Sun Bleaching – Yup, It Still Works


One of the things I love about having this blog is that it encourages me to do my homework.  I know that I hang clothes out in the sun to bleach them, and that it works, but what’s the history of doing this?  Isn’t it how they used to bleach linen?  Hmm . . .

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may have noticed that I promised more about this soon, in a post about hanging laundry, um, quite a while ago.  I’ve seen a couple of other bloggers mention a mild curse around promising something “soon”, now I see what they mean!

The good news is that in the meantime I did some more hands-on research, and some more reading.  I read part of a fascinating book called World Textiles: A Concise History by Mary Schoeser.  As near as I can figure, bleaching by (at least in part) laying things in the sun goes back at least as far as ancient Egypt.  That makes sense to me, especially if early cultures were also trying to find dyes that would withstand fading in the sun.  For the more recent history, after much guessing at search terms, I finally found this post on Root Simple, which linked me to this page on Old & Interesting.  If you’re curious, do click, both these sites are tantalizingly full of interesting stuff!


While I was doing this research I mentioned my ideas about this post to my mom.  She told me that when we were kids, she would always hang our cloth diapers outside to dry, which got them back to a reasonable whiteness.  In fact, one of my aunts (the one who has always liked her household very neat and clean) was visiting and commented that she wanted my cousins diapers to look like ours!


It’s been my experience that when trying to keep things white, it’s the sun that helps the most.  Pre-treating stains helps a little, oxygen bleach helps a little, but the thing that gets collars, underarms, and kitchen towels back to presentable is to hang them in the sun.  I’m limited in what I’ll put in our laundry as far as chemical bleach, partly by my inclination, and partly because our washer empties right into the back yard, and has done since it was put in in the 70’s.  But on recent road trip I tried out chlorine bleach at a laundromat, following the instructions on the package.  I admit I’m pleased to say it made much less difference than my usual sun routine!  Now if only I could do it while we’re traveling (I can see it now, the truck streaking down the highway with shirts flapping against the sides).  I have been known to bring clothes on our visits home, so I could get them back to white before venturing out again!


My method is pretty darn simple, I hang things that need bleaching with the stained parts getting as much direct sunlight as possible.  Sometimes I lay clothes on the ground or bushes – old school bleaching ground style, especially if they’re particularly yellowed.  But most of the time I hang them on the line, in some funny arrangement with clothes pins like the picture at the top.  I’ll leave the whites out all afternoon, occasionally moving them if needed as the sun shifts, and spraying the stained parts with a mist of water, which really seems to help as they dry again (chemically why? I have no idea – I didn’t do THAT much research).


I also tried out lemon juice, not part of my normal routine but suggested by a couple of sources I found.  I mixed it with a little water and dipped in the stained areas, then hung out the shirt as usual.  It didn’t seem to do more than just misting with water on underarm stains.  BUT, out of curiosity I also dabbed it on this really stubborn light orangey spot which lots and lots of regular washing and sun exposure, plus extra scrubbing, stain remover, even chlorine bleach pen had faded but not erased.  Voilà!  Totally gone.  So now I have added lemon juice to my stain removing tools.


Oh, I should mention that if your clothes are stiff and/or wrinkled in weird places after this treatment, you can throw them in the dryer for just a couple of minutes with a wet cloth, or iron them, or mist the wrinkled places with water and hang them on a hanger and let them dry.


Lynda Barry has this line in her wonderful book Picture This where she writes “IT STILL WORKS”.  I think about this all the time, all the time, not just about laundry (or about making books by stapling paper together, which is what she means).  Just because humans invent something new (like chlorine bleach) does that make the old way somehow not work?  Nope, in fact, it doesn’t even mean that the old way might not still be better.


10 Tips for Drying Laundry Outdoors


The last post was all about how I felt about hanging the laundry out to dry, and not so much about how to do it if you never have before.  This blog is supposed to have lots of information, so here are some tips:

  1. You can string up a rope just about anywhere and use it to hang up clothes.  Two trees, a tree and a porch rail, a hook on the side of the house . . . I had a small clothesline on an upper story balcony once.  In Italy, everyone still hangs their laundry on a line just below the window (and, their downstairs neighbors return the socks they accidentally drop)!
  2. My trees are about 20 feet apart, a rope looped around them so I can hang clothes on both sides holds a large load of laundry.
  3. You don’t need special “clothesline”, any rope or cord thin enough to get a clothespin over will work.
  4. A really handy knot to use to tie your clothesline is the taut line hitch, you can cinch it up after it (inevitably) sags after you tie it the first time.  There are clear and concise directions at  If those don’t work for you there are a lot more to be found by searching for “taut line hitch” – if you are a sailor or otherwise knot-preoccupied, look out – good thing I have this post to write so I won’t get too distracted by learning new knots.  Hopefully.
  5. If your clothesline has been out of use for a while (maybe it was abandoned by a previous resident?), run a damp rag along it before you hang anything up, to keep from getting any dirt on it onto your clothes.
  6. You can take your clothesline down during the time of year you’re not using it, it will last longer, and won’t rub bark off your trees in the same place all the time.
  7. I highly recommend keeping your clothespins inside and bringing them out with the laundry each time.  You can store them in a bag, or a jar or whatever.  It keeps them from rotting and/or being new homes for tiny spiders who build their webs in the “tunnels” made by the spring.
  8. Hang shirts and tanks from the bottom (see pic), that way the clothespins won’t leave a visible mark or make a crease in the top.
  9. If your laundry is in the sun, hang things you don’t want to fade inside-out, and/or with the back facing the sun.  Hang things you want to bleach in as much sun as possible (more about that in another post soon).
  10. If you, or possibly other members of your household, prefer laundry as soft as it comes from the dryer, you can always throw clothes in for just a couple of minutes when they come off the line.  You still get your mid-day laundry hanging meditation, and save money and gas for the dryer!

Do you have more tips?  Please share them!


I love hanging the laundry outside. . .

I do realize that this may mean I’m a nerd.  But it’s so true.

I love everything about it – it’s a quiet moment outside in a day in which I might not have time for a hike or just watching the clouds.  There I am, I can look up at the sky, I hear the birds, neighborhood noises, feel the breezes . . . I even love the way the clothes look hanging there.

In past summers when we have rented a place in Madison WI, I always found a way to string up some sort of clothes line in the back yard.  Although the smells and plants are different there, I enjoyed them just as much.

In Flagstaff, the good outside laundry days are increasing now (when it’s not snowing – typical mountain springtime).

Who cares if I’m saving money and gas for the dryer (well, Ok, I do care about those things too) – drying the laundry outside gives me a mini outdoor meditation in the middle of my day.  I have to do the laundry anyway, why not do it in a way that I love?