Letting it all hang out

A billowing washing line has always made my heart sing. In the great sort-out that’s been going on at home this messy little sketch popped up, reminding me of a summer in France many years ago when I first noticed how butterflies – swallowtails in that particular garden – love to land on anything yellow, sunning themselves as though supping from a giant lake of golden nectar.

The other morning, staying with friends, I woke to that special snap of washing, taken from the line, creases being smartly shaken out and order deftly folded in ready to be carried indoors, lovingly sorted and stacked.

The process of the wash – the sorting, loading, soaping and rinsing, spinning or wringing, the stretching taut and – please don’t rain – hanging out in the air in your own particular way as the fancy takes you at the time: by colour perhaps, or socks in pairs, or all yours together, then all his, doubling up the tea-towels to save space and pegs, or just as it comes this time, are for me small yet far-reaching pleasures.

.Garment families, linen friends clean, dancing together in the air, and somewhere the lost memory of the village laundry, washing pools, pounding with stones, bathing, gossiping – as Homer tells in the Odyssey book 6 –

‘….they took
armloads of clothing to the dusky water,
and trod them in the pits, making a race of it.
All being drubbed, all blemish rinsed away,
they spread them, piece by piece, along the beach
whose pebbles had been laundered by the sea;’

This translation by Robert Fitzgerald, appears in the little book ‘ Washing Lines – a collection of poems‘.

Then there’s the pleasure of the cloth itself, recalling the stories of the patterns maybe, enjoying the feel of the softened cotton, the tamed denim, the smell of damp wool, the texture of silk, noticing where a button’s missing, a hole needs attention.

My thoughts wander further afield to the line recently spotted where a whole refreshed football team flapped and snapped at a piebald pony; to jeans drying over hot balconies; laundry hanging between close buildings in city streets pegged out and hauled in with Heath Robinson mechanics; patterned fabrics scattered on bushes in the bush, their brightness disappearing beneath the burning sun.

And then on to fresh indigo cloth hanging in great loops pulled and wrung from the inky dye pits, and yards of handprinted silk scarves hoisted into the rafters of the printing shed to dry – a temporary luxury tent, a nomad’s dream?  And the miles of cloth being printed and processed in the factories, ready to be cut, stitched, packed, despatched – and eventually laundered.

And on again I go to thoughts of the harvest, maturing and ripening in the sun, of timber seasoning with the necessary time passing, wind and warmth doing their work, of peppers, spices and fruits laid out on cloths to dry and wrinkle – should we have done that with those puzzlingly voluptuous fresh dates I’d brought with me?

And back round to the friends’ garden – where, on planks, cups, freshly thrown and slipped are drying in the air, waiting for paintbrush and kiln. And from where I returned home cradling a blueblack vase, intense and secretly patterned, made by David Garland and, to put in it,  a magnificent bunch of bright bright garden flowers from Sarah, ready to be painted…

In my own modest yard washing hangs on metal arms from an assortment of birdie pegs – bound to give the optimistic cloth-lover in me a joke and a smile as I catch a glimpse.

Thanks to Alan, Molly, Lola Milne for the photograph of the folded fabrics and Ken Skalski for the archive photograph of the Collier Campbell washing line.

18 thoughts on “Letting it all hang out

  1. Your thoughts remind me of the beautiful communal laundry in a near abandoned village in the sierra of Madrid. All rough cut granite worn smooth in places by the stream running through it. The water was channeled so that it ran around the rectangular “scrubbing” stones and out into the rinsing pool. There was (had been) a roof supported on posts to shelter washers from the harsh sun and heavy rain. It was the most lovely part of the village!

    • You make a lovely picture of it, Barbara – thank you. I’ve seen quite a few of these communal stone laundries in the villages in West Brittany too, some of which have been restored.


  2. My favourite job for the day is hanging out the washing in our garden in Broadhinton Rd. It is surrounded by trees and bushes and there is often a lot of bird song. It is also the time for gathering fallen apples. It is like being in the country (apart from the aircraft noise)!
    Jenny in SW4

  3. One of my favourite subjects, Sarah! – the drying of laundry on lines. Beautiful post. I’ve been reading Jenny Balfour-Paul’s book about Indigo and admiring her shots of dyers’ drying lines.

    I once owned a house (in suburban West London) with a restrictive covenant on the pegging out of washing. Needless to say, I ignored it, and hung out my white nappy-bunting with pride. Sunshine bleaches and sanitises, of course: the wisdom of old ways. 🙂

  4. Brings back memories of a dusty square in the middle of Calicut, southern India, where a hundred sheets fluttered in the breeze. Mostly white with the occasional blue, the washing lines supported by wooden props. Underneath, laying in the dust, yet more sheets drying in the sun. An amazing sight to come across in the centre of a busy city. x

  5. Laundry, both a chore and a thing of beauty and comfort. I count myself lucky to have had those sheets of yours in my laundry the last time I used a line and pins. Thank you so much for that calming memory. We, here in New Orleans, are doing a larger wash after hurricane Isaac.

  6. Once again you make the (apparently) trivial thing a complex wonder to behold . . . makes me wish I didn’t have a clothes dryer in which to invisibly spin my wet laundry for drying! Thanks for helping me look at life in myriads of different ways. You are beloved, Sarah. xx

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