P1070271There’s a divide between France and the U.S., and it has to do with how people take care of their clothes.

Let’s start with washing. Front-load washers have gained popularity in the U.S., but they have long been typical in Europe. They are easier on your clothes than top-load agitators, which really tear them up. However, washing times are longer. Mine has a 15-minute freshen-up cycle, but the shortest real wash cycle takes over an hour and the longest is three hours. That’s in part because the machines heat the water themselves, rather than take it from a hot-water heater.

The models sold here are getting bigger, but they are still a lot smaller than in the U.S. Our old washer held a maximum of four kilos–just under nine pounds. Our new one has a maximum capacity of twice that. According to Consumer Reports, capacities in the U.S. are as high as 28 pounds. (French vocabulary lesson: a laundry room is une buanderie, a laundromat is une laverie and the old-fashioned outdoor laundries are lavoirsDry cleaning is nettoyage à sec, and the place that does it is un pressing or une teinturerie.)

P1070742Another difference is drying. Plenty of people don’t even have electric dryers. I put towels in the dryer to keep them soft and fluffy but try to hang everything else outside–again, it’s better for your clothes, better for the environment and it’s free. Sheets definitely go outside. It makes them smell so good!

Related to that: walking around in the mornings, you see windows open, even in the dead of winter, and duvets hanging over the window sills to air out for at least 15 minutes. Bedrooms tend to be minimally heated (and back in the day weren’t heated at all), and we don’t have bitter temperatures, so it isn’t very wasteful.

rue trivalle
A lot going on here: the bed linens getting aired in the open windows in winter–you can see the photo was taken at Christmas time. The drying rack is set on the sidewalk to get the job done faster. Carcassonne is still the kind of small city where you can leave your stuff outside safely.

One reason my friends cite for avoiding dryers, besides making clothes last longer, is the cost of electricity. Looking at my bill, we pay between 6.38 centimes and 10.43 centimes (about 7 cents to 11 cents) per kWh before tax (which is 20%). The tariff varies by time of day, with heures creuses, or off-peak, discounted. I set the timers on the washing machine and dishwasher to run during off peak. Surprisingly, residential rates in the U.S. are higher–an average of 12.90 cents per kWh.

One reason many Americans I know do use dryers: to avoid ironing. Some don’t even own an iron or ironing board. When we briefly lived in the U.S., the Carnivore was delighted to discover a setting on our apartment’s dryer called “fluff,” which he adorably pronounced “floof” the first time. He was so excited about how things came out with only minor wrinkles.

By contrast, Europeans tend to be not just wrinkle-free but to have knife-edge creases. Even jeans get ironed. The Carnivore is very talented with a steam iron (see the ads below). Personally, I hate to iron but have been doing a lot of it lately, pressing the sheets for our rental apartments. We want them to be impeccable.

While I iron my own clothes, I don’t do my kid’s. Some of the local mothers would iron their children’s clothes even for toddlers–who wear things for about two minutes before getting dirty. An extremely scientific survey of my gym class showed most spend two to three hours a week ironing.

Ironing isn’t limited to France. I remember being impressed by the teen boys in Rome, perched on their Vespas, wearing immaculate white shirts with crisply creased sleeves. Nothing slovenly about them.

When I lived in Brussels, my apartment faced a lovely row of hidden gardens, “Rear Window” style. In a window across the way, a woman (housekeeper, I think), would iron for hours, including the tiniest flouncy baby dresses. And sheets and sheets and sheets.

Another time, I was at the big department store El Corte Inglès in Barcelona. The household appliance department was animated by many demonstrations. There was a woman carving candles. All kinds of shoppers, including families, watched her work. Some of the candles sported the typical curls, while others represented couples in a sexual act. This was something I never saw in the U.S.

And there was a guy ironing. This was no simple steam iron but what the French call a centre de repassage–an ironing center. A big water tank was fixed to the base of the ironing board “so you can iron all day!” my friend marveled. A dozen people–men and women–watched the demo intently.

This baby goes for a cool €700.

Do you hang laundry outside? Do you iron? Do you pamper your clothing?



49 thoughts on “French Laundry

  1. Great post! Since moving to Europe 30 years ago I have seen everything come full circle. Now the French and Italians are using dryers (in the winter) and Americans are hanging their clothes to dry more often. When I first moved to Italy in ’87 an American friend purchased the first dryer in our town. When it needed repair he called the manufacturer and they insisted they did not produce dryers!

    I agree that a short cycle in the European washer (mine has a 15 min which I sometimes double) and hanging to dry extends the life of clothing three-fold. The washing and especially drying removes the cotton fibres, which thins the fabric quite quickly.
    I think that airing the bed is another practice that Americans should consider as it dries the pillows and linens and allows the bed to dry. After a nights sleep these items absorb an increadable amount of perspiration (especially the pillows) and this provides a great environment for dust mites to multiply in pillows and mattress.

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  2. I forgot to mention that if your washer has a “chemise” or shirt setting it has a cold rinse and low spin (800RPM) so shirts can be hung without too many wrinkles. I find that when I use this its better than the dryer.

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    1. This is funny–when I lived in Africa, I learned the trick of hanging clothes that were dripping wet. They dried quickly there, and almost without wrinkles. I didn’t have electricity, and wasn’t about to iron with an old-fashioned one that heated on a fire.


  3. I am inherently lazy where ironing is concerned. I take our clothes out of the machine the minute it stops and hang them up to get rid of most potential creases. If we are going out somewhere decent , I will iron our clothes .
    I don’t iron bed linen for us, but I do for guests and for the apartment of course. I haven’t had a dryer in years, not since I watched the electric meter spin round when it was on!! I dry outside or on my mega airer by a window
    Stuff dries so much faster here anyway.

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  4. Yes! I hang my laundry outside here in North Carolina except for the spring pollen season month when everything would be a lovely shade of chartreuse. Sadly, here in the United States many towns and or subdivisions (neighborhoods) have laws forbidding hanging laundry outside. I specifically chose to live where I could still have the sensory experience of inhaling the aroma of sun-dried sheets, a lingering memory link to my grandmother and mother.

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    1. Isn’t that something? Though some of my European friends say that it’s considered tacky to hang one’s laundry in public (not in Venice, I guess–the laundry above the canals is famous). They use a drying rack indoors if they don’t have a private outdoor space.


  5. When my eldest daughter was about 2 and I was sitting prettily in the mummie’s circle at the local toddler group she pottered up to me with a toy iron. ‘Whazis?’ She enquired. I smoothly replied ‘it’s an iron, darling, like mummies’. ‘No!’ Replied emphatically (and truthfully’ ‘you hasn’t dot one’. I did have one, still do. I just absolutely avoid ever using it and for that reason I hang everything I can outside and fold in a way that my ironing-partial best friend declares is of Olympic standard.

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  6. One of the things we looked forward to most was being able to hang laundry outside when we moved to France. But we were disappointed with French clothes lines. They were feeble rickety things. We bought a Hills 4 line retractable in Australia when we were visiting family and brought it back in our suitcase. Much better. We couldn’t get the pole for the other end in the suitcase though, and bought a length of 10cm square steel pipe from the metal merchant and installed that.

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    1. The lines in the first photos are chez nous: a mother’s day present. I wanted REAL lines for hanging laundry, as sturdy as those of my mom in the U.S. (and we–above all my brothers, who were heavier and more daring–used to hurl ourselves off these immovable posts…).
      I neglected to include a long-admired ad from Brabantia, maker of trash cans, laundry lines and other essentials. The ad showed a beefcake guy pulling a retractable line. The caption: “Beau, mais utile aussi!” Beautiful, but also useful. HILARIOUS. I wanted to buy 10 just because of the ad.


  7. My mom used to hang out the laundry when I was growing up and then finally got a dryer. I even helped hang out the clothes. I loved doing that. I don’t hang them out here, but would if I could just step out into the backyard. We have lots of steps to go up and down to the deck. I do iron a good bit, but certainly don’t enjoy it.

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  8. Almost never ironed in the U.S., especially not sheets or other bedding (how in the world do you do it? – seems like they would crumple on the ground and get wrinkled again), but as dry cleaning is more expensive here, we do more washing and ironing of our shirts now. We have a tiny dryer that has a reservoir to catch the water condensed from each load. It’s like a science project dumping it out after drying a few towels! We do have a fabulous laundry near us that will wash and iron (by machine) our bedsheets for 4 euros. We do this each week and our bedding looks like something in a hotel. Lovely and well worth it!

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  9. This entire subject is just up my alley! We haven’t put clothes in a dryer for probably twenty years and finally gave away our the dryer we inherited when we moved down here to North Carolina. Everything is line dried, including towels as we love them all stiff (they certainly don’t stay that way after one use!) Even my daughter, in a small apartment, line dries everything inside. I trained her well!! And, yes, I love ironing. Love it. I have always ironed all our pillowcases and sheet turnbacks. In fact, doing laundry from start to finish is something I really enjoy!!!!

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    1. Have you ever seen the Japanese-style drying cupboards? They have lines or rods, and the doors have holes for air circulation. Indoor line drying, with no unsightly mess in a small apartment.


  10. I have to confess to using a dryer, but I love it when I see laundry dancing under the sun. No matter how wrinkle free garments are, I always touch them us with a steam iron. I’m not big on wrinkles!

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  11. No dryer, gave it away a couple of years ago. I use a drying rack and have a contraband one in a corner of the back deck where no one else can see it. Busybody homeowners’ association ::sigh::
    Electricity here is about 10 cents per kwh, but when I asked about off-peak rates I was told those are for businesses only, not for residential customers. Silly and short-sighted, I think.
    I do iron some things. It’s a bit like hand-washing dishes — I find those both good ways to disengage the chatty mind and let ideas percolate.

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  12. We have a huge sous-sol and so space for a couple of good lenghts of washing line for the wet days. Otherwize it’s outside in the sun for 1/2 an hour, folded carefully and the bedding can be put straight back on the bed! I am about to get a new washing machine and the old one can be downgraded for the dog’s things.

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  13. My Miele steams the clothes’ 😂
    I iron everything, I see creases in clothes as a criminal offence, that’s why I don’t buy linen products. Bit sad really 😂😂😂

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  14. I remember growing up in Michigan, hanging our sheets out to dry. When visiting Italy and France I saw a lot of laundry hanging out on a line. Thanks for commenting on my blog about potato salad! Hope you come back soon. I am in the process of building a house and sharing the process on my blog.

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  15. I will never forget my first experience with a French washing machine! We had no idea how it worked, and could not find the manual anywhere in the house. I turned it on at night, and in the morning, it was still slowly slowly slowly washing. I never did figure out that particular machine and ended up washing everything by hand that summer…it was much faster! We still laugh about it!

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    1. OMG, all night is VERY long. My first machine, in my apartment in Brussels, had a hose that draped into the bathtub to drain. I sat and watched for a while, but as time dragged on, I stepped away. The downstairs neighbors came banging on my door–the hose had jumped out of the tub and a machine’s worth of water was on the floor, seeping into their bedroom below. Huge mess.


  16. My French mother-in-law irons her sheets but unless you run a B&B, I don’t really see the point. To each their own!
    I have a clothes line in the yard but I shamefully rarely use it. My clothes end up getting rained on even when there’s no rain in the forecast — what luck! I’ll go out for the day and a random rain storm will soak everything, defeating the purpose. I should get back in the habit of using it though, especially on days when I’m home and able to bring clothes in before it rains!

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      1. Right, if you (not you Catherine, I’m speaking in general) have any type of accommodation that accepts clients, it’s best to make everything as presentable as possible. On my own bed, you’ll find happily wrinkled sheets. 🙂 I feel like my grandma would iron her sheets but not my parents. Might be a generational thing too

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