Hand Washing Clothes: Dos and Don'ts

By: Kim Williamson  | 
Don't overdo the rub-a-dub-dub when you're handwashing -- a gentle kneading is all that's needed.

Key Takeaways

  • Hand-washing is necessary for delicate and expensive garments that may be damaged by machine washing.
  • Key tips include using a clean sink, cool to lukewarm water and mild soap specifically designed for hand-washing or delicates.
  • Gentle swishing and thorough rinsing are crucial. Dry the garments flat to maintain their shape.

Today, you usually say "washboard" when referring to someone's abdominal muscles. But prior to the 1900s, hand-washing laundry, using washboards or not, was the only way to go. No wonder people dreaded the Monday wash day and washed clothes as little as possible. Thankfully, we now have machines to take care of our washing but there are still some items that require us to use manual labor.

It's usually the more delicate and often expensive clothes that require hand-washing -- sometimes it's in the garment's directions; other times, we just decide not to risk it in the washing machine. But before you get started, let's discuss some do's and don'ts:


  • Believe the Hype: Hand-washing and machine washing, even on the gentle cycle are different. The agitation on the gentle cycle may stretch, snag or pull fabrics. A front load machine will have less agitation, but regardless, hand-washing is not equivalent to your delicate cycle.
  • Read your Labels: If a label reads "dry clean only," proceed with caution. This may mean water will damage that fabric or agitation is bad for the piece. If you decide to hand-wash it, you're taking a chance, so if the item is irreplaceable or expensive, decide if it's worth it.
  • Know your Fabric: Good candidates for hand-washing are usually solid colors, cashmere, some silks, and some woolens. Fabrics like velvet or taffeta are better left to dry cleaning. An example is Dupioni silk, a silk woven from two different silkworms. With washing, Dupioni shrinks, loses stiffness and sheen..
  • Lighten your Load: While a good solution when traveling, hand-washing doesn't work well on heavy items like towels or jeans. Rinsing alone will use more water than a machine. Save it for "unmentionables" or a few items at once.


Tips for Hand-washing Clothes

Let's assume your garment is safe to hand-wash and you're ready to start. Here's how you do it:

  • Use a clean sink: Clean the sink before you start -- simple enough.
  • Check your temperature: Water temperatures should be cool to lukewarm. Steve Boorstein, host of the radio show "The Clothing Doctor," recommended 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius) or "just warm to the touch" at RealSimple.com. Hot water is great for stains but can bleed colors.
  • Choose a mild soap: Use a detergent specifically for hand-washing or delicates. These products rinse out more easily , and don't need hot temperatures to break down or be effective. Use the bottle directions to know how much to use.
  • Swish gently: After adding the clothes, keeping like fabrics and colors together, gently swish the clothes around for around two to five minutes. Ninety-eight percent of dirt comes out in the first five minutes of soaking, so you don't need to use rough motions. Remember -- it's the agitation in a washing machine that's rough on the clothes, so go easy. A gentle kneading, similar to baking bread, is as rough as you want to get.
  • Rinse, repeat: Rinsing takes several repetitions, and is typically the hardest part. Drain the sink, refill, rinse the clothes and repeat until all the soap is gone. One recommendation is to add a quarter cup of distilled vinegar to the rinse water as the acid helps dissolve the alkalies in detergents . However, rinse all the vinegar out well so you don't smell like a salad dressing.
  • Dry flat: Squeeze out the water without wringing or twisting. Lay the piece on a towel, then roll up the towel several times, pressing out the water. When finished, lay the item out flat on a drying rack or towel to dry. Avoid using hangers which can stretch out the shape of the garment.


Frequently Asked Questions

How often should detergent be added during the hand washing process?
Add detergent just once at the beginning of the washing process and rinse it out thoroughly to prevent residue.
Can all types of fabric softeners be used during hand washing?
It's best to use liquid fabric softeners designed for hand washing to avoid residue. However, you should only add them during the final rinse to condition the fabric.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Amo, Catherine. "How to Care for Velvet Clothing." Overstock.com. (April 18, 2012). http://www.overstock.com/guides/how-to-care-for-velvet-clothing
  • Bond, Annie B. "Wet Clean Wool, Silk and Rayon." Care2 Make a Difference. April 10, 1999. (April 11, 2012). http://www.care2.com/greenliving/wet-clean-wool-silk-and-rayon.html
  • Dupioni Silk Fabric.net. (April 18, 2012). http://dupionisilkfabric.net/
  • Fabric Direct. "Community Fabric Care." (April 10, 2012). http://www.fabricdirect.com/html/fabric_care_tips.html
  • Garlough, Donna. "How to Wash Drycleanable Clothes." Marthastewart.com (April 9, 2012). http://www.marthastewart.com/270610/how-to-wash-drycleanable-clothes
  • House Cleaning HowTos. "Hand Washing Clothes." (April 9, 2012). http://www.house-cleaning-howtos.com/hand-washing-clothes.html
  • Jarazadeh, Jennifer. "Hand Washing Do's and Don'ts." Real Simple. (April 10, 2012). http://www.realsimple.com/home-organizing/cleaning/laundry/hand-washing-dos-donts-10000001016556/index.html
  • Sperber, Kelly. "How to Hand Wash Clothes." The Housing Forum. (April 10, 2012). http://thehousingforum.com/how-to-hand-wash-clothes/
  • The Vinegar Institute. "Uses and Tips." (April 24, 2012). http://www.versatilevinegar.org/usesandtips.html