How to Hand Wash Clothes

When someone talks about hand washing clothes, they could mean washing just certain delicate items (like bras or sweaters) or they could mean washing a whole mixed batch of laundry (pants, shirts, towels, socks, etc). We will provide instructions on both.

The Basics of Washing Laundry

how to hand wash laundry in a sink, animation

Doing laundry is a process of first using a fluid and a detergent to remove odors, grime, and stains from fabric. The fluid is water for conventional laundering*, which is what this article will talk about. After the fabric is cleaned, it is rinsed to remove detergent and dirty residue. Then the water is removed from the fabric. The bulk of the water can be removed mechanically by squeezing and wringing, or by spinning the laundry at high speed. The remainder of the water is removed by evaporation, either hanging on a clothesline or tumbling in a dryer.     (*for dry-cleaning the fluid is a special chemical that easily evaporates at room temperature)

The steps for hand washing laundry are:

  1. Soaking in water and detergent
  2. Agitating the clothes
  3. Rinsing in clear water
  4. Removing the excess water
  5. Final drying of the laundry

Clicking any step above will take you to that section...

1. Soaking Laundry in Water and Detergent

Once upon a time, washing water had to be quite hot for the old detergents to work well. Fortunately modern detergents work just as well with cold water, so no more need to burn your hands while laundering. Washing in cool water is most economical and energy-efficient. But in cold weather using lukewarm water will make the process more comfortable for you.

What type of Detergent to use?

You will also need detergent, and it is OK to use your favorite LIQUID detergent (not powders or pods). If you do not have a favorite, then get one of the liquid HE detergents which are specially made for High Efficiency washers. These HE detergents have the advantage of making the rinsing process a whole lot easier.

How much Detergent to use?

Remember that you need VERY LITTLE detergent. When we say "very little", we are very serious. When hand washing in a 5 gallon bucket, or a sink, you will only use about 2 gallons of water at a time. And 2 gallons is a lot less than the 8 gallons a front loader uses, or the 20 gallons a top load washer uses for the wash cycle. So how much detergent?

1 teaspoon per gallon* – and measure it with a true measuring spoon, like used for baking, not a spoon you use for eating ice cream.
*Note: if your detergent says 2X or 4X then it is concentrated and you will need proportionally less detergent. If it is 2X use 1/2 teaspoon per gallon. If it is 4X use 1/4 teaspoon per gallon. It is easier to just use normal, non-concentrated detergent.

When washing in a bucket or sink, add your 2 gallons of water, then stir in 2 x 1 = 2 true teaspoons of liquid detergent. This will not make many suds, but that is a good thing. Less bubbles means easier rinsing! And now it is time to add some clothing and get them agitated...

How often to Change the wash water?

Fairly often. Remember that the detergent lets the body oils and grime leave the fabric and enter the water, so that water will get gross fast. Keep a clear cup handy and scoop up some wash water after each bucket-load or sink-load has been washed. If the water is really grey and cloudy, dump it, rinse the bucket or sink, and refill with fresh water and detergent for the next for the next load of items.

2. Agitating the Clothes for Deep Cleaning

The detergent allows smelly body oils and sticky grime to release their hold on the fabric and enter the water. But for that process to become complete, the water must pass over and through the fabric with some speed, and the fabric must rub against something textured, which is usually the other bits of clothing being washed. Agitation is what is needed. You can agitate with just your hands by swishing the clothes up-and-down in the bucket, or side-to-side in the sink. Or you can use a special laundry plunger tool, or you can use a manual washer that holds the clothing in a perforated basket that goes up-and-down in a larger container of water.

For laundry that is not heavily soiled, the fabric-to-fabric rubbing that happens during agitation is enough to mechanically remove bits of grime. But for problems like grass-stained knees or dirty work clothes, even more rubbing may be needed. This could be done two-handed with one hand rubbing a knee of the pants against the other hand holding another section of the pants leg. Or it could be rubbed against a wet washboard. Or it could be rubbed with a stiff scrub brush. Also see our Laundry Stain Removal Guide

How long should we Agitate for?

How long you agitate depends on how dirty the clothes are. See the table below. Mild clothes are those that just have odor but no real grime (like socks, an undershirt, or a bra). Normal clothes have a little grime (like shirts, towels, and slacks). Serious clothes have a lot of difficult grime (like cloth diapers, underwear, work clothes, and kid's jeans).

  • Mild: Agitate 1 minute, let soak 2 minutes, agitate 1 more minutes. Then rinse.
  • Normal: Agitate 2 minute, let soak 4 minutes, agitate 2 more minutes. Then rinse.
  • Serious: Agitate 2 minute, let soak 5minutes, agitate 3 more minutes. Then rinse.

What to do After soaking and agitating?

The next thing to do is to remove some of the excess water BEFORE rinsing the piece of clothing. This minimizes contaminating the clean clear rinse water with soapy dirty wash water. To remove excess wash water, you can either wring the clothes by hand, and let the soapy wash water flow back into the bucket or sink. Or squeeze the piece of clothing in mop wringer and let the wash water go into the attached mop bucket. Wringing a few items by hand is OK, but if doing a lot of laundry this way can hurt your wrists and hands. For larger batches of laundry, an inexpensive mop wringer will be very helpful.

3. Rinsing the Washed Laundry

The rinse process is simple to do, and simple to screw up. The purpose is to remove as much dirty water, and as much used detergent, from the clothes as possible. Doing this results in clothes that smell fresher, look brighter, dry softer, and don't cause skin irritation. A good rinse removes the dissolved body oils (to smell fresher), removes the gray dirty wash water residue (to look brighter). A good rinse also removes detergent residue which both causes clothes to dry stiff and crunchy, and could cause chemical skin irritation.

So what is the Wrong way to rinse?

One wrong way is to fill a bucket or sink with clear rinse water, and just keep using the same rinse water no matter how dirty or soapy it gets. The other wrong way is to just dunk and swish the clothing one time, and think that is enough.

And what is the Right way to rinse laundry?

The right way to rinse is to do what it takes to get as much of the dirty water and detergent out of the fabric as is reasonably possible. That will require changing the rinse water often, and aggressively swishing or agitating the items in the rinse water.

If you are not happy with your hand washed clothes, it is usually a poor rinse that is to blame. People get the washing portion (agitate-soak-agitate) right because it is logical and energetic, and because most clothes are not stained or heavily soiled anyways. But the importance of rinsing well is not so obvious...until you end up with a batch of clothes that doesn't smell good or looks dull and drab.

How to hand wash laundry - Step 1
How to hand wash clothes - Step 2
How to do laundry by hand - Step 3
How to launder clothes by hand - Step 4

4. Removing the Excess Water

There are two reasons for removing excess water from each piece of clothing. One is to minimize the adding of soapy water to your rinse water. The other is to reduce the drying time of the laundry.

But removing excess water is hard. If doing it by hand, it takes a lot of muscle and is rough on your wrists and hands. If doing it mechanically, it takes equipment that is bulky or expensive. The methods for doing it are...

  • Wringing: twisting by hand, or running them through a roller-type laundry wringer
  • Squeezing: compressing the items in a mop squeezer (also called a mop wringer)
  • Spinning: at very high RPM in a special electrical laundry spinner, or in a washing machine


Wringing by hand is a two-handed twisting action. Primarily it is done after rinsing to speed up the drying time. Wringing can also be done between the washing and rinsing steps, but with delicates or special clothing just squeeze instead, like making a snowball. Hand wringing does an OK job of removing water on most items, but should not be used for delicates or sweaters as it could damage the garment.

Mechanical wringing (with rollers) is more efficient and gentler on the clothes. But it requires an expensive wringer AND something very sturdy to fasten the wringer to.


Squeezing out the water can be done with a simple mop squeezer or mop wringer. The mop squeezer is like an open-topped box with three fixed sides, and one movable one. The movable side moves in towards the middle and compresses the piece of laundry that is inside and squeezes out some water.

A mop wringer and bucket is the least expensive way to remove excess water. The bucket collects the excess water that is squeezed out. One downside is that the capacity is limited such that you might fit a t-shirt or two in the mop squeezer, but not a pair of jeans. The work-around is to squeeze one portion at a time, like for jeans do one leg, then the other, then the top. Or for a large towel do the left end, then the center, then the right end.


A good laundry spinner does an amazing job of removing water. But the good ones are expensive, and the cheap ones don't last long. They spin at 3000 RPM, so they must be loaded with wet laundry in a balanced way. Otherwise the spinning basket inside can become unstable, unbalanced, and start banging and jumping enough to damage the machine.

Drying the Laundry

Fortunately the last step is the simplest. The damp laundry can be dried in a clothes dryer, or it can be air dried. Air drying is just hanging it outdoors on a clothesline, or indoors on a drying rack. How long it takes to dry depends on how humid the air is, how soggy the clothes are, and the fabric type.

If drying indoors in a living space, beware of dripping. Laundry that is still a bit soggy will drip for awhile, which could damage wood or carpeted floors. One solution is to put a plastic sheet, or some towels, under the rack to catch the drips.