Here is a common sight in our home: my British clothes airers, lifting our laundry up to the Texas sun.
I brought these clothes racks with us when we moved, on the advice of some American expat friends who warned me that if I had grown to love my clothes airers (I had), I should bring them with me, because I might not find any like them on this side of the pond. It’s true – I checked online and struggled to find any drying racks which had the capacity to do such serious duty as these do. I think most American drying racks are intended just for a few delicate items, not whole loads of a family’s laundry.
These airers represent one of the unshakable habits I acquired while living in the UK and brought back with me – hanging clothing to dry. It started as a practical necessity but has become a habit I value and even enjoy.
You see, in my life before, I always had access to a tumble dryer and never considered not using it, other than for delicate items that needed air drying. But when I started out at Oxford, in student accommodation with coin laundry facilities, I quickly opted to pinch my pennies and air dry my clothes by hanging them in my room; most people I knew did the same.
At first, this actually made me uncomfortable. If you aren’t used to hanging clothes up to dry, and if they only ever reside in a closet, laundry basket, or concealed in the washing machine or dryer, they effectively assume the status of being private. They are never seen except when worn, and this makes unworn clothes seem, all of them, ‘unmentionable’. I felt as much awkwardness hanging up jeans or a sweater in public view as I did underwear. Was it inappropriate to have guests over when there was laundry hanging out? I also worried about politeness. Was leaving laundry out a discourtesy, a sign of not making even the most basic effort to prepare your home to receive others?
Eventually I saw that hanging laundry to dry indoors, in whatever space was available, was normal. And indeed in all my time in the UK, I never saw it to be anything but normal – laundry hanging in students’ single rooms, on the radiators in the dining rooms of shared houses, in the living rooms and hallways of London flats.
Not having a tumble dryer is one of those ‘inconveniences’ which Americans often can’t imagine at first, but which I found – like so many Europeans – hardly worth thinking about once I saw it as normal. Indeed, practically speaking, I enjoyed not having my clothes shrink unexpectedly in the dryer, or having elastic melted, or scraping handfuls of lint out of the trap and wondering how my clothes could still be intact after losing so much fibre. I felt my clothes lasted longer for not being tumble dried, and since I was on a tight budget I appreciated their greater longevity.
But the final beauty of hanging clothes to dry is precisely that exposure of one’s personal effects which made me so uncomfortable at first. On the contrary, now it’s a relief not to feel that sense of constraint. It is so cumbersome to feel that you must tidy away all evidence of household chores in order to receive guests, that you must give the impression that the routines of daily cleanliness happen by magic. It is lonely to feel that guests must never see your laundry. Whereas it is a great relief to stop minding if your washing is on display, and reassuring when dinner at a friend’s home is quietly presided over by the same bedecked clothes-horse that decorates your own living space. Laundry hanging to dry signals that all is well in that home; mundane routines continue. And for me, now, since laundry is one of the only household tasks I frequently manage to accomplish, it also signals rest – the work of that day’s washing is done.