Three years ago, Paul Gay noticed that customers visiting the website of his family’s mailbox and equipment business were buying a lot of old-fashioned clotheslines. So he took over that part of the firm and opened the Clothesline Shop in South China, Maine. Soon the part-time venture got so big he quit his post office job. Today he sells a seemingly infinite variety of indoor and outdoor drying equipment ranging from more than 30 styles of racks to basic pulley clothesline systems.
For Gay’s customers, saving money is the hands-down reason for buying the equipment. According to Natural Resources Canada, even with energy-saving technology, the average dryer still sucked up 900 kilowatts, or around $100 worth, of electricity in 2005. For bigger families, the cost can easily double or triple. And people wanting to reduce their bills aren’t settling for the ubiquitous cheap, flimsy drying racks that collapse at the sight of a wet pair of jeans or provide only enough space to dry a few pieces of high-tech athletic gear. Now, they want bigger, sturdier racks to hang load after load of laundry. Gay’s top-seller is a US$38 metal expandable model with seven metres of drying space.
For those craving even more drying room, Gay offers the “Cadillac of clotheslines,” Swiss-made products from a European firm called Stewi AG that has been in the laundry-equipment business for 61 years. Its aluminum frames, engineered to be lightweight yet sturdy, can hold an enormous amount of wet clothes and still fold away neatly for storage. The North American distributor, Michael Basman of Thornhill, Ont.-based Stenic Products, noticed the trend back to air drying, and in November 2005 left his full-time retail job to become Stewi’s rep. His sales have doubled every year. Though he sells smaller products, like a hinged dryer for the bathtub with 10 m of washing line for $45, and a $90 ceiling-mounted unit weighing less than two kilograms that can be installed above the washer and dryer, demand is strongest for the bigger models.
One buyer was Valerie David, a 53-year-old teacher, also of Thornhill. Fed up with her small, inefficient wooden rack, she hit the Internet and ended up buying the $130 Combi Maxi with eight extendable drying rods and 13 m of drying space, which she keeps in her bedroom. Though she still uses a regular dryer, “at least two big loads hit the rack each week.”
While Basman agrees with Gay that rising energy costs are the main factor for the new popularity of the racks, he also points out that governments are encouraging citizens to go green as a way to cut down electricity use. Alexander Lee, executive director of the Concord, N.H.-based Project Laundry List, which promotes air drying, believes “the tide is turning.” Clearly, air drying is an idea whose moral time has come. Last spring, Toronto Hydro gave away free 12-m indoor-outdoor retractable clotheslines. Some 75,000 residents lined up for them. And this year Ontario lifted the no-outside-drying covenants prevalent in suburban housing developments.
“Laundry is a highly competitive market,” explains Ikea spokeswoman Madeleine Löwenborg-Frick, with a laugh. “We’re offering way more drying solutions,” ranging from $7 to $65. Ikea’s new solid wood Tvätta rack ($40), which lies flat against a wall when not in use, has been flying out of stores. Even Canadian Tire, which has sold umpteen cheap metal racks, has upped its variety and quality, after noting double-digit annual sales growth over the last few years. Spokesman Lisa Gibson says the chain has seen an “increase in people willing to spend more on deluxe models.”
For the frugal, Jeffrey Kroll of East Windsor, Conn., suggests looking for antique versions on eBay. He’s been collecting drying racks for a decade and has 90 unique versions in his collection. “I’m constantly amazed by the engineering that went into making some of these racks. Some are works of art.” Indeed, it isn’t unusual for buyers to need lessons on how to properly unfold and set up old racks.
Though it takes a bit more time to hang wet clothes, Claudia Farner of Edmonton, who sets up her racks in the family room and bedroom, points out one advantage to drying them au naturel: she doesn’t run a humidifier during the long, dry winter. And for those who dislike crispy towels, Debby de Moulpied of Real Green Goods in New Hampshire has a sneaky solution: “Put them in the dryer for three minutes on fluff and you’ll never know they were air-dried.”