Saturday, 17 August 2013

All The Week To Dry? by Penny Dolan


In Knaresborough, near where I live, is Tentergate, part of the high sloping bank above the River Nidd.

Once it was the open area where cloth from the water-mill was stretched tightly across frames to dry, avoiding shrinkage. 

 The tenters – the fence-like frames – were set in rows across the tenterfield.

The sharp-toothed pegs that held the pieces of cloth so tightly were known, of course, as tenterhooks.

I have been thinking about washing and drying, because a new, long-awaited washing line runs along the length of my lawn, beside my house. One end is fixed to a holly tree and the other to a sturdy young birch and the area is protected from the street by hedges. While the sun smiles on Yorkshire, my washing billows in the wind and the clothes and sheets come back indoors smelling of fresh air.

Before this blissful event, a short double line ran across the small yard just outside the back door. Hidden behind our 1920’s house, the old line was invisible from the street. The washing line was, however, very visible from my workroom. As indicated by the partly working bell panel, this was once the servant’s room so whenever rain dotted the window-pane, she could nip out, rescue the washing and pop back in again to speed on with her other duties.

My renewed interest in washing lines must have alerted me to a BBC news item about the recent washing line rebellion on the Millbank Estate in Pimlico, London. The residents discovered workmen about to remove the washing lines that had been a feature of their yard for seventy years. As the workmen arrived with chainsaws, the women grabbed hold of the washing line posts and halted the official vandalism.

The estate managers claimed the lines were “health and safety hazards” but the women said that they were needed: the kitchens in the flats were too small for tumble-dryers. The posts were left standing and - just in case the workmen returned - the bold residents hung out their protest message. Painted letter by letter, the row of old shirts spelled Save Our Lines


Are washing lines always seen as an eyesore, except when you are a tourist taking photographs? In 2010, residents on Will Crooks Estate complained when their washing lines were removed. 

It seemed the area was being tidied up and those unsightly lines were visible from the prestigious Canary Wharf opposite.

Meawhile, across in America, where local housing committees have traditionally banned washing lines, the national “Right To Dry” movement won its first washing line battle in Colorado, in 2008. 

Has laundry always been a source of power and conflict? Originally women gathered to wash clothes on the rocks and stones by streams or riverside - and still do in some parts of the world. Then came the communal wash-houses where women could pass on news and family secrets. Was the power of gossip what tainted clean linen?

Or does the display of washing – including those awkward personal garments, not always in good repair – lower the status of the home-owner and surrounding community? (Might someone be secretly “taking in” washing?)

Or was it the worry that - being so intimate with “unmentionables” and the rhythms of the household  - a laundress or servant might know too much?

Certainly the home laundry routine, regardless of the British weather, was evidence of a woman’s character:

They that wash on Monday have all the week to dry;

They that wash on Tuesday are not much awry;

They that wash on Wednesday are not so much to blame.

But they that wash on Thursday wash for shame.

They that wash on Friday wash in need

And they that wash on Saturday are sluts indeed.
                                                                (Anon)

Oh. And ahem!

The lazy display of washing seems somehow linked to hints of easy virtue, loose morals and loose clothing.

Dylan Thomas’s Polly Garter, in his play Under Milkwood, was no better than she should be: 

“Nothing grows in my garden but washing and babies.” 

 I recall an earlier History Girls post describing how young gentlemen gathered to watch laundresses hoist their skirts above their ankles as they trampled the washing. 


And surely there are songs suggesting maidens risked their virtue by going to spread linen on bushes to dry?

Even Tentergate, with all its frames, then lay outside the town, Perhaps that was known as a risky place for a young girl to go to alone too?


Penny Dolan

13 comments:

Sarah said...

Excellent post and very interesting stuff. Here in Norwich the flat area to the NW outside the city walls was known as the Drying Ground, used for drying finished cloth, as well (I think) as household linen. It was reached via a gate in the city walls called Hell Gate, so maybe the supposed immorality of laundresses applied there too. You may also know Laundress Lane and Laundress Green in Cambridge - as well as being the actual women who did the students' washing, the word was used as a euphemism for the city prostitutes. I wonder whether the disreputable connotations of, for instance, 'washing dirty linen in public' carry over to terms like 'money laundering'?

Celia Rees said...

Great post, Penny! I love the way you connect women's work and together, ranging across time and countries. Wide ranging, full of fascinating facts but never, never boring. Difficult to do.

michelle lovric said...

Really nice, Penny. I have washed on both Thursday and today, so I am clearly a shameful creature. I love the washing that characterises Cannaregio. But I have always thought it takes a lot of moral courage to display one's knickers aloft, even when one is not inside them. In San Polo in Venice the laundresses used to make a kind of tented village, filling the whole large square with sheets. I guess the nobles had monogrammed sheets so they could always be identified. Thank you, Penny.

Caroline Lawrence said...

This is wonderful, Penny. An author of historical fiction has to know how clothes were washed in their period. I've set scenes in Roman fullers (who used urine) and Chinese laundries (in the Wild West). Washing and drying was not solely a woman's job in either of those contexts.

Joan Lennon said...

Great to start the day learning stuff I did not know! Now, slut that I am, I must be getting some washing done. Though if I pretend it's actually next week's laundry, started early, could my reputation be made a little sweeter smelling?

Susan Price said...

Loved this, Penny.

I take great satisfaction in often doing my washing on a Sunday. I believe the rhyme condemns me to Hell, but I can't remember the line.

You bring up the social and historic significance of laundry - it's fascinating. Work that's essential, but unvalued because it's 'women's work.'

It's hilarious how the washing lines could be written off as 'against Health and Safety' without anyone stopping to think how the drying was then going to be done in a small flat. Quite obviously, the people making these decisions aren't doing the housework in a small place! And it was ever so.

adele said...

Super post and I never knew that about tenterhooks! You learn something new every day! My rotating, collapsible washing line is stuck in the middle of the grass at the back ( can't really call it a LAWN just now!) and I treat it like an Art Installation. It's called The Angel of the Wash. In summer, wings are extended and in winter it's sheathed in a grey plastic cover and looks elegant and modernistic.

Ann Turnbull said...

I love my two long washing lines and wish the weather would allow me to use them more often. Just done a wash (on Saturday - oh dear!) and it's started raining again. It's sad that washing lines are always seen as unsightly. To me, they show that a neighbourhood is alive - and clean! The story of the Pimlico washing lines is most inspiring!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Fascinating post! I love hanging my washing outside and never find laundry unsightly. I would never use a tumble dryer with the great outdoors to do the job for free - and the clothes come in smelling of fresh air and sunshine. I too would defend my washing line with all my strength!

Mary Hoffman said...

lovely post! can I advertise a book by a friend of mine? The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice [Paperback]by Polly Coles.

You see there is more to washing than we realise!

DLM said...

Thank you for a thoughtful look at a subject which touches all - even those who prefer not to admit it (and those who can afford not to even know about it).

I have two lines outside and two in my basement, and the economy alone dictates keeping them in constant use! A few years ago, the local news did a story on local clotheslines in central Virginia, a neighbor of mine was featured. This is something that means a great deal to us simply as human beings!

Penny Dolan said...

Really pleased that so many of you were interested in this post.

While I was away from home last week (and fretting slightly about the content of this scheduled but unreachable post) I visited an old Lancashire mill and saw wool stretched on a tenterhook frame. There were even two rows of glass tenterhooks on display but the guide had whisked us on to the next thing before I could ask her why.

Congratulations on all your fine washing lines - both outdoors and indoors - and that book about washing in Venice sounds intriguing, Mary. Washing lines are picturesque there, so why not here, for sure? Especially when they double as Angels, Adele?

Annis said...

Wonderful post! II didn't know the orgin of tenterhooks before, either.

I believe that washerwomen of the past often turned to prostitiution to supplement their incomes, so maybe that's how washing itself became associated with sluttishness?

It says a lot about our society that the complaints of the wealthy automatically override the needs of those less well-off. And how typical of a local authority to go ahead and do something like removing clotheslines without recourse to common sense or consultation with those most affected by their actions! Good on those women for standing up for their rights!

And at a time when we're re-evaluating our use of resources (or certainly should be), surely hanging out the washing to dry in the sun and wind is far more ecologically sound than using electricity unnecessarily, even if you can afford to do so. It's also somehow very satisying to see the tangible results of our time and efforts hanging out there drying away :)