The Case for Air Drying Your Laundry

This simple household chore can help shrink your carbon footprint.

clothes hanging to dry
Clothes drying above a street in La Spezia, Italy.

Getty Images/Jonathon Davison

It's that time of year again when I step outside my house and wonder why all my neighbors don't have their laundry drying in the sunshine. In most other parts of the world, even crowded cities, laundry lines would be a normal sight, but for some mind-boggling reason, we North Americans persist in using indoor dryers, even when a line does just as fine a job – for free!

So, once again I present my semi-annual post on why you should hang laundry to dry, in hopes that some of you readers will consider embracing this most glorious way of drying clothes. It's not the hassle you think it is. In fact, I'd even say it's pleasurable and convenient for a number of reasons — and it's darn good for the climate.

CleanTechnica described hanging laundry as the "most humdrumiest of daily chores" that also happens to rank "at the top of the list of life choices we small folk can make for its ease and extraordinary, pollution-eliminating effects."

First, let's deal with the myth that hang-drying takes a long time. Unless it's muggy and humid, there's not a huge difference in the amount of time required to dry on a line versus in a machine when the weather is warm and/or breezy. Joe Wachunas, program manager at an Oregon organization advocating for electric transportation, told The New York Times he has "repeatedly timed himself and estimates that hanging a load of laundry takes about eight minutes longer than putting it in the dryer."

All you need is a few hours of hot summer sun and you're set. On cooler sunny days, a morning will do, and in chilly, cloudier weather, a full day is adequate. The point is, if you get the laundry up in the morning when there's no risk of rain, you'll most likely have a perfectly dry load by the end of the afternoon. 

If it is still damp, that's not a problem. You can pop it in the dryer for 10 minutes to finish it off, and you still come out ahead – with that great fresh outdoor smell and a fraction of the energy bill you would've had otherwise. (Full-time dryer usage accounts for 7-8% of a typical American household's energy consumption.)

I hang clothes on indoor folding racks all through the winter, often doing it in the evening before going to bed, which means dry clothes by morning. Be sure to put racks in a well-ventilated area or near a heat source, or set up a fan to keep air moving if you're worried. My mother has a retractable clothesline that stretches across the kitchen and a safe distance above the old wood-burning cookstove. Her clothes dry almost instantly in the winter, thanks to the dry heat. 

snowy laundry
My mother even hangs her laundry outside in winter.

K Martinko

The best practice is to hang items as soon as possible after they finish washing. Don't let wet laundry sit in the washer for long, especially when it's hot because it will start to smell. 

It's a good idea to check the weather to avoid the frustration of having to take the laundry down as soon as it's gone up. That's one advantage to portable racks; they can be moved in and out according to the changing weather.

When it comes to the actual practice of hanging clothes, give each item a vigorous shake before pinning it to a line or draping it on a rack. This straightens it out, gets rid of unnecessary folds and kinks, and reduces stiffness in towels. Adding clothespins to your drying rack is a good idea if it's set up outside, to avoid items blowing away.

Large items can be hung much faster than small ones. If things like bedsheets and tablecloths don't fit on the racks, I drape them over railings or interior doors, where they dry quickly. I usually hang socks in pairs on the line, using a single pin, or if there's a lot, I spread them out on the bottom of the wicker laundry basket and set it in the sun. They dry perfectly there. 

If you have the time, fold clothes as you take them off the line. After all, the job's half-done with the items flattened from hanging, and there are minimal wrinkles. This is because, when the clothes are wet, "the water still in them will work with gravity to pull most wrinkles out."

You may find that you start to enjoy hanging out the laundry. Especially for those of us working from home, having a brief ten-minute interlude in the morning to stand outside on a back deck or balcony and feel the sun and wind on our faces can be wonderfully rejuvenating. 

There's a certain primal satisfaction that comes from outwitting the weather and taking advantage of the sun, as well ask knowing how much money and energy you're saving by avoiding the dryer. Wachunas offered some powerful perspective: "Every time we hang dry our clothes we keep the energy equivalent of three pounds of coal in the ground."

Last but not least, hang-drying is far better for the clothes themselves. They're treated more gently, lose fewer fibers, shrink less, and last longer as a result.