There’s something satisfying about watching laundry drying out in the sun. From the shade, where it’s comfortable and cool. Once, a long time ago, they hung on clotheslines stretched out between poles in the back garden. Sometimes they flapped in the breeze, straining the lines taut. But you didn’t worry while the sun blazed hot upon them still.

I’m not one of those people who somehow enjoy household chores and cleaning. I can do them well, mind you. Although this was more due to having it beaten into me by navy training, than more traditional feminine upbringing. And I liked the result of competently done chores. It’s only that the process to get there – perfectly – is just so, so tedious.

But of all the tedious chores, I liked doing the laundry. It was a thing I pondered surprisingly often, as I contemplated the laundry hung out to dry. Of course, as a woman I meant doing the laundry the modern way, with an electric washing machine, as Hans Rosling so eloquently described in his TED talk. I discovered this when I went to university, where I had to wash my laundry by hand with a bar soap. My peers from more rural areas took it in stride, but urban me struggled with how time consuming the chore became.

From that time onward, I thought that the washing machine is perhaps among the best home appliances to ever be invented – if not the best. And perhaps, I liked watching laundry dry for the same reason – the sun was doing the work for me. And it even added that lovely sun-dried smell at the end.

White laundry hanging on clotheslines in a tropical yard, viewed between the trunks of palm trees.
Photo by Frames For Your Heart on Unsplash

More machines, more prestige

Paradoxically, my favourite part of doing the laundry was also my least favourite. On the equator, a day can be sunny for hours and then turn suddenly to torrential downpour. The mad rush to find empty laundry baskets, cursing prior laziness that meant they were still full. The panicked sprint to take down the laundry from the line, trying to be faster than the sky.

But the clotheslines eventually gave way to a new invention, the drying rack. It was more compact, so you needed less space in order to dry the same load of laundry. As suburban yards and gardens shrank in size, the drying rack became popular immediately. The wheeled version was especially convenient. Combined with a suitably sized covered porch, this reduced the panic, as you now only needed enough time to wheel it in under the porch.

Still, whenever I had to resort to this, watching the laundry dry became considerably less satisfying. There was no flapping in the breeze, not even the sheets and towels. The air becomes incredibly humid in the rain, and it felt as though the clothes would get more damp than when they came out of the washing machine somehow. If you had done the laundry late in the day, you knew the clothes might get a musty smell overnight.

On TV, we watched sitcoms where the people in temperate countries simply stuffed their laundry into extravagant machines called the dryer. A machine just to dry one’s clothes, so that you didn’t even have to do the chore of hanging them out to dry! Why, how much electricity it must use!

And indeed, dryers are expensive machines, and back then they used a lot of energy. Surely, only posh people would have one. After all, even rural people dry their laundry on the line, but only people in high rises used the dryer machine.

Red and white towels hung to dry on a drying rack indoors. The sun is shining into the space and illuminating the laundry.
Photo by Victor Kravchenko on Unsplash

The grass is not greener on the other side

Eventually, I moved into a condo of my own. The location is fantastic, so I didn’t mind that it had no balcony. Given its posh location, I wasn’t too surprised that the unit came with a front-loading machine (more expensive than a top loading machine), and a dryer. A dryer! What a luxury!

It was also practical, since there was nowhere to hang your laundry out to dry. Moreover, in some circles, apartment blocks where people used their balcony for drying laundry are looked down upon. It brings the property values down, they claimed, as if property values mattered more for lived-in homes than doing regular chores sensibly and affordably.

But of course, I couldn’t bring myself to use the extravagant machine except for the occasional load of bed linens, which were too large to hang on the indoor drying rack that I obtained from IKEA. Why waste the electricity, you know?

And it still pleased me to watch the laundry dry on my drying rack. The tactile feel of the chore, having to handle the clothing forced me to be in the moment, noticing and appreciating the clothes that I chose and liked. It’s not easy for me to notice such details.

But I did grow to understand that the dryer machine in cramped apartment living isn’t a thing of poshness. Rather, it was a necessity arising from living space that had shrunk even more. My drying rack, when I used it, stands in my living room, forcing me to use the dining table as a sitting area while the laundry dries.

Washing machine and dryer in a laundry alcove inside a house. The open door goes to a corridor by the stairs.
Photo by Point3D Commercial Imaging Ltd. on Unsplash

More leisure, more prestige

As I embarked on more independent travel, I found myself needing to do the laundry but not having my machines. No matter, I could use the laundromat. It would be just like doing the laundry and using the dryer at home, except with shared machines.

But it wasn’t. For I had no choice but to watch the laundry dry, or at least remember when to return to the laundromat. I thought of the many people who use the laundromat regularly. Perhaps because they lived in a cramped urban apartment but couldn’t afford to buy a drying machine. Perhaps because they only had a room in an apartment shared with many others.

Doing the laundry wasn’t a favourite chore anymore, when you’re chained to a laundromat rather than being able to do other housework, or just relax in the comfort of your own home.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not unpleasant. But it’s only a luxury to outsource your labour to a machine, if it liberated free time for more enjoyable things. When you’re forced to it as a means to make meagre conditions liveable, it doesn’t feel so convenient anymore. Having to go out to another place to do such a regular chore as laundry, also feels kind of like regressing to the times when you had to go to the river.

Looking down the aisle in a laundromat, flanked by front loaded washing machines and dryers in metal-grey. Empty laundry trolleys are in front some of the machines.
Photo by Bianca Jordan on Unsplash

Re-thinking luxury

But I have both washing machine and dryer in the convenience of my own apartment. It is luxury indeed.

Yet, I do sometimes think back with nostalgia to when I had to hang out clothes to dry on the line. When the dry laundry had the smell of the sun. And the ozone smell of rain when I ran to rescue it from the downpour.

Now, as urbanisation rates increase rapidly, and high rises become common, I can better appreciate the other kind of luxury I had before. For hanging out laundry in the back yard meant I could do my laundry conveniently at home. And I had the luxury of space in the yard just for laying out the clotheslines. And I had to hurry when it rained, because the house had many rooms, and an upstairs, which I had to cross.

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