What makes line-dried laundry smell so good?

Fresh laundry – crisp cotton sheets on a washing line – is often cited as one of our all-time favourite smells. But what exactly makes line-dried fabric smell so good, and which fragrances can equally evoke the immediate comfort we long for…?

The only time I’ve ever been to Amsterdam, it wasn’t to gawp at canals and clogs and cheese (or even indulge in legal cannabis bars), but to visit its industrial district, and the secret centre where most of the world’s laundry detergents and fabric conditioners are made.

‘We basically create the smell of people’s babies,’ one of the technical perfumers told me, ‘and if we even change the scent of their washing powder a little bit, we get so many complaints.’ They produced many thousands of possible options to fragrance people’s washing – from caramel (popular in Brazil, apparently) to chic multi-layered, musky perfumes. But the most popular of all (and one of the most technically challenging to re-create)? That freshly line-dried smell.

So what is it, beyond your choice of washing powder, that makes fabric smell particularly pleasing if it’s been dried on a line (preferably in a flower meadow, and hung while wearing an Edwardian broderie anglaise gown just prior to picking apples in the orchard, in my dreams, but we work with what we have.)

In a scientific paper examining the ‘Chemical analysis and origin of the smell of line-dried laundry‘, atmospheric chemists have published their analysis of ‘line-dried towels at the molecular level’, now they’ve discovered the exact source of this so-specific smell. Using cotton towels from IKEA, they washed them three times, then dried them in three differing ways: inside the office, on the balcony under a plastic shade and on the balcony in the sun.

Percy Harland Fischer – Washing on the Line (1867-1944)

Extraordinarily, they found that ‘Line-drying uniquely produced a number of aldehydes and ketones,’ Sylvia Pugliese – the leading researcher – told the New York Times – which are ‘…organic molecules our noses might recognise from plants and perfumes. For example, after sunbathing, the towels emitted pentanal, found in cardamom, octanal, which produces citrusy aromas, and nonanal, which smells rose-like.’

Fascinating stuff, and it got me wondering which fragrances we could reach for that could also recreate that feeling of sunlit cleanliness and comfort, bottled…

A whoosh of silvery, sun-dappled airiness shot through with ginger, mint, and leafy green notes, softening to powdery florals, cushioned by warm skin-like musk and vetiver. One to spray when you need to be reminded of lazy sundays and lie-ins and snuggling up in bliss.

CLEAN Reserve Warm Cotton [Reserve Blend] £82 for 100ml eau de parfum
spacenk.com

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Yearning for an eco-luxury house with a Swedish mountain lake view? (Uh yes, always.) Bright cotton and bracing air’s evoked with ambrette seeds, freesia, spring magnolia, and soft musk. You’ll be yodelling from first spritz.

Bjork & Berries FJÄLLSJÖ £85 for 50ml eau de parfum
eu.bjorkandberries.com

Who doesn’t want to be wrapped in a whisper of white fluffy towels and powdery peonies? Effortless and uncomplicated, sooth cares away with delicate freesia nuzzling fuzzy peach, gauzy ylang ylang, sheer rose, wisps of incense and a cloud of creamy froth.

Cacharel Noa, £15 for 30ml eau de toilette
superdrug.com


Mandarin swathed in powdered sandalwood shavings, violet suffused in a cool fig milk and tonka bean draped with the feeling of washing blowing in the breeze. Think muslin curtains framing a perfect view, the deliciously cool side of a pillow against a flushed cheek.

Van Cleef & Arpels Bois Blanc £130 for 75ml eau de parfum
selfridges.com

Think: deliciously smooth, Egyptian cotton (high thread count, obvs) boutique hotel sheets, just-showered skin and roasted coffee beans sitting atop a warm snuggle of back-lit amber and the sexy hay-like muskiness of the base. For dirty weekends (but in clean sheets.)

La Maison Hedonique Samedi À Paris £135 for 50ml eau de parfum
lamaisonhedonique

So, next time you bury your nose in a freshly dried, fluffy towel, slip into deliciously clean sheets that were dried in the sunshine or spray yourself with a fabulously ‘clean’ smelling fragrance – consider if you can pick up these ultra-nuanced notes with your nose. The more deeply we analyse smells – especially those ‘everyday scents’ we think we know so well – the greater our understanding and the better our sense of smell ultimately becomes. It’s a washing-day win-win…

By Suzy Nightingale

Softly (scented) does it: Bamford's Knitwear Wash is cashmere, bottled…

Fashion and fragrance go hand in [scented] glove, and with super models strutting their stuff on the catwalks of London Fashion Week, our thoughts turn the array of beautiful fabrics on display. Us being us, of course we want everything to smell fabulous – and our just-published Fashion & Fragrance edition of The Scented Letter magazine features an in-depth sniff into the secretive world of fabric conditoners and the perfumers who work on them.
But we didn’t want to stop there. Not everyone likes washing in a machine – particularly those luxuriously delicate hand-wash only fabrics that require a bit of tender loving care, and the sensorial delight of slipping them on is further heightened by the scent of the washing liquid ‘matching’ our perception of what the particular fabric should smell of. So what does wool smell like to you…?
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Fabric care products for hand washing clothes – particularly those aimed at the cashmere and silk market – tend on the whole to be far more delicately fragranced. Indeed, you may have seen ‘cashmere’ listed as a note in many perfumes. But what does it smell of? The untreated wool alone is certainly not what we may dream of when imagining burying our faces in kitten-soft materials, and in fine perfumery each perfumer may compose their own interpretation within an accord to create the smell of fluffy luxury.
Within this market, organic and natural brands thrive, with many highlighting the purity of their products and selling them alongside their body and skincare lines. The organic brand Bamford sell beauty products along with knitwear and cotton clothing, and we asked why they decided to develop their own knitwear wash, soothingly fragranced with cedar extract (which really does smell as you imagine cashmere should!)
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As Merchandise Director Karen Leck explained: ‘It encourages you to wash knitwear by hand, which is the very best way to care for it. We chose not to use a strongly scented wash as they can be too overpowering and fragrance is very personal. Knitwear is an emotional purchase, it’s our best-selling category – most of us have a favourite sweater – they’re comforting as well as comfortable and the scent adds to the whole sensual experience of natural fibres against the skin. I also use a Bamford Pebble Soap in my knitwear drawers, as it gives just enough natural fragrance to personalise my sweaters.’
Bamford Knitwear Wash £15 for 350ml
See bamford.co.uk for stockists
Written by Suzy Nightingale