Adulthood 101: Washing Clothes by Hand

Twenty-one is a pivotal age for the U.S. citizen. It marks the legality to buy alcoholic beverages and is considered something of a turning point for “adulthood.” Being 21, I think a lot about the concept of “adult.” Walking around with two kids under the age of 5, I’m aware that both of these kids could be my biological kids (whoa). That feels super adult. Writing my own holiday letter to friends and family–adult. Taking public transit–adult. Desperately clutching my Metro map?–not adult. Being freaked out about buying stamps in France–not really adult either, no.

One thing that definitely seems like a marker of adulthood–at least to me–is being able to competently handwash clothes. This is something I never did at home, but I started doing it a bit in college–demi-adult. The thing about that, though, was that I never seemed to get anything particularly clean. I’m not sure exactly what I was doing wrong, but I now know how to do it right. 

Image from Queensland Women’s Historical Association

Perhaps you are already fully an adult and think this is a little bit ridiculous. Fine. But perhaps you are like me a couple years ago, trying to handwash delicate items every which way with little success.

Of course, you can hand wash anything–not just delicate items. My best tips come from my friend Elizabeth, who studied abroad in Ghana for a semester and joined the ranks of Ghanaian women washing all their clothes (and their families’ clothes!!) by hand. As someone who doesn’t generate a lot of laundry personally, I find it useful to handwash approximately 25% of my laundry. The remaining laundry can go in one load, which cuts down on the number of loads I have to do and the total washing time (not to mention, of course, energy and water usage).

The laundry I choose to handwash typically has either elastic straps (bras) or lace (underwear) or some other special fabric (velvet mini skirt). Other good candidates are: sweaters, heavy wool socks (not really for the sake of the wool socks, but for the sake of everything else in the load of laundry which would otherwise get covered in pilled wool), any handknits, and dresses or blouses with weird mixtures of fabrics. Also: anything with strong dye when you first buy it (to prevent it dyeing your other clothes!).

Unfortunately, women’s wear is particularly prone to being delicate and fussy. While I try not to buy anything that requires dry cleaning, I have ended up with a few pieces I don’t quite trust to a washing machine. And I know my underwear with last longer with gentle hand-washing than being thrown in the cycle with my jeans.

I digress. Here is the practical info:

  1. Sort your laundry!
  2. Sort everything you want hand-washed. Make micro-loads that will comfortably fit in whatever vessel you have for water. (You can use a stopped-up sink easily; a plastic basin can also work nicely. If you want to do a bunch of things or a large sweater, a largish basin or bucket can be helpful, and you can use a tub or shower to fill it up and rinse out.)
  3. Add a bit of detergent to your water as the water is running so the soap gets well-dispersed.
  4. Add your first micro-load.
  5. Swish around in the water a little bit. This is the “agitation” part. Try to get the soap really into the garments by squishing the fabric in the soap suds, etc.
  6. Leave for approximately 20 minutes to soak. This is (funny enough) one of my favorite uses for my iPhone: the excellent timer under the clock menu.
  7. Agitate again, check for any spots you especially want to work on. Hold stuff to one side of the basin and empty dirty water. Isn’t it weirdly satisfying to see how dirty your dirty laundry really was?!
  8. Refill container with clean water. Depending on how dirty things were, I either leave them to soak for 10-15 minutes in clean water, then rinse again with fresh water, or just agitate in the clean water and continue on.
  9. Squeeze out as much water as possible. Try to bunch up fabric and squeeze it together rather than wringing it, as wringing can have a stretching effect.
  10. Lay whatever out on a dry towel. Roll up towel around garment(s) and press firmly. This removes a shocking amount of water!
  11. Hang in a well-organized way on your drying rack!
  1. Timely, as I’ve been thinking recently about giving hand washing a try. Do you recommend a specific kind/brand of soap? Also, do you know what they used for soap in Ghana? Was it handmade? Thanks!

    • Emma said:

      Glad to hear it! I use either whatever detergent we have in the house (has to be mild, for my skin) or Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap (note: highly concentrated! use sparingly). Dr. Bronner’s is nice because you can also use it as a body/face/hand/dish soap or shampoo. Really, though, just about any soap will work, including hotel shampoo in a pinch, you just want to make sure you rinse it out really thoroughly! And that’s a good question re the soap used in Ghana – I don’t know, but I will ask my friend.

      • Emma said:

        Follow-up on the laundry detergent used in Ghana: my friend says she doesn’t remember the exact brand, but it was soap that said it was for washing clothes, from a small store nearby, and was whatever was recommended to her by a friend from Ghana. Pretty standard detergent, I think.

      • I Googled Dr. Bronner’s soap and the positive reviews were overwhelming! So…I’m off to the store. Thanks! 😉

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