How to Hand Wash Clothes

How to Hand Wash Clothes

hand washing a white shirt

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Chances are, your washing machine has a delicate or hand-wash setting. Unfortunately, those settings aren’t necessarily appropriate for all of your clothes. Washing by hand is the safest way to launder your most delicate items without damaging them. 

While it may seem somewhat archaic, hand washing still has a place in modern laundry. Things like cashmere sweaters and other luxury apparel often come with instructions indicating that they should be hand washed. However, as with most things, there is a right and a wrong way to wash apparel by hand. Getting it wrong can, at best, cost you time and, at worst, ruin your clothes. So, if you want to become a professional at hand washing your laundry, keep reading to discover some helpful tips.

1. Understand the Reasons to Hand Wash Clothes

Protect Your Clothes

Although we want to think that doing our laundry is as simple as throwing all of our clothes into the washer, pouring in laundry detergent and pressing start, the reality is that different garments require different levels of care. Delicate fabrics are easily damaged in modern washing machines, so knowing how to care for them properly is essential.

For example, if you take the time to read the label inside your clothing that tells you how to clean it, you might find that some garments are "dry clean only." Others can only be washed at certain temperatures or with specific colors, and many more can only be washed "by hand." Many can’t withstand bleach or other harsh stain removers.

However, even if your clothes don't need to be washed by hand, doing so can make them last longer and help you avoid costly laundry mistakes.

This is because washing machines, while effective, are relatively rough on your clothes. The constant swish and swirl of warm or cold water breaks down fibers. Over time, this will cause the integrity of the fabric to wear down, and it can lead to fraying, ripping or tearing. Skipping the washing machine on laundry day can prevent pilling, too.

If you want all of your clothes to last as long as possible, you should always wash them by hand. But who has the time for that? Though most folks don’t have time to hand wash everything, hand washing your special and most delicate items is a must.

Save Energy

Washing your clothes the old-fashioned way naturally saves energy. Today, modern washers are very efficient, but they still run for a full hour and use electricity. Plus, if you need to use the dryer for your clothing, this increases the amount of energy you consume to wash your clothes.

Washing them by hand means that you will not use any electricity while washing your clothes, which should produce some small savings on your monthly bills. And when you air dry your clothes on a drying rack or clothesline, you’ll be using even less power. In addition to saving money and protecting your clothes, hand washing and air drying reduce your environmental impact and shrink your carbon footprint.

2. Know What Clothes You Should Always Wash By Hand

One helpful trick for hand washing your clothes is to make sure you're only washing clothes that actually have to be washed by hand. 

As we mentioned earlier, you could wash all of your clothes by hand if you wanted. This would ensure that they would last much, much longer, but you would also spend half your life washing your clothes, which is not a lot of fun for anybody.

If you are looking at a massive pile of dirty laundry and aren’t sure where to start, keep in mind that certain fabrics and garments always require hand washing. Looking at the care label is an excellent place to begin, but there are a few other things to consider, too.

Here are some of the clothing items that most definitely should be washed by hand to prevent damage:

Clothing with a ‘Hand Wash’ Only Tag

One of the first things you should do when you buy a new piece of clothing is look on the inside for the label that details how you should care for that particular garment. These labels contain a lot of helpful information, so you shouldn’t snip them off and toss them in the trash.

On the care label, you will find out whether or not you can put it in the washing machine and, if you can, if you should follow any special instructions, such as "wash with like colors only" or "wash with cold water."

Typically, you will see the hand wash only label on clothing made from delicate material, such as silk and other natural materials that don't do well with washing machines, like wool.

Dry Clean Only Items

On that same label, you may encounter clothes that say "dry clean only." Your first thought is probably that you can only wash these clothes by taking them to the dry cleaner; however, this is not always true.

Some clothes, such as silks, wool, cashmere and down, will often say they can only be dry cleaned, but you can wash them at home using water if you wash them by hand. When you’re in a hurry or want to save some money, hand washing dry clean only items could be the solution. But unless you are 100 percent certain you can do so without damaging the garment (or if you aren’t worried about ruining it), stick with the professionals. Few things are worse than ruining a favorite garment by washing it improperly.

woman doing laundry by hand

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Delicate Clothing

One of the key advantages of washing your clothes by hand is that it's a much gentler process. When your clothes go into the washing machine, they rub together and also up against the machine itself. These small collisions can weaken the fabric of your clothing and, over time, make it more likely for your clothes to rip or tear. This is why many clothes are labeled as "hand wash only."

However, there are bound to be clothes in your wardrobe that do not come with this special care instruction but that are delicate enough to be kept out of the washing machine. Many thin, lightweight materials, including silk, polyester, lace, acetate, velvet, chiffon and fine knits, tend to enjoy the longest lifespan when washed by hand. Lingerie should always be washed by hand, as well.

Heavily-Soiled Clothing

When something happens to your clothing that leaves them particularly dirty, such as a spill or grass stain, you should take special precautions to clean them.

You should consider hand washing them separately using an appropriate stain remover and laundry detergent so that you can properly remove the stain and keep your clothes clean. Do a bit of research to determine whether cold water or hot water is best for removing the particular type of stain you’re dealing with. 

In some cases, you may need to hand wash heavily soiled garments before machine washing. Doing this extra step will help loosen the stain so that it actually gets clean. It also keeps all of the dirt, oil or debris out of your washing machine (and your drain lines).

3. Learn How to Hand Wash Your Clothes the Right Way

Now that you understand a little bit better why it's important to wash your clothes by hand, as well as which clothes deserve this treatment, it's time to get into the process of hand washing.

Step 1: Suds Up with the Right Detergent 

Before you even begin the hand washing process, choose which soap you're going to use.

Traditional laundry detergent works just fine in most cases. If it's what you use to wash clothes normally, feel free to use it when you wash your clothes by hand. However, you should stick with detergent formulated for wool when hand washing this material. Also, keep in mind that you will need much less detergent to wash individual garments than you would for a whole load. A few drops are going to be enough. If you’d rather not use your regular detergent or a product made to launder delicate fabrics, there are other options. 

For example, if you want to go the "all-natural" route, consider using white vinegar. It's one of the most powerful cleaning agents you can have in your house. This is because it contains acetic acid, which is very good at breaking down many different compounds.

In fact, you can wash an entire load of laundry using just a cup of white vinegar. So, if you're going to use it to wash just one garment by hand, all you will need is a cap full. 

Of course, your clothes will not come out smelling like laundry detergent. Instead, they will smell like "nothing." For some, this doesn't give the impression that the clothes are clean, but they most certainly are. If you like the idea of using vinegar but would like to give your clothes a fresh scent, add a drop of essential oil, like lavender oil, when washing your clothes.

You also have other options with the type of soap you use to wash your clothes. For example, traditional dish soap can be a softer alternative to laundry detergents and help treat stains. While dish soap makes way too many suds when it meets the agitator inside a washing machine, it’s safe for hand washing.


Step 2: Fill a Basin with Water

Once you've chosen your soap, the next step is to figure out where you will wash your clothes. If you have a large bowl, that will work, but you can also wash your clothes by hand in the sink, a tub or any other large basin that you can fill with water. Just make sure that the basin is clean — especially if you are using something like a kitchen sink.

No matter what you use, remember that you need to be able to submerge your clothes in water. The vessel should be large enough for you to soak the garments and swish them around to remove dirt.

Step 3: Wash Your Clothes (Not in the Washing Machine!)

Once you've got your basin filled with some cool or warm water (based on the garment’s care label) and a little bit of soap, it's time to wash your clothes. 

To begin, simply drop your clothes into the water and let them be submerged. Once they are fully immersed, use your hands to work the fabric so that the soap gets into all the fibers and can attack and remove any dirt inside. When doing this, the important thing is to be gentle. Avoid intense scrubbing and don’t wring out the fabric. Doing so could cause pills, stretch the fabric or worse.You've kept these clothes out of the washing machine because you did not want to subject them to the abuse and agitation they'd experience in a typical washing environment. So, don't replicate this environment with your hands. Instead, slowly work the clothing back and forth, making sure not to squeeze or pull anything too aggressively. For stubborn spots, let the garment soak for a few moments so the soap and water can work their magic. If you use a stain remover, make sure it’s one that’s safe for the fabric. 

Step 4: Remove Excess Water

Once you work the clothes around in the soapy water a couple of times and feel confident that all the dirt has been released, it's time to rinse your clothing. Just like we avoided pouring water from the faucet directly onto the clothes when filling the basin, we want to avoid this when rinsing. 

Fill the basin up with cool water, submerge the garments again, work them around and then empty the basin and repeat the process until you feel comfortable there is no more soap inside the material.

After you rinse the garment with clean water, it's time to try and remove some of the excess water. Your gut instinct is probably to roll the garment up into a tight ball and squeeze as hard as you can, but do not do this.

By wringing out a garment, we're putting it under even more stress than if we had put it in the washing machine. So instead, lay them out to dry.

Step 5: Set Clothes Out to Air Dry

Here's another situation where you will have to ignore your gut instinct. Typically, when we dry our clothes, we want to hang them out somewhere where they can be air-dried. However, when you hang delicate clothing using hangers, it can stretch out as it dries and this will destroy the fabric. The solution? Dry towels.

After removing the excess water from your garment, simply lay it out onto a towel to dry. This will take longer, but it works. The towel absorbs water from the garment and more moisture evaporates into the air. 

drying rack is a great option, too. Most fold up and are relatively compact when not in use, making them an ideal air drying solution in apartments and other places where space is at a premium.

washing baby clothes

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Tips and Tricks to Successfully Hand Wash Clothes

At this point, you're a near-expert on hand washing clothes, but as you begin washing your clothes in this way, you will see there are more tricks to learn. Some of those tricks include:

4. Don't Scrub Stains

When something is dirty in other areas of our lives, we are taught to "put some elbow grease into it." This is another way of saying we need to scrub and scrub and scrub.

However, when it comes to clothes, this approach simply will not work. 

Scrubbing stains can cause them to set in more quickly, and it is a destructive activity. It agitates the fibers and weakens them. Over time, doing so can lead to tears, rips and other defects.

If you have a stain on your clothes that you wish to get out, rub it gently with a sponge or other soft material and let it soak. 

In fact, soaking is likely to have the most significant impact on stain removal

5. Use Hard Surfaces

If you ever watched people who regularly wash their clothes by hand, you will see that they often use things such as a washboard.

You can mimic this method by laying out your wet, soapy clothes on a hard surface and then rubbing them against that surface to create friction. This will help dislodge dirt and other materials without causing too much damage.

6. Don't Panic if the Water Colors

Don't panic if you submerge your clothing in water and the water immediately turns a different color. There are a couple of reasons why this might be happening.

If the clothing has been dyed, the dye may react with water and seep out slightly (jeans are a prime example). The other possibility is that dirt is simply leaking out into the water.

7. Soak First

If you want to increase the efficacy of hand washing, consider soaking your clothes before washing them. Letting your clothes sit in water, with or without soap, is helpful because it helps loosen the dirt lodged in the fibers of the clothes.

This is particularly effective if your clothing is stained or heavily soiled.


Let's Get Hand Washing

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but we have not truly moved beyond the days of washing clothes by hand. While this was once done out of necessity, it is now done by choice. It helps preserve and protect delicate clothing, as well as remove difficult stains.Now you're equipped with several tips and tricks that will make this much easier and much more effective. So, with this information, there's only one thing left to do: let's get washing!