How to Wash All of Your Clothes by Hand
The Laundress founders share their picks for nontoxic products and natural solutions.
When it's time to do the laundry, there are a few hard-and-fast rules that you may already know: always separate your colors from your whites, use cold water for non-white items, and never put anything delicate into the dryer (especially if instructions advise "lay flat to dry"). But what about when it comes to washing clothes outside of your washing machine? For those who want to hand wash their clothing, you may wonder if the same rules apply: Do you still avoid mixing colors in a wash basin and what kinds of detergents should you use? There's good news in the context of the former: Hand-washing products have come a long way. In days of yore, you had to empty and refill a basin until all the soap bubbles disappeared—think Laura Ingalls Wilder-level tedium. Now, rinse-free detergents like Soak (from $14, us.soakwash.com) and Purl SoHo Sweater Soap ($24, purlsoho.com) make the job super-speedy.
To learn more about the essential rules of hand washing our clothes, we consulted the professionals behind The Laundress, a self-started home cleaning brand committed to eco-friendly fabric care products. Both Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd, who founded The Laundress in 2004, believe that taking the time to hand wash certain items can help us keep clothing in tip-top shape for longer. "Hand washing is the safest and gentlest way to wash items made of cashmere, wool, silk, and embellished items," Boyd says. "These items are made of delicate fabric that can be prone to shrinking or snagging in the machine." While most clothing items should be able to be washed by hand, Boyd suggests that you test an inconspicuous area of the garment before you dunk it into water and suds—look for puckering or color bleeding, which is a sign that the item needs to be dry cleaned.
Preparing a Load of Laundry for Hand Washing
Know that you don't need a laundry room to start hand washing your clothing at home. If you have a sink large enough, fill it with cool water and presoak your items there. You can also use your bathtub to wash longer items, Whiting says, like full-length maxi dresses, rompers, or even fine linen sheets or duvet covers. If you only have access to one sink—or if your sink is too small for larger items—you can buy a freestanding washbasin (such as The Laundress' Wash Tub Basin) that can be stored away when not in use. Keep in mind that some detergents can be unfit for consumption, so if you choose to use a kitchen sink, be sure to sanitize surfaces afterward.
Just as you would in a conventional washing machine, Boyd advises separating items by color—but she also suggests that you take it a step farther and separate each item by fabric, too. "Create a pile of your woolens and separate the darks, whites, and bright colors—then wash each pile using a fabric-specific detergent, like The Laundress' Wool and Cashmere Shampoo," she says, adding that you should do the same for silk and synthetic blends, too. Any item that's been heavily stained or temporarily dyed should be pretreated and washed alone, as color transfer can occur more easily in smaller wash spaces, Boyd says.
Why You Should Presoak
If you are hand washing white cotton, linen, or denim, a thorough presoak is key to treating stains and restoring color, not bleach. "Never use chlorine bleach—it damages fabrics and actually causes yellowing over time," Boyd says, suggesting that a bleach alternative (such as The Laundress' version) can sufficiently remove stains and brighten fabrics. "Fully submerge the item and allow it to soak for at least 30 minutes." Any sort of whitening product or bleach, including alternatives, shouldn't be used on silk, wool, or leather, as this can quickly destroy any color composition, Boyd says.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Hand Washing
Each item is unique, Whiting says, so sometimes, you may have to alter your approach based on the fabric you are washing (washing wool and cashmere requires different tactics compared to lighter materials like silk). But Boyd and Whiting have developed a simplified process for hand washing nearly any piece of clothing in your closet, and it starts with "putting it in reverse," Whiting says. Before you wash your clothing, turn it inside out, and make sure it's paired with the same or like colors only. Fill your wash basin or sink with cool water, and add the amount of detergent prescribed on the product's packaging—too little could leave lingering scents or stains, whereas too much can become difficult to rinse out completely (and can make dry clothing feel "crunchy"), Boyd says. Then, you'll need to submerge your items and gently agitate the water with your hands in order to evenly distribute the soap and water. You can soak your items in the mix while doing other chores around the house—just make sure it's within 30 minutes, Boyd says. Here's another professional tip: Place items in the water one at a time. If a piece is really dirty or brand-new—meaning it may bleed more—wash it alone. Submerge it and swish it around, before letting it sit 15 minutes.
Afterward, run cool water through your items until the rinse water is no longer soapy, but don't wring your clothes, as this can easily tarnish details and leads to wrinkles. Press the water out of the item by pushing it between your hands or against the surface of the wash basin or sink. If you notice color or traces of dye in the water, don't worry, Boyd says: "This is normal and it's simply the fabric or yarn releasing color. You won't notice any loss of color in the end."
How to Dry Your Items
After you've successfully pushed out all of the water in your piece, lay the item flat in its natural shape on a hard surface or on a drying rack, which is best for those worried about any stretching. If you choose to hang the item on a hanger, be sure to position the neckline appropriately as to prevent stretching, Whiting says. You can throw cotton or other durable fabrics into a dryer if you wish—but you should not place cashmere, wool, faux fur, silk, delicate synthetics (such as rayon and nylon), or highly embellished items in the dryer. "The dry heat is very harsh on fabrics and can cause color fading, shrinkage, and even melt certain materials. You're also saving energy by not using the dryer," Whiting says. "For those with limited space, we recommend a collapsible drying rack for easy storage when it's not in use."