What do you do when the washing machine breaks and you can’t afford to buy another one right away? Or maybe you’ve moved off grid and you’re having to learn how to do your laundry without electricity. This article will give you practical advice for when you’re hand washing clothes.
Will you End Up Hand Washing Your Clothes?
There are several 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 maybe:
- The power has gone off in a seasonal storm.
- You’re tired of schlepping your dirty clothes to a laundromat each week.
- Vacation or missionary work has taken you to a foreign climb where hand washing clothes is the norm.
- You’re looking for a way to reduce your energy consumption.
My first piece of advice actually comes from my friend Jaimie at An American Homestead. She writes in her article 18 of my Best Tips for Washing Clothes by Hand:
Don’t get frustrated…For however long you plan to wash by hand, just remember that millions of women have done this before you. … I don’t have to haul my laundry to a river and scrub clothes on a rock. I have a wringer and access to clean water just a short walk from my back door. I have so much! These are things I remind myself when I do get frustrated. It helps me keep things in perspective.”
Jaimie is a wealth of knowledge on all things off-grid living, so I highly recommend a visit to her article to help you get comfortable washing your clothes by hand. (Update 2023: Jaimie passed away from cancer several years ago now, but her husband and family have preserved her wisdom on their website.)
Equipment for Hand Washing Clothes
The most basic of necessities for hand washing clothes are:
- A tub of some kind, plus buckets
- Your hands
- Your family
Tubs and Buckets
If you’re hand washing clothes outside, it’s nice to have a tub. I prefer the large-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 bucket 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.
Don’t use too much soap, 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.
- Read this article from 104 Homestead to learn more about using soap nuts in your laundry using soap nuts in your laundry.
- This article from The Herb Gardener on how to grow and use soap wort might also be of interest.
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 – 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 safeguard your hands as much as possible.
To keep your hands strong for hand washing laundry:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 clothes to 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.
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. 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.
To Properly Use a Mobile Plunger Washer:
- Position yourself directly over the tub or bucket containing the pre-soaked laundry.
- Using a firm straight up and down motion, push the plunger down into the bucket. Repeat this motion for several minutes. Watch the water darken with dirt, oils, and sometimes clothes dye.
- Dump the water from the bucket and run the wet laundry through a hand-crank laundry wringer, if you have one. If you don’t have a laundry wringer, use the wringer attached to it. Perhaps you don’t have a mop bucket, in which case you can squeeze as much dirty water from the clothes as you can by hand.
- Transfer the wet clothes to a larger tub with enough clean water to cover them. Repeat the plunging-draining-wringing process until the wash water is clean after plunging.
If you don’t have a manual wringer (the item featured beneath this one – keep reading), then a 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 (or other manual options) – as detailed here – hand wringing your wet clothes is exhausting.
Mop buckets are especially good for bulky items like towels, jeans, and blankets. I own a laundry wringer and still use my mop bucket for these large items to save my laundry wringer from the stress of processing these items. A mop bucket is a lot cheaper to replace than a laundry wringer, FYI.
Handy Tip: Only use this mop bucket for laundry and never for nasty mops to keep it clean!
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. Drying clothes without a dryer takes time, too!
Do I NEED a Wringer?
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 continue hand washing clothes, you’ll certainly want to save up for one of these efficient wringers.
I have one attached to my James-style, or dasher-washer – a large tube with an agitator arm to wash – but neither piece of equipment is cheap. They only become necessary when washing clothes by hand becomes part of your lifestyle.
Certainly NOT needed when you’re just starting out or dealing with an emergency.
Do you have any tips for hand washing clothes that you’d like to share with other readers? Just leave a comment or question in the comments section!
After reading this article, you may need 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. Would you like to preview some of the chapter we mentioned? Just email me at email@example.com.