Washing Lines : a collection of poems – selected by Janie Hextall & Barbara McNaught

I came across a review of this book of poetry & immediately knew I wanted to read it. In the note on the back flap of the book, Janie Hextall & Barbara McNaught write that they became friends because of a shared love of poetry. They discovered that they both collected poems & woodcuts about laundry & enjoyed train travel because it meant they could look at washing blowing in the breeze in other people’s backyards. Their passion for poetry & laundry led to the creation of Lautus Press – Lautus being the Latin for washed, clean or refined, elegant. The book that resulted from this passion is a beautiful object in itself. Pale lilac cover with French flaps & a lovely woodcut, Wash Day by Clifford Harper, on the cover.

The subject of all the poems & woodcuts (above is September Morning by Anne Hayward) is washing, laundry, cleaning, but the poems range from the traditional to the modern. They use laundry as a way to remember childhood or a symbol of the love of a mother for her sons. Sometimes it’s a way of testing the loved one’s resolve as in this famous song,

Can you make me a cambric shirt,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,
Without any seam or needlework?
And you shall be a true lover of mine.


Can you wash it in yonder well,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,
Where never sprung water, nor rain ever fell?
And you shall be a true lover of mine.

Can you dry it on yonder thorn,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
Which never bore blossom since Adam was born?
And you shall be a true lover of mine.

In Gillian Clarke’s poem, Women’s Work,  the poet is thinking of her own writing & remembering a long-ago summer,

August Sunday morning,
and I’m casting for words,
Wandering the garden sipping their poems,
leaving cups of them here and there in the grass
where the washing steams in the silence
after the hay-days and the birdsong months.


I am sixteen again, and it’s summer,
and the sisters are singing, their habits gathered,
sleeves rolled for kitchen work,
rosy hands hoisting cauldrons of greens.
The laundry hisses with steam-irons
glossing the collars of our summer blouses.

I enjoyed Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s Washing-Day, full of the apprehension of bad weather spoiling the wash & the irritation of an uninvited visitor when wash day is in full swing, The woodcut above is Lympstone Washday by Pam Pebworth.

The silent breakfast-meal is soon dispatch’d
Uninterrupted, save by anxious looks
Cast at the lowering sky, if sky should lower.
From that last evil, oh preserve us, heavens!
For should the skies pour down, adieu to all
Remains of quiet; then expect to hear
Of sad disasters – dirt and gravel stains
Hard to efface, and loaded lines at once
Snapped short – and linen-horse by dog thrown down,
And all the petty miseries of life.

                                 …Woe to the friend
Whose evil stars have urged him forth to claim
On such a day the hospitable rites;
Looks, blank at best, and stinted courtesy,
Shall he receive. Vainly he feeds his hopes
With dinner of roast chicken, savoury pie,
Or tart or pudding: – pudding he nor tart
That day shall eat; nor, tho’ the husband try,
Mending what can’t be help’d, to kindle mirth
From cheer deficient, shall his consort’s brow
Clear up propitious; the unlucky guest
In silence dines and early slinks away.

As well as an enjoyable collection of poems about the delights of cleanliness & domesticity, the Afterword of Washing Lines by Alexander Lee also explores the environmental issues at stake. I’d read about this trend in the papers & was incredulous that some cities in the US ban householders from drying their washing outside. They’re forced to use clothes dryers which now consume 6-10% of domestic electricity in the US. The smell of freshly dried sheets is one of the joys of life & I’m lucky to live in a country where I can dry my washing outside all year. Banning the outdoor drying of laundry just seems so ridiculous. It’s free & it’s environmentally friendly. Alexander Lee has started a movement, Project Laundry List, to encourage outside drying & cold water washing. There’s even a National Hanging Out Day!

I’ve only used a couple of my photos of the gorgeous woodcuts in the book as they make them look quite muddy & don’t do them justice. If you enjoy poetry & woodcuts on domestic themes, I recommend Washing Lines. It’s a little gem.

4 thoughts on “Washing Lines : a collection of poems – selected by Janie Hextall & Barbara McNaught

  1. Not poetry, but Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower starts off with a wonderful laundry scene. And there's a wonderful poem by Richard Wilbur where he looks at the laundry floating on the line. A fun subject! Susan E

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  2. Lovely to read your review & see how engaging a blog can be (only just starting out in this area myself!) I will certainly go & buy this book now… A conversation with my mum today about the joy of washing on a line is a memory to treasure and this book sounds like it will do the trick! Thank you!

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  3. Thanks Jo. We're just moving into Spring here & it was wonderful to smell the freshness of the laundry yesterday as I brought it in from the line. I love woodcuts too so I think I enjoyed the illustrations as much as the poetry.

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