.

So just remember, the flick releases the creases, and whether you are a joiner or a separator, the answer is always blowing in the wind.

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