Doing your laundry by hand

srctiny_360The thought of having to do laundry by hand strikes terror in the hearts of launderers everywhere. The list of insecurities is understandable: Will my clothes get clean? Isn’t it a dreary chore? I haven’t the time to do this!

But doing laundry by hand is neither dreary nor time-consuming after you’ve figured it out. And stains you once thought impossible to remove will begin to fade once you start to wash manually!

Laundry soapEveryone should know how to hand-wash their clothes. To depend on any machine to take care of basic needs is foolhardy. Hand-washing is a skill that can be employed during camping trips or for small articles between loads. It’s perfect for washing cloth diapers (which, by the way, are the easiest articles to wash; jeans are the hardest!).  And importantly, leaving out electricity saves you money (minimizes environmental impact, too), and the water used can be run off to your garden to perform a second duty watering your veggies.

I wash an automatic-washer-size load in about ten minutes.  Add five minutes for hanging it out on the clothesline and it’s over.  Really, it is this simple; the secret is to soak your clothing first.

    The Basic Steps:

  1. Fill two tubs with water, one for washing and one for rinsing.
  2. Add bleach (or biodegradable hydrogen peroxide) and soap to the washtub if needed.
  3. Let clothes soak according to manufacturer’s instructions and how dirty they are.
  4. Agitate each article separately by rubbing between your hands about five times.
  5. Squeeze out excess water and throw article into the rinse tub.


Now that the washtub’s empty and the rinse tub’s full:

  1. Swish the clothes a few times to rinse them.
  2. Squeeze excess water out of the clothing and place it in a bucket.
  3. Carry the bucket of clothes out and hang them up to dry.

You might want to sort your laundry before soaking it, just as you would for an automatic washer.  This is a step I skip; throw everything into the washtub and put the dark and delicate items on the top.  That way, I can wash and remove them first, then let everything else soak for another day.


The only equipment required for hand-washing clothes is a five-gallon bucket and you.  Soaking clothes eliminates the need for soap in most cases.  If you have particularly oily or greasy clothes, you’ll want to add some soap, usually right to the greasy spot, and then soak.  Most people use way too much soap; if you can smell it on your clothes, it’s still there, ready to irritate and cause allergies for the wearer.  Plus, soap kills beneficial bacteria in the waterways it contaminates.  A much more practical solution is to get the clothes clean, then hang them on the clothesline where fresh air and sunshine will make the clothes smell as clean as they are.  And the beating of the clothes by the wind softens them; no one will ever guess that they didn’t come out of a dryer.

Pieces that are being “freshened” rather than desoiled, such as sheets and bath towels, can be soaked, rung, and hung up usually without a rinse if you leave out the soap.  Unless the water looks like an inkwell, recycle it by using it to soak more items.

As a general rule, extremely soiled clothing should be soaked at least twenty-four hours.  The minimum soak should be three hours, the exception being delicate articles.  Laces, silks, and colors prone to running and fading should be washed after fifteen to thirty minutes of soaking.  Use your judgment on how long to soak.  In plain tepid water, with no soap and little or no bleach, it should be safe to soak for at least twenty- four hours on whites, less for bright colors and delicates.

Read clothes labels for clues.  Your first few loads you’ll want to check your clothes frequently to see how they- and the stains- are holing up.  Personally, we are a farm family, and our clothes tend toward the indestructible, but my best clothes go on top of the load for a one-hour soak.

If an article is horribly stained or greasy, resort to soap or a commercial stain remover and rub it in well, then soak.  As you load your washtub, be on the lookout for these problem areas and give them an extra five or so agitations before rinsing.

The only additive I use with any regularity is chlorine bleach.  A mere capful or two will keep your wash water from smelling like it died, should you get busy and forget to wash for a couple of days.  It also keeps diapers sanitary and white.  Beware of metal tubs that could leave rust stains on your garments.

One bucket instead of two will do; you’ll simply have to empty out the used water, and then refill it to rinse.  And you’ll have to set your washed clothes aside in the sink or on a clean, flat rock as you finish the load, then empty out the dirty water, refill the bucket with clean water, and toss the washed clothes in for a rinse.  An extra bucket for rinsing lets you put the clothes right into the water so you don’t have to move them an extra time.

I never use hot water for washing clothes.  Soaking replaces the need for it, and hot water is heated with a natural resource, be that coal, wood, or electricity.  Save those resources for cooking and bathing, and let soakage battle your stains for you.  There will be less chance of shrinkage, fading, or other damage to your clothes if you leave out the assault of hot water.

srctiny_360The Squirrel says: Insist on family participation in this event. Your spouse can haul water if you aren’t washing near a spigot, the kids can hang the clothes out and bring in dry ones, and everyone can carry their dirty clothes to the soaking tub and their clean, dry clothes to their rooms. You will be richly rewarded with clean clothes, a clean environment and a family that knows the joy of shared responsibilities.