Why I'll Always Love Clotheslines

For one writer, a clothesline is a reminder of her childhood, her faraway family, and a sense of freedom now lost.

October  2, 2020
Photo by Caitlin Raux Gunther

An object is often worth more than its material form. It can bring with it cultural echoes, family history, and personal memory. In The Things We Treasure, writers, creatives, and design experts tell us about their most priceless possessions—real, imagined, lost, and found—and the irreplaceable stories behind them.

My Brilliant Friend, the first in a quartet of novels by Elena Ferrante, is set in 1950s Naples. Against the backdrop of a neighborhood still reeling from the war, Ferrante paints colorful scenes of ongoing feuds between the local women.

In one:

Lidia would hang out the sheets fresh from the laundry and Melina climbed up on the windowsill and dirtied them with a reed whose tips she had charred in the fire; Lidia passed under her windows and she spit on her head or emptied buckets of water on her.

Like a mid-century Neapolitan Mean Girls, the drama is a little vicious and a little slapstick. It unfolds in the otherwise neutral territory between buildings; a quiet space punctuated by occasional banter among neighbors and zigzagging lines hung with freshly laundered clothes.

Around the same time, across the ocean and IRL, my mother was living in the southwest corner of the Bronx—164th and Grand Concourse, right near Yankee Stadium, as she tells it. She remembers clotheslines hanging in the courtyard between buildings, beneath which kids would play handball and double Dutch. She remembers clotheslines dangling in the alley and a neighbor whom they called “Sally in the Alley.”

“But why?” I recently asked her.

She wasn’t sure. “Her apartment faced it, and she would sit there in the window. Maybe she wanted to get air. Or she enjoyed watching the kids play.”

I pictured my mother, a tomboy with a cereal bowl haircut—her mother administered haircuts to all four of her children using an upside-down bowl, rendering the bangs painfully short but undeniably even—skipping rope while Sally sat by the window, clothes fluttering high above.

For many, clotheslines evoke an urban skyline. Peruse the hashtag #clotheslinesofinstagram and you’ll find plenty of them hanging before cream-colored buildings in Venice and weathered patinas in Istanbul. There’s even an account dedicated entirely to the clotheslines of New York City.

But when I picture clotheslines, I can’t help seeing the countryside—specifically, where I’m from in upstate New York. In my rural town—with one traffic light, fewer than 1,000 residents, and a single store that doubles as the post office—clotheslines hang in the background of many of my childhood stories.

In one: We’re at my grandparents’ house, just down the road from ours, on a stretch of land that hugs a pond filled with silvery pickerel and lily pads. I’m prancing near the edge of the lawn, where dry, scratchy wheat brushes my legs and makes them itchy.

I spot white sheets hanging from a clothesline next to a wild, overgrown garden. I dash over and weave in between the fresh linens. I emerge at the end and come face to face, or face to beak, with a goose—and she’s mad. Before I recognize the gaggle of baby geese huddled by her tail feathers, her wings spread and rise to attack mode. I turn instantly and, heart racing, dart back to the safety of grown-ups.

At home, we had a dryer, which we were thankful for, but in the summertime, when our extended family gathered at my paternal grandparents’, the dog days were decorated with lines of garments swaying in the breeze.

In Paris, where I now live, my daughter, Mimi, has just learned to walk. The moment we leave our apartment, I clasp her tiny hand so tight that should she stumble, she’d barely touch the ground. I have become my own version of the protective mama goose.

Such is life for a parent in the city. The chasm between here and where I’m from has only become deeper during the pandemic. Those sun-warmed sheets feel so far from my neighborhood on Paris’ right bank, where there’s not a clothesline to be seen. Living in a city—in a foreign country, no less—never felt so heavy.

I miss the molasses-slow moments of admiring a carefully arranged laundry line, with shirts clasped by the shoulders and pants hung upside down, or smelling bedsheets with a hint of fresh-cut grass.

The chasm between here and where I’m from has only become deeper during the pandemic. Those sun-warmed sheets feel so far from my neighborhood on Paris’ right bank, where there’s not a clothesline to be seen. Living in a city—in a foreign country, no less—never felt so heavy.

The writer's husband's family home in Ses Salines, Mallorca Photo by Caitlin Gunther

Recently, I traveled to Mallorca to visit my in-laws. At their home in the countryside, on the southwest corner of the island, the world seems unchanged: a palate of warm greens and blues, the landscape shrouded by olive and lemon trees, dotted by occasional cacti. The cloudless blue sky, smooth and clear like a rubber balloon; the dusty golden earth; the inescapable heat.

The sounds were the same as always, too: roosters crowing with the sunrise and cicadas roaring through the afternoon. Occasionally, a chorus of dogs barked in the distance.

On the second evening, as the sun crept toward the horizon and the sky changed from blue to pink, I spied a clothesline behind the house, hanging perfectly still against a celestial glow. My father-in-law, Bertrand, had clipped some of our clean clothes to dry, mixing our garments with theirs—Mimi’s cotton onesies right by my mother-in-law’s tie-dyed caftans.

I miss the molasses-slow moments of admiring a carefully arranged laundry line, with shirts clasped by the shoulders and pants hung upside down, or smelling bedsheets with a hint of fresh-cut grass.

Here, there were no angry geese or fields of scratchy wheat. It wasn’t my home, but it felt good to escape the city. Time slowed. I began to notice things.

Barefoot, I padded over to return the favor, slowly unclipping each item and lying them gently in a pile on the warm stone floor.

All was calm in the golden twilight. Nearby, Bertrand pulled Mimi in a tiny red wagon as they went to feed the chickens. I carefully folded each garment, taking a moment to enjoy the scent of their sun-dried clean.

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Caitlin is a Paris-based writer. She wrote about food and wine while living in Madrid after college, and had a brief career as a lawyer before moving back to Spain to work in restaurants and attend culinary courses at the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastian. She has worked or staged at Mina, Nerua and Septime. Caitlin is currently working on her first memoir about working in Michelin-starred restaurants in Bilbao. Follow her on Insta at @caitlinrauxgunther


susan G. October 7, 2020
Lovely article, and tipping the memories. In my early years, in a house in the suburbs with a large back yard, there was no drier (and a wringer washer). Clothes hung on the clothes line. My friends and I liked to walk in between the layers of sheets, sort of bush wacking. I think we even used the empty clothes line to hang a blanket and secure it for a tent overnight. Excited little girls -- we didn't last long after dark.
Now, there's a mini clothes line next to my basement dryer, and a maple wood rack on a deck. Not often used due to rain and cloudy or humid days, but still waiting for clothes and linens to be given their fresh air.
Arati M. October 7, 2020
It’s so lovely to read through your memories, Susan!
Caitlin G. October 8, 2020
thank you, Susan!
DMStenlake October 5, 2020
We live in a suburb of Los Angeles near Santa Monica (the beach) I use our clothesline twice weekly for clothes drying and when the dryer stopped drying I had the best loofah towels! I’m probably the only person in this area to use a clothesline. I remember my mom hanging the sheets and then, using a pole that dad notched, raised the sheets to the breeze. That only happened in the late spring and summer in the Midwest. Great memories.
Caitlin G. October 6, 2020
Loofah towels! Haha, love that
sharon October 5, 2020
I live on 5 acres in se Michigan- when ever i can my sheets are hung on the line to dry. ido not care what detergent is used, no matter the supposed fragrance, the fragrance,scent- of line- dried sheets- it is such a clean sun-filled scent.and to hang your night-wear out there- that scent with the sheets- very comforting- can not bottle it !!
Caitlin G. October 6, 2020
Too true!
May October 2, 2020
I grew up in the suburbs and pretty much everyone had a clothesline. Sometimes two! My parents didn't get a dryer until I was in college. Our neighborhood is really sunny most of the year and laundry dries in about 30 minutes in the summer. The dryer was for emergencies. I still hang up my laundry even though I'm now in a studio apartment. :-D
Arati M. October 2, 2020
Nothing quite like the scent of sun-drenched clothes and linens...
AntoniaJames October 5, 2020
Yes, the smell of freshly air-dried clothes is wonderful. I've always dried my clothes outside, primarily for environmental reasons, but that great fresh air smell is quite a bonus. It does take a bit more time to hang everything up, compared to just throwing it in the dryer, but it's worth it!

I have a marvelous maple rack, which is quite efficient, especially in this little urban village where I now live. (I like that I can just pick it up and move it up to the porch when the occasional afternoon storm blows in without warning.) We too are in a dry climate - high plains near Colorado's front range - where on a typical day, my entire rack, except perhaps the waistbands on jeans, etc., dry in the time it takes to run my second load on the express cycle (30 minutes). Many lighter items take 10 - 15 minutes, if that. ;o)

P.S. Here is the rack, which I highly recommend: Great if you have a courtyard. I'd use it even if I had a large yard.
Arati M. October 6, 2020
That's a great rack recommendation (I'm actually looking for one!), Antonia, thank you for that.