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Living Off the Line: Stories From The Clothesline Muse Documentary

Jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon mounts a play about the waning culture of women’s work around the clothesline, unearthing washerwomen wisdom along the way.

In partnership with
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This project is fiscally sponsored by the Southern Documentary Fund.

What is Living Off the Line about?

Three creative women join forces to do something they have never done before.  They are taking on the huge task of mounting their first play- a play about a most unlikely subject, the clothesline. In The Clothesline Muse, six-time Grammy©-nominated jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon, choreographer/scholar Dr. Kariamu Welsh, and acclaimed visual artist Maya Freelon Asante explore the rapidly waning culture of women’s work centered on the clothesline and doing the laundry. 

Living Off the Line: Stories from The Clothesline Muse is a feature-length documentary about the making of a play, and the wealth of cultural experiences and wisdom generated by centuries of African-American women who made a living by taking in the wash. It will capture what may be the only testimony from washerwomen who are currently in their 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s who speak to the strength of a community, and the tragedy inherent in devaluing those who are the least of us. 

From the 1881 Washerwomen’s Strike to the environmental movement’s fight to return clotheslines to the American landscape, this film is a blend of music and history, dance and scholarly interviews, art and mother wit.  However it is the love, humor and wisdom of our elders that allows Living Off the Line to speak truth to power by shedding light on what has been a sometimes shameful and painful past.

Why is the story of the clothesline and the washerwomen important to viewers?


Prior to working on this film, I had no idea that my mother ironed clothes for money when she was 12 years old.  Her grandmother, my great grandmother (Nana), worked as a domestic for the Quakers in Philadelphia.  Nana took my mother to iron for them so that my mother would always have some type of work that she could always do.  However, the fact that I did not know this until now speaks volumes about how women have tried to hide this work from family members because they thought it to be a source of shame.

Since finding this out, I have found that this is very common. John Jung explained to me how younger generations of Chinese Americans do not know the story of their families who had to do this kind of work to survive.  Since retiring as a Professor in Psychology, this has been his life’s work, writing books about this experience.

Who We Are

Award-winning filmmaker Lana Garland is the Director and Producer of Living Off the Line. For the past twenty years, Lana Garland has worked as a Creative Director, Director, and Writer/Producer in television and film in the US and Europe. She has worked for the television networks such as HBO and BET in America, and TV2 in Denmark. Her production company, Insibah Media, brings award-winning talent together for creative industrial, commercial and entertainment film and video projects.

Trailblazer Studios is a production and post facility based in Raleigh, NC. Trailblazer has provided post services for a number of SDF projects including Bending Space, Bending Sticks, A New Kind of Listening, Rocaterrania, SOMAY KU, A Weaverly Path, and most recently In So Many Words.

What We Need & What You Get

We are seeking production funds in the amount of $25,000 so that we can hire a crew to interview our senior washerwomen who know life on the clothesline. Your donation is a start towards those costs plus our travel to various locations. We have yet to record many of these washerwomen and the scholars who can further our understanding about the lives of these women both past and present.

Donations at $100 and above will receive a DVD and special limited-edition images.  At $500 and above, will also have a chance to attend screenings and interact with the producer.

When will this project begin?

We have already begun! Nnenna, Maya, and Mama K have been working tirelessly on the stage play. We have been able to capture the beautiful beginnings of this effort with meager resources. We have also interviewed Roberta Cantow whose Emmy-Award winning film, Clothesline (1981) chronicled the lives of white women in the tenements of New York City and John Jung whose book Southern Fried Rice: A Life in Chinese Laundry in the Deep South, speaks to gender, race, and class in the execution of this chore. 

When will the film be finished?

This film will be completed in the summer of 2014.

Have other films been made about this culture?

Yes. In 1981, Roberta Cantow won an Emmy award for her film, Clothesline, where Irish-American women lament and celebrate the information that was shared amongst women in New York City around the clothesline.  It is a haunting and moving piece, and we were able to interview Roberta at her home where she shared lots of information about the northern experience of this chore.

What is the significance of the green movement to this effort?

In 2011, The Los Angeles Times reported that line-drying was becoming popular among celebrities, even as many citizens have to battle with local Homeowner Associations that ban the practice as undesirable. Green advocates insist that hanging your laundry out to dry instead of firing up your dryer reduces your electric or gas bill, lowers carbon emissions, helps your clothing and linens last longer by eliminating some wear and tear on the fabric (saving you more money). Line-drying saves money and protects the environment.

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