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A Complete Guide to Washing Clothes By Hand (+useful tips)

Despite the ease of washing machines, there are times when you still may need or want to wash your clothes by hand. Hand washing clothing is an easy process that should only require a few materials and some investment of time.

No matter where you are in the world, if you have access to water and soap, you should be able to wash your clothing with little hassle. Keep reading to learn more about each step of the handwashing process, as well as some insight on different types of detergents and tips and tricks that will get your clothes as clean as possible.

Washing Clothes By Hand: A Step-by-Step Guide

When you wash clothing by hand, you will need to follow a process to make sure that your clothes are properly cleaned and to avoid damage to your clothing or discomfort to yourself. 

How to Do Laundry by Hand (Wash Clothes in the Sink) + Travel Laundry Tips

Read Any Clothing Labels

Most garments come with tags or labels that contain specific instructions on how to wash clothing. Although in recent years, these instructions are catered toward machine washing, there are still some important factors that you should take into consideration before beginning to wash your clothes.

Look for the following information on the label:

  • Temperature: The temperature at which you should wash the garment matters. Washing in accordance with a recommended temperature will protect the fabric’s shape and color. 
  • Material: as a general rule, if a garment is made from velvet, suede, leather, or contains down, you should not try to wash it by hand. These materials require specific washing processes that are best tackled by a professional.
  • Dry cleaning instructions: If the care label says ‘dry clean only,’ you must avoid cleaning the garment on your own, as you could damage it. Take your dry clean only clothes to a professional laundry service. However, if clothing says ‘dry clean recommended,’ you are probably fine to wash it by hand.

Once you have read the labels, you will know how to best take care of your clothing during the handwashing process.

Here is my list of the 6 best laundry delivery services that do dry cleaning.

Separate Laundry

Even when you are washing by hand, you should be mindful of how you can separate your clothes to protect them during the washing process.

Clothes are usually separated by color during washing to minimize the likelihood that dyes will bleed. However, you should also separate them by water temperature recommendations. This is another reason why it is essential to read the care label.

Clothes made from different materials typically do not need to be separated, unless otherwise specified by the garment manufacturer. That being said, you may wish to separate delicate clothing to avoid damage.

 Treat Any Stains

If any of your clothing is stained, you will need to treat the stains in advance for optimal results. 

Examine the fabric, and treat the stain with one of the following remedies:

  • Apply a stain stick, such as Tide,  to the affected area.
  • Apply a solution made from mixing equal parts vinegar and water.
  • Scrub the area with a soft brush and a little laundry detergent.

Stains will most likely not fade completely with a spot treatment, but your goal should be to get them to fade as much as possible. Once the laundry process is complete, you may find that you need to treat stains further to completely clean a garment.

Fill a Container With Water

As you begin to hand wash your garments, you will need to locate a large waterproof container. This can be a sink basin, or you can also use a bucket or container made from a waterproof material such as metal or plastic. The most important thing is that it can hold water safely and also will be a suitable size for the amount of laundry you have.

Before filling the container with water, you may wish to rinse or clean it. This will ensure that you have a clean space in which you can wash your clothes.

When you fill the container, it is usually best to use cool or lukewarm water to prevent fabric bleeds or damage to your clothing. However, depending on the care label, you may need to clean some clothing using warm water. Do your research beforehand, and then decide the temperature as needed.

As you fill the container, make sure there is enough water to clean your clothing. However, you should also avoid overfilling with water as this can lead to overflowing or splashing.

Add Soap or Detergent

Once your container is filled, add detergent. The process will work best if you have laundry detergent on hand. Although it is possible to use other liquid soaps such as hand soap or dish soap, you should only do this as a last resort as they may run the risk of damaging your clothing.

Read the detergent container before adding it to the water. This will give you advice on how much to use, as well as any other specific considerations you need to be aware of. If you do not have instructions on hand, you can add about 1 teaspoon of detergent for every pound of clothing that you are washing. Depending on your load size, you may need anywhere from ¼ cup to a full cup of detergent.

Place Your Clothing in the Water

When you add your clothing to the water, gently press it down so that everything becomes submerged. You should also swirl the clothing around, and gently stimulate the water so that suds form as the clothing becomes saturated with the soap and water mixture.

Do not handle clothing roughly, and avoid kneading or scrubbing the laundry. These actions can damage the fabric.

Let the Clothes Soak

Your clothes will need to soak in the standing water for a maximum of 30 minutes. 

However, you may choose to let it sit a little bit longer based on the following considerations:

  • Load Size: If you are washing a lot of clothing, consider giving it some extra time so the soap can permeate all of the garments.
  • Dirtiness: If your clothes are exceptionally dirty or stained, it may be wise to let them sit longer. You can also change out the water for the best results.
  • Label instructions: Although it is rare, some labels may have specific instructions on how long clothes should be washed. Follow any requirements that are stated on your garments.

Avoid soaking your clothes for hours on end. This can damage the fabric, or make it difficult to fully rinse them. As a general rule, you should never soak silk or delicate fabrics such as lace for longer than 30 minutes. It may be helpful to set a timer so you know when your clothes are ready to move out of the soaking phase.

Rinse Your Clothes

Empty the water from the basin, and either refill it with clean water or place your clothes under a source of running water, such as a faucet. As you rinse your clothing, you should make sure that you are getting all of the suds out. Clothes that are not properly rinsed can irritate your skin when you wear them.

Get Rid of Excess Water Using Hands or a Washboard

Avoid wringing or stretching clothing. This may damage the garments. As you rinse, it can be helpful to lightly press clothing against the side of the container or against a washboard to remove excess water. 

You may also push and squeeze the fabric as you see fit. Be exceptionally careful around delicate fabrics, and avoid any harsh movements that may damage garments.

The video below shows another effective way to get rid of excess water, just keep in mind that the towel will be wet afterward!

How to Dry Clothes FAST (Quick Method That Actually Works)

Dry Your Clothing

Once they have been rinsed, your clothes are ready to be dried. You may either place your clothing in a machine dryer or hang them up to dry.

If you air-dry clothes, make sure they hang up evenly, without any folds that could trap water. If you are drying them on a flat surface, spread them out evenly so that they dry faster.

If you are outdoors, it is helpful to dry your clothing in an area where they will have a lot of exposure to sunlight. Useful products like clothing racks and clotheslines exist to make the air-drying process even easier.

Machine drying clothes may be the fastest option, but it can also cause damage or shrinkage. Read all clothing labels before placing items in a machine dryer. 

Dry Clothes WITHOUT a Dryer (Using Indoors Drying Rack)

Hand Washing Clothes Tools

If you hand wash clothes often, it may be worth investing in a few small tools that can help you remove stains and clean your clothes with ease.

Soft Brush

A small, soft brush is a great tool for removing stains. These are often inexpensive and can be rubbed gently against fabrics either before the soaking or during. Make sure the brush is made with gentle fibers, and avoid brushes made with metal or plastic bristles as this could damage your clothing.

Water Agitator

A water agitator will help make sure that your clothes are circulating in the water, allowing the soap to permeate fabrics and remove grime. Although you can just use your hand to agitate the water, you can keep yourself dry by using tools such as a long-handled brush.

If you do use something from around the house, make sure it is clean before intermingling it with your clothing.

Washboard

Washboards are a handy tool to have for washing clothes. They serve as a form of water agitator, allowing your clothing to get very clean as water passes through the fabric and removes grime.

If you do choose to use a washboard, you will want to be careful with delicate clothing, as they could rip against the abrasive board. As always, as you move your clothes against the washboard, handle them gently and avoid twisting or pulling excessively.

Best Detergent for Hand Washing Clothes

Soap is an important part of the handwashing process, and depending on what you are washing, numerous detergents can work for you:

  • For very dirty clothing: Use a powerful detergent such as Tide HE. This will wash away the most difficult of grime.
  • For delicates: Choose a detergent that is proven to be gentle on fabrics, such as Soak
  • For wool: Fabric made from wool often needs special treatment as clothing of this type can be very easy to damage. Consider using a traditional detergent, such as Woolite, for clothes that are made from this material.

Every detergent has its positive and negative attributes. If you intend to frequently hand wash your clothes, you may need to experiment to find your favorite detergent brand.

Additionally, you may be able to use your favorite machine detergent for hand washing, too. Read the labels before use and remember to use an appropriate amount of detergent for the clothing you intend to wash.

I’ve written in more detail about temperature and detergent here.

What Can You Use Instead of a Washboard?

If you are traveling or hand washing your clothes last minute, you may not have access to a washboard. However, there are many substitutes for washboards that will leave your clothes just as clean.

Use the Side of the Basin

If you are washing your clothes in a sturdy-sided basin or container, you may find that you can just as easily use the sides of the receptacle to function as a washboard. The main function of washboards is to serve as a flat surface against which you can pass water through your clothes. 

Before using a basin or container side as a replacement washboard, make sure that it is sturdy enough and that you have adequate space. You will not want to cause water to overflow, or potentially damage the sides of the container.

Invest in a Portable Hand Washer

In recent years, small, portable washing machines have gained popularity as an easy way to handwash your clothes. As you put clothing in these objects, you will be able to spin them in water, serving a very similar purpose to a washboard or an agitator in a laundry machine.

Hand washers vary in price but can be found on Amazon for as low as $69.99. This may seem like an investment but their ease of use and portability may be worth the price.

It may also be possible to find a hand-washer secondhand. Search internet classifieds to see if anyone has one for sale at a more reasonable price. 

Then there is always cheap semi-automatic washers like the one in the video below. I’ve been testing for a year now and I think it is a good investment if you’re looking for something cheap. I will however say that I do prefer regular washers over this one, but compared to doing laundry by hand, it is fantastic.

$160 Mini Washing Machine and Dryer (Worth it?)

Use a Salad Spinner

Salad spinners may seem like an odd choice, but serve the same purpose as agitators or washboards in getting your clothes clean. These small, household items are usually made from durable plastic and are easy to operate.

Unfortunately, salad spinners may be tedious if you have a large load of clothes to wash. If you are washing small batches of clothing, however, this device may be the right fit for you.

How to Wash Clothes by Hand Using Bar Soap

Bar soap is a potential alternative to detergent. If it is the only thing you have available, you should still be able to use it to get your clothes clean.

The following options will allow you to clean your garments using bar soap:

  • Spot treat: you may use bar soap to directly target stains or grime on clothing. Scrub the bar of soap in the affected area until a lather is formed. You should then be able to keep scrubbing until the stain is removed. Be sure to rinse the garment thoroughly if you use this option.
  • Create lather: Rub the bar of soap against the washboard until thick lather forms. The lather can then be added to the bucket to serve the same purpose as liquid detergent. If you choose this option, it may be difficult to estimate the amount of soap you need. Use trial and error for best results, or cycle your clothes through the water multiple times until clean.
  • Melt the soap: You can also create liquid soap by shaving bar soap into hot or boiling water. For a standard 4 ounce bar of soap, you should use 8 to 9 cups of water to create the best consistency of liquid soap.

If you need to, you can also scrub each article of clothing individually with the soap bar. However, be sure that you rinse the clothing until it is completely free of suds to avoid any irritation to your skin.

What Type of Bar Soap to Use When Washing Clothes?

If you use bar soap, you should be sure to choose a type of soap that is free of added oils or skin softeners, such as lotion. These are usually added to bar soaps that are intended for body wash, and if applied to your clothing, they can cause staining or spotting.

Certain bar soaps may damage your clothing. If you are unsure whether a bar will be safe to use on your laundry, you should first try washing an old rag or fabric scrap or spot-treat a very small area on an article of clothing to test if the soap will cause damage.

In general, you should avoid using soap that is intended as a body wash, as these may ultimately damage your clothing.

This soap made by Woolite is a good option if you are unsure.

Can You Use a Plunger to Wash Clothes?

You may have heard of plungers as an unusual option for hand-washing clothing. Although it sounds strange, plungers can be an effective tool for getting your clothes clean. Using a plunger and a bucket during the cleaning process can result in hygienic clothes and an easy washing setup.

For the most part, cleaning your clothes with a plunger will work much in the same way that a washboard or water agitator would. It will make sure that water and soap pass through the fabric of your clothing, and will provide the stimulation needed to remove grime.

If you use a plunger, washing your clothes will essentially follow the same steps as you would when normally washing them. You should fill a bucket with water, use the same amounts of detergent, and then use the plunger to agitate the water before beginning to rinse your clothing.

However, if you do choose to do this method, there are a few special considerations you may wish to follow:

  • Cut holes in the plunger. Before you begin washing, it is very helpful to drill or cut holes around the rubber surface of the plunger. It does not need to be more than 6 to 12. This will allow water to flow freely through the rubber and prevent any buckling or excessive splashing.
  • Cut a hole in the bucket lid. This is not a necessary step, but if your bucket has a lid, you can drill a hole in the top to leave space for the plunger handle and make washing that much easier. Using this strategy, you can agitate the water and avoid getting splashed or having water escape the bucket.
  • Purchase a plunger specifically for washing. It is best to start this process with a brand new plunger, as it will be sterile. If you do not have a new plunger on hand, please make sure that you clean the plunger thoroughly using a sanitizing agent to make sure you are not contaminating your clothes.

Besides serving as a funny anecdote to share with friends, using a plunger to wash clothes can actually be very effective and save you a lot of time and energy in the process.

Conclusion

People have been hand washing their clothes since the earliest moments of human history, and this practice continues to this day. Hand washing clothes does not have to be excessively difficult and can be a great way to make sure your clothing is fully clean and avoids damage that can sometimes be caused by machine washers and dryers.

There are many different ways to hand wash your clothes, and many different tools and detergents you can use to help you achieve maximum cleanliness. Before your first attempt at handwashing clothing, it may be worth it to do some research on different products that could work well for your washing needs.

However, if you are in a pinch, soap and water can still work well for washing. With a little work, your clothes will be clean and fresh!

Learn more about drying clothes here, or why clothes start to smell here.

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