When the Washing Machine Breaks: Hand Washing Clothes

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Hand Washing Laundry l If your washing machine breaks or the power goes out, here's what to do with the laundry l Homestead Lady (.com)It was pretty much the worst Thanksgiving ever.  My boar gored my leg, the kids got lice for the first time, the sink wouldn’t stop leaking and the fireplace broke.  Like a cherry on top, the washing machine decided to follow suit.  Here’s how we survived hand washing clothes for three months.

For more practical advice on how you can save energy, learn new skills and re-think your habits for a more self-sufficient lifestyle, be sure the read the Green The Homestead chapter of our book, The Do It Yourself Homestead.  We offer practical advice for wherever you live, whether you’re on-grid or off-grid – even if you love your air conditioner and your Homeowner’s Association, there’s something here that will resonate with you.  Don’t have a copy of the book, get your own here.  Would you like to preview some of the chapter we mentioned?  Just email me at tessa@homesteadlady.com.  

Will you End Up Hand Washing Your Clothes?

There area a lot of reasons for and scenarios wherein you might need to start hand washing your clothes.  Maybe your washing machine broke, too, and you can’t run right out and replace it

Or, the power has gone off in a seasonal storm.

Or you’re tired of schlepping your dirty clothes to a laundromat each week.

Or, you’re visiting a foreign climb where hand washing clothes is the norm.

Or, you’re looking for a way to reduce your energy consumption. 

Equipment for Hand Washing Clothes

The most basic of necessities for hand washing clothes are:

  • A tub of some kind, plus buckets on hand
  • Water
  • Soap
  • Your hands 
  • Your family

Tubs and Buckets

If you’re hand washing clothes outside, it’s nice to have a tub.  I prefer the larg-ish, black rubber tubs that are used for livestock water or hay.  These tubs don’t rust, as metal would, and because of their black color, they absorb the heat of the sunshine easily.  To save your back from extra strain, try to keep your tub up at hip height, or a little lower.

Buckets are useful for rinsing and gathering clothes.  Any size will do, but I prefer the tall buckets.  If they have lids, all the better, but lids aren’t necessary.

Water and Soap

If all you have access to is cold water, that will get most items clean enough.  Hot water is helpful for loosening grease and dirt in general, but cold water will work just fine.  It’s most helpful to let your dirty laundry soak in water several hours before you begin washing.  Anything that makes hand washing laundry easier is going to be worth your time, and soaking dirty laundry is definitely a step for which you want to take time.

To Pre-Soak Laundry

  • Fill one of your buckets with clothes of like colors
  • Fill the bucket with water
  • Push the clothes down into the water until they’re fully submerged
  • Add a few more inches of water, if you have some to spare, because the clothes will absorb a lot of it
  • You may also add a bit of soap or vinegar to the soak water to help loosen dirt and oils
  • If you have a lid, place the lid over the top to keep out debris and small children

The kind of soap you choose to you is entirely up to you.  However, I will say, just don’t use too much of it, especially if  you’re using concentrated commercial laundry soap.  The more soap you put in, the more work you’re going to need to do to get it rinsed out.  Believe me, hand washing laundry is enough work – you do not want to add more!

Soap nuts will work just fine for laundry, as will soap wort, if you want to go a natural route.  To learn more about using soap nuts in your laundry, click here.  To learn how to grow and use soap wort, click here.

Using Your Hands

Hand washing laundry is a very organic process, regardless of the reason you’re doing it.  It’s also a very physical process, and it’s tiring.  Depending on your age and the general strength of your hands, hand washing laundry may or may not cause physical distress.  We’ll talk more about how to mitigate the strain on your body, but for now, I’ll say that you need to safegaurd your hands as much as possible.

To keep your hands strong for hand washing laundry:

  1. Never use your knuckles to scrub stains!  I once asked my Facebook followers if they had any advice on hand washing clothes and one wise woman said exactly that.  Hand washing laundry takes time and for most of that time, your hands are in the water.  Please be sure not to use your knuckles to rub out stains in clothing.  Rocks, a washboard or any other strong surface can be used to rub out grime.
  2. Use mild soaps and cleaning products to be gentle with your skin.  Especially if you’re prone to allergies, be careful about what kind of products you choose to use in your laundry.  For some natural laundry soap options, click here.
  3. Keep a hand towel nearby to dry your hands before using the laundry plunger (we’ll cover that in a minute).  Drying your hands before plunging reduces friction that might lead to blisters.
  4. Moisturize your hands after each batch of laundry.  I use Mom’s Stuff, which you can read about here.

Your Family Should Help

Washing laundry by hand is a completely doable proposition.  However, it’s a lot of work.  And time.  And more work, and more time.  Please, don’t try washing all the clothes for your family by hand, by yourself.

If you live alone – score!  You only have to do one person’s wash.  No matter how messy you might be, you’re only one person and that translates into less clothing.  

If you have anyone else in your house, they should be helping you manually process through the laundry.  We’ll have more suggestions coming up soon on specific jobs for kids.  In a follow up post, we’ll be addressing several useful tips – so, stay tuned!

Other Equipment for Hand Washing Clothes

If you’re in an emergency situation, you can wash your laundry with just those few items mentioned above.  You can also run a marathon, given enough time.  You can also build a bicycle or sheer a sheep or birth a baby.  We can do any number of necessary tasks with just our hands.  However, having a few cool tools makes the job a whole lot easier!

Mobile Washer Plunger

This does, indeed, resemble a toilet plunger.  In fact, you can use a toilet plunger for hand washing clothes – as detailed here.  I prefer this aerating mobile washer, though.  It’s specifically designed to push air and water through your laundry.  This is the action that will result in the cleanest clothing, as quickly as possible.  

There are some correct methods for using this washer plunger, and some incorrect methods.  We’ll be detailing that in our next post that will cover good habits for many of the steps involved in hand washing clothes.  For now, just remember to add this little gadget to your Amazon cart.

Mop Bucket

If you don’t have a manual wringer (the item featured beneath this one – keep reading), then this mop bucket is a must. Your hands wear out SO fast having to manually wring each item of clothing. Even using a friend and a stick – as detailed here – hand wringing your wet clothes is exhausting.  This is especially good for bulky items like towels, jeans and blankets.  You must only use this bucket for laundry, and never for nasty mops.  

Hand Crank Wringer

These you may have seen in pictures of days gone by.  It was useful 100 years ago and the hand crank wringer is still functional today if hand washing clothes is on your to-do list.  These wringers will practically empty your wet laundry of water.  This not only helps keep them cleaner, but it also helps them dry faster.  If your washer has broken in winter, or during your humid summer, this will be especially important.  

This item might be a little pricey to keep in the “Just in Case” corner of your garage.  You may decide to stick with the mop bucket, and that will be just fine.  However, if you think you might like to keep on hand washing clothes, you’ll certainly want to save up for one of these babies.  

Hint, hint – there may be a giveaway coming up soon, that just might involve one of these babies.  I can neither confirm, nor deny that rumor at this point.  You may want to sign up for our newsletter, just so you can be sure to be informed should such a giveaway materialize.  Say, by the end of the month.  Here’s that newsletter sign up:

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And did we fix the washer, you ask?  Well, no.  Turns out that we liked the process of hand washing our clothes – minus the HAND part.  We’ve got something in the works that we’ll share with you soon!


DisclaimerInformation offered on the Homestead Lady website is for educational purposes only. Read my full disclaimer HERE.

Cover graphic gratefully attributed to this WikiMedia Commons user.

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