Laundry strung above Post Alley, Seattle

Laundry strung above Post Alley, Seattle


What a surprise to stumble upon this scene in Post Alley, just one “street” up from the Pike Place Market in Seattle.  It immediately brought to mind the narrow streets of Europe’s old towns and the tenements of New York City, olden days when it would have been completely normal to see the family’s laundry strung on clotheslines that criss-crossed the street, out the apartment windows, high over the dank ground below.

The laundry was the background for Jacob Riis's famous photo, "Bandits' Roost, Lower East Side, NYC, 1888" (collection Museum of the City of New York)

The laundry was the background for Jacob Riis’s famous photo, “Bandits’ Roost, Lower East Side, NYC, 1888” (collection Museum of the City of New York)

I loved seeing the pegged clothes, all white for some reason, on high above one of the most heavily touristed Seattle areas.  I think this idea should spread.

Ink and watercolor sketch of hanging laundry

Ink and watercolor sketch of hanging laundry

Line-drying the laundry

Line-drying the laundry

Judith Kitchen, in Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate, described line-dried laundry as “folded sunshine.”  Isn’t that an apt metaphor!  My Dad still does his weekly Monday laundry the old-fashioned way.  He uses the old wringer Maytag in the dank basement.  Then hangs his wash out on a line to dry in the summer sun and breeze.  Folded sunshine indeed!

Maytag in the basement

Maytag in the basement

My dad hanging out the clothes

My dad hanging out the clothes

Wooden clothespins in an old plastic ice-cream bucket

Wooden clothespins in an old plastic ice-cream bucket

This is the way we wash our clothes . . .

This is the way we wash our clothes . . .

Looking through the kitchen window at the wash

Looking through the kitchen window at the wash

We didn’t call it “laundry” back in the day; we called it “the wash.”  The following poem could have been written by a ghostly twin, so true are the images to my memories of wash days:

The Wash
by Sarah Getty

A round white troll with a black, greasy
heart shuddered and hummed “Diogenes,
Diogenes,” while it sloshed the wash.
It stayed in the basement, a cave-dank
place I could only like on Mondays,
helping mother.  My job was stirring
the rinse.  The troll hummed.  Its wringer stuck
out each piece of laundry like a tongue–

socks, aprons, Daddy’s shirts, my brother’s
funny (I see London) underpants.
The whole family came past, mashed flat
as Bugs Bunny pancaked by a train.
They flopped into the rinse tub and learned
to swim, relaxing, almost arms and legs
again. I helped the transformation
with a stick we picked up one summer

at the lake.  Wave-peeled, worn to gray, inch
thick, it was a first rate stirring stick.
Apprenticed on my stool, I sang a rhyme
of Simple Simon gone afishing
and poked the clothes around the cauldron
and around.  The wringer was risky.
Touch it with just your fingertip,
it would pull you in and spit you out

flat as a dishrag.  It grabbed Mother
once–rolled her arm right to the elbow.
But she kept her head, flipped the lever
to reverse, and got her arm back, pretty
and round as new.  This was a story
from Before.  Still, I seemed to see it–
my mother brave as a movie star,
the flattened arm pumping up again,

like Popeye’s.  I fished out the rinsing
swimmers, one by one.  Mother fed them
back to the wringer and they flopped, flat,
into baskets.  Then the machine peed
right on the floor; the foamy water
curled around the drain and gurgled down.
Mother, under the slanting basement
doors, where it was darkest, reached up that

miraculous arm and raised the lid.
Sunlight fell down the stairs, shouting
“This way out!”  There was the day, an Easter
egg cut-out of grass and trees and sky.
Mother lugged the baskets up.  Too short
to reach the clothesline, I would slide down
the bulkhead or sit and drum my heels
to aggravate the troll (Who’s that trit-

trotting…) and watch.  Thus I learned the rules
of hanging clothes: Shirts went upside down,
pinned at the placket and seams.  Sheets hung
like hammocks; socks were a toe-bitten
row.  Underpants, indecently mixed,
flapped chainwise, cheek to cheek.  Mother
took hold of the clothespole like a knight
couching his lance and propped the sagging

line up high, to catch the wind.  We all
were airborne then, sleeves puffed out round
as sausages, bottoms billowing,
legs in arabesque.  Our heaviness
was scattered into air, our secrets
bleached back to white.  Mother stood easing
her back and smiled, queen of the backyard
and all that flapping crowd.  For a week

now, each day, we’d put on this jubilee,
walk inside it, wash with it, and sleep
in its sweetness.  At night, best of all,
I’d see with closed eyes the sheets aloft,
pajamas dancing, pillow cases
shaking out white signals in the sun,
and my mother with the basket, bent
and then rising, stretching up her arms.


Laundry hung from temporary clotheslines in my side yard

It’s quite rainy in Seattle in Spring, but when it’s not, Nature’s mellow temperature calls me to hang my laundry outside.  There’s nothing like the fresh smell of line-dried clothes!

I was recently reading Into the Garden with Charles: A Memoir by Clyde Phillip Wachsberger, and I came across these wonderful passages about laundry:

“Line drying has always been one of my special pleasures. . . . I loved those laundry days, the old-fashionedness of it, the idea we were doing something the way it had been done for hundreds of years.”

“I cherished my laundry mornings, any day bright enough for drying.  I loved the feel of damp fabric as I clipped it into place, the differing textures of terry cloth and cotton and linen, the fresh-washed wet smell, the glaring brightness of morning sun on white T-shirts and the shadow-puppet patterns of my hands clothespinning shirt shoulders into place.  I loved the sound of the smart flaps of shirts in the wind, the trapeze artist postures that long-sleeved shirts froze into in winter, the hot sun-baked smell when the laundry was collected.”

“I savored the difference between the smell of winter-dried laundry, almost sunburnt, and summer-dried, fragrant from the garden.  Carrying in laundry on a blustery March day was like bringing sunshine into the house.”

It doesn’t even seem like work when doing laundry feeds your senses like this!

The laundry in my side yard

Socks pinned to the line

Watercolor sketch of Laundry Day

Inspiration for my watercolor sketch, a painting by John Singer Sargent, “La Biancheria,” 1910

“Even wash day in Normandy is achingly chic.” — Vivian Swift, laundry day pages from the book, Le Road Trip

Airing Out Quilts

June 5, 2011

Airing out the winter quilts

Air-freshened quilts

A sure sign of spring — taking advantage of a sunny day to air out the quilts that have been on our bed this winter.  I put these quilts away and found another one to use as we head toward summer.  Still using flannel sheets!

A neighbor's weathered clothes lines and clothes pins

Pegged out to dry

Vintage clip-on earrings

My friend Carol gave me some of her mother’s vintage clip-on earrings.  I don’t wear earrings, but found some unconventional ways to use them.  I love the idea of re-purposing old things to extend their useful life.

Clip-on earrings make lovely scarf clips or brooches.  Or you can use them as little “clothespins” to hang paper cards, photos, magazine clippings that you keep for inspiration or future projects.

Earring used as a scarf embellishment.

Earring used as a scarf clip

Earring used to clip a card to a twine clothesline