How to hand wash clothes

For many people, the washing machine is a modern convenience they can’t live without. Just toss in a load of laundry, add some detergent, and let the machine do all the work. However, there are times when hand washing clothes is necessary or preferable. Certain delicate fabrics like silk, lace, or cashmere may be too fragile for a washing machine’s agitation. You may also need to hand wash clothes when traveling or if you don’t have access to a washing machine. Whatever the reason, learning proper hand washing techniques is an essential laundry skill.

How to hand wash clothes

Why Hand Wash Clothes?

Before we dive into the how-tos of hand washing, let’s explore some of the key reasons to take this approach:

  • Protect delicate fabrics – Washing machines can be too rough on sheer, lacy, silk, or vintage fabrics and cause excessive wear, fading, or damage. Hand washing with cool water and mild detergent is gentler.
  • Save energy and water – Hand washing eliminates the need to run an entire wash cycle, saving water, electricity, and reducing your environmental impact.
  • Clean effectively without agitation – Some items like sweaters can felt or become misshapen from a washing machine’s tumbling and spinning. Hand washing allows you to clean them thoroughly without agitation.
  • Wash on the go – When traveling or camping, hand washing is the perfect way to keep your clothes fresh without access to a machine.
  • Extend clothing life – The gentle approach of hand washing puts less stress on fibers compared to a washer’s vigorous cycle. This can help clothes last longer.
  • Prevent color bleeding – Keeping deeply colored items separate when hand washing ensures colors won’t bleed onto lighter clothes.

What You’ll Need

Gather these supplies before getting started with hand washing:

  • A clean sink, bathtub, or plastic tub for washing
  • Mild detergent or hand washing soap
  • Cool or slightly warm water (hot water can cause colors to bleed or fade)
  • A clean towel for rolling and pressing out excess water
  • A drying rack or line to air dry clean items
  • A small brush or sponge for spot treating stains (optional)

Step 1: Read Care Labels

Always check clothing tags and follow any specific manufacturer instructions for hand washing first. Different fabrics may have certain requirements for water temperature, types of detergent, wringing techniques, etc.

Step 2: Remove Stains

Before washing, check for any stains and pre-treat them with a stain remover or dab of detergent. Let it sit briefly per product instructions to help break down the stain. An old soft toothbrush can help work the stain remover into the fabric.

Step 3: Fill Tub with Water

Fill a sink or tub with enough cool water to allow clothes to be fully submerged and have room for movement. Too little water can make hand washing ineffective. The tub should be filled about halfway for most loads.

Load SizeApproximate Water Amount
1-2 items1-2 gallons
3-5 items3-4 gallons
6+ items5+ gallons

Step 4: Add Detergent

Use a small amount of mild detergent formulated for hand washing – usually just 1-2 teaspoons for a full sink of water is plenty. Excessive detergent can leave residue on clothes. Consider using a plant-based detergent if you want an eco-friendly option. Look for detergents with ingredients like:

  • Sodium lauryl sulfate
  • Cocamidopropyl betaine
  • Decyl glucoside

Avoid detergents with harsh chemicals, fragrances, or optical brighteners.

Step 5: Submerge and Agitate

Fully submerge each item of clothing in the soapy water. Use your hands to gently agitate and squeeze the soapy water through the fabric for 2-3 minutes. Don’t twist, wring or stretch fabrics excessively. Here are some agitation tips:

  • Rub fabrics against themselves to release dirt
  • Knead sturdy fabrics like denim or cotton
  • Very gently squeeze silks and delicates
  • Clean section by section on heavily soiled items

Step 6: Let Soak

Allow heavily soiled or stained items to soak for 15-30 minutes to allow more time for the detergent to work on any ground-in dirt and oils. Avoid soaking silk, wool or anything prone to color bleeding for too long. Add a bit more detergent if necessary for tough stains.

Step 7: Rinse Thoroughly

Drain the soiled wash water and refill the tub with clean, cool rinse water. Swish each item through the rinse water until all soap residue is removed. You may need to rinse through a few changes of clean water to ensure no soap remains. Residual soap can leave clothes feeling stiff and rough.

Bonus Tip: Add Fabric Softener

For extra softness, consider adding a capful of hair conditioner or fabric softener to the final rinse water. The conditioning agents will help relax the fibers and make fabrics feel luxuriously soft.

Step 8: Remove Excess Water

Once rinsing is complete, it’s time to prepare items for drying. Gently press or roll each garment in a clean, dry towel to absorb as much moisture as possible without wringing or twisting.

Never wring out knits or delicates as this can cause twisting and excessive stretching of the fibers. For sturdy items like jeans or towels, it’s okay to gently twist and press out more water.

Step 9: Air Dry

Finally, hang or lay clothes flat on a drying rack or clothesline to allow them to fully air dry. Avoid excessive heat from a dryer which can cause shrinking, fading, or excessive wrinkling.

For sweaters and knits, reshape items while damp and dry thoroughly before wearing to help maintain their shape. Lay items flat in their original shape on a drying rack. Only hang dry sturdy fabrics like denim or towels.

Hand Washing Tips and Tricks

  • Wash a few items at a time instead of overloading. Too many clothes reduces exposure to soapy water.
  • Use seamless sink or tub to avoid snags on zippers or embellishments.
  • Hand wash in sections, cleaning sleeves, bodice, skirt, etc. individually on heavily soiled items.
  • Never hand wash all garments in the same water. Separate lights from darks and colors from whites.
  • Rub fabrics against themselves instead of aggressively twisting to release dirt.
  • Add a capful of hair conditioner or fabric softener to rinse water for extra softness.
  • Roll garments in a towel very gently. Don’t wring, twist or squeeze tightly.
  • Dry most fabrics flat in their original shape. Only hang dry knits or durable fabrics.
  • Use a small brush or sponge for spot treating stains before washing.

What to Hand Wash

As a general rule, any delicate, sheer, embellished, or fragile fabrics should be hand washed to protect them. This includes:

  • Silk
  • Lace
  • Chiffon
  • Cashmere
  • Wool
  • Vintage pieces
  • Beaded or sequined items
  • Bras and lingerie
  • Swimwear

You may also want to hand wash sturdy fabrics like denim or dark colors that are prone to fading in a washing machine’s hot water and harsh detergent. When in doubt, check care labels for manufacturer instructions. Learn more about decoding care symbols and instructions.

Learning to properly hand wash your clothes may take some initial effort, but it’s a valuable skill that can extend the life of your delicate, treasured garments. With some practice, you’ll become a hand washing pro and keep your special pieces looking pristine for years to come! Check out this video from Martha Stewart for a visual guide to hand washing techniques.

Sharing Is Caring:

As the founder of Clean It Spotless, I am Melissa Walker, a leading expert in removing tough stains from fabrics, carpets, and upholstery. With over 10 years of experience in the cleaning industry, I have developed my own natural, non-toxic stain-fighting formulas that lift stains while preserving the integrity of the underlying material. My stain removal tutorials are widely read online, and I have appeared on local TV segments demonstrating my techniques. I also present popular stain removal workshops at community centers and schools.

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