A Step-by-Step Guide to Washing Your Clothes by Hand

How to hand-wash your laundry (and kill germs) at home

By Elizabeth L. Cline

March 30, 2020


Photo by Tetiana Kolubai/iStock

Knowing how to effectively hand-wash clothes and linen is particularly useful right now for those of us who don’t have laundry machines and may be avoiding public spaces like laundromats. But you don’t have to be in the middle of a pandemic for this life skill to come in handy: Washing by hand can curb the environmental impact of your laundry routine by cutting back on energy-intensive machines. It can also help your clothes last longer, preventing fading, shrinking, and tearing caused by the washer and dryer. It’s a double win for sustainability and can be easy and convenient too with a little know-how. 

1.    Decide what should (and shouldn’t be) hand-washed. 

The biggest challenge for those new to handwashing is knowing what can and can’t be hand-washed at home. Check the care label first. Machine-washable clothes are all hand-washable, from your filthiest socks and workout gear to dish towels and bedsheets. But what about those "dry-clean only" labels? Often, they can be ignored. Manufacturers are required to list only one cleaning option (machine, hand-wash, or dry-clean only) on the care label, and many choose dry-clean only for delicate items so they don’t get in trouble if customers ruin a garment by home-washing.

Dry-clean-only garments that are lightweight and simply constructed, that are one color and made of one material, and that lack a lining are good candidates for handwashing. Most cashmere or wool sweaters can and should be hand-washed. Cotton, silk, and synthetic tops and pants, and even some viscose rayon garments can be hand-washed as well as bras, tights, and lingerie. 

As for what not to dunk in your kitchen sink, let commonsense guide you. Leather and suede and anything heavily embellished or with sewn-in linings (like evening wear, winter coats, suits, or other tailored garments) are all best left to pros. Very bright or saturated colors also shouldn’t be hand-washed, unless you’re willing to accept fading. Bright silk garments, especially, tend to lose color very easily. If you’re still not sure if a garment is hand-washable, dab an inconspicuous spot like an inside seam or the inside of the cuff with a wet cloth or Q-tip. If the fabric loses a significant amount of color or shrinks or warps, then opt for dry-cleaning.

2.    Gather your supplies.

For starters, you’ll need a basin. The bathroom sink or a plastic tub is ideal (a bucket works too). For larger loads, full-length pieces, or towels and linens, the bathtub or a large kitchen sink are best. Ensure that the basin is spotlessly clean, as any residue will easily transfer to light-colored clothing. If using a kitchen sink, make sure to wash out detergent after usage, as it isn’t fit for consumption. 

You’ll also need somewhere to dry: It could be a clothesline (there are indoor and outdoor options), or a collapsible drying rack, or you can improvise with a towel rack or shower bar or even the railing of a deck or balcony. Sheets can be draped across two chairs in a pinch.

Though you don’t need a special handwashing detergent, it’s important to use a mild one, free of fragrance and bleaches. Eco-friendly options like Seventh Generation, Dr. Bronner’s, and Ecover work well, as do clear dishwashing soaps and baby shampoo. Mild, eco-friendly detergents are better for the environment and gentle on your clothes. But they’re also much better for you and your skin as you hand-wash. If you take to handwashing, consider investing in a washboard and a scrub brush, but they’re not necessary if you’re just getting started.

3.    Sort by color, type, and dirtiness. 

Divide your everyday clothes into lights and darks and by level of soiling. For example, you might wash socks, gym clothes, and underwear together and then towels together, as these categories require more soap and agitation. Outer layers like T-shirts and jeans can be washed together as well. Wash delicates individually or a few at a time, and all the same color, to protect the fibers.

Keep in mind that you’ll need to find a spot to hang dry all your items. If you have limited space, wash small loads, and if washing sheets, wash one set at a time. 

Check clothes for yellowing and stains. Apply detergent directly to any spots, rub in with your fingers, and let sit for 15 minutes. If your whites are yellow or you have a ring around the collar, use natural and nontoxic household ingredients to lighten them, like hydrogen peroxide, which can be applied directly to yellow areas, or lemon juice, baking soda, or distilled white vinegar mixed into your soaking water. Sunlight also brightens whites.

4.    Ready, set, wash.

Fill your basin with cool water and a small amount of detergent (a few drops is appropriate for one garment; follow the measurements on your detergent bottle for heavily soiled loads or larger items like towels and sheets). Keep in mind that water is a solvent and will do much of the lifting of cleaning your clothes—too much soap will be hard to remove and can leave a crunchy residue.

Swirl the soap and water around until fully mixed. Drop your garment(s) or linens into the water until submerged. For heavily soiled clothes or linens, let them soak for at least a half hour to an hour. Leave socks and underwear or linens overnight if need be.

Now, with your hands, gently swish your clothes around. For soiled garments like socks or dish towels, you’ll need to do a bit of scrubbing. If you don’t have a washboard or scrub brush, rub the garment or linen against itself. Or, put your hand inside a clean sock and use that as a scrubber. If you notice the water turning grayish or even yellowish, this is normal and a sign of your laundry getting clean!

Pour out the soapy water and run cool, clean water over your clothes until the water runs clear and there are no suds. It might take several passes of clean water. 

Next, press down on your laundry, pushing it against the side of the basin, and pushing the water out. Don’t wring the garments or pull them up and out of the basin while sopping wet, as this will cause them to warp and lose their shape. Keep pushing until most of the extra water is removed. The more water you can push out of your clothes, the faster they’ll dry and the less likely they are to mildew.

5.    Air drying is easy.

Now it’s time to air dry. Textiles dry at different rates. Synthetics like polyester or your nylon yoga pants dry very fast. Wool dries relatively quickly too. Cotton garments, and especially cotton towels and sheets, are likely to take the longest, so keep this in mind as you find areas to dry your items.

First, you’ll need to remove all extra moisture from heavy and dense garments, like chunky wool sweaters, by laying them flat on a towel. Reshape them, roll them up in the towel, and push the moisture out. Viscose/rayon also tends to warp when hung to dry. These items should be dried flat, so transfer to a dry towel and place near a window, fan, AC vent, or heater. 

It’s important to reshape clothes if you hang dry as well. If using clothespins, place them in an inconspicuous spot so they don’t pucker your fabrics. If using a drying rack, fold your items at the middle across the bars. Another option is to hang garments from hangers on your shower rod or off your drying racks, leaving space for air to circulate. Sheets and towels can be pinned to hangers and hung from the shower rod, draped across a deck railing or two chairs, or over your drying rack.

To speed up drying indoors, place your laundry near a fan, window, or over an air conditioning vent or near a heater—just not too close to the heater to avoid damage. Another tip: Do the laundry before bed, and in most cases it will be dry by morning. Items that are wrinkled can be touched up with an iron or steamer, but many wrinkles will fall out on their own.

Handwashing might sound daunting at first, but it becomes second nature with a little practice. One of the most unexpected joys of handwashing is it can save you time. Washing small loads of clothes and dishtowels in the sink throughout the week can help you to avoid time-intensive laundry days. Happy handwashing!

A Note About Germs

Most bacteria on clothing are harmless. However, if you or someone in your household has a contagious illness or has come into contact with a contaminated surface or person, ER doctors advise washing clothes and linens in very hot water and tumble drying on high heat for 45 minutes. Your detergent will also help remove bacteria and viruses. A more eco-friendly option is hanging laundry to dry in the sunlight, which is effective at killing bacteria and germs as well.

But if handwashing is your best option, wash your clothes in detergent and use the hottest tap water possible, or use boiling water. Just be careful when handling scalding water and keep in mind that hot water fades bright colors and can shrink wool and some cotton. Make sure to either use disposable gloves or wash your hands and sanitize your basin after handling this laundry.