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How to hand-wash clothes without a washer

Skip the laundromat -- with a little patience and a good washboard, it's easy to stay home and wash your clothes by hand.

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Steve Conaway/CNET

Electric clothes washers have been commercially available here in the United States for a little more than a century, since 1907. So, if you're in the US and reading this article, then the odds are good that you have access to a washing machine. But did you know that most people in the world still wash their clothes by hand? 

It's true. In fact, according to global health expert Hans Rosling, nearly 5 billion of the world's population of 7 billion (as of about 10 years ago) still hand-wash their clothes. And maybe that's somewhat reassuring in our age of social distancing, where a trip to the local laundromat might be even more stressful than usual for folks who don't have a washer of their own. If at least 5 billion people already wash their clothes by hand -- so can you!

Let's start by looking at two different approaches to the task, along with some quick notes on drying.

What will I need?

First things first: You'll need access to water, both cold and warm, and you're going to need soap or detergent. A bar of laundry soap is best, but you can also use liquid detergent. Just be sure to avoid powder detergent if at all possible. The powder requires a higher temperature and more time and agitation to fully dissolve. 

You can certainly go with the Woolite-and-bathroom-sink approach like you might for delicates, but the method I'm outlining here is more efficient for washing an entire load, especially if that's going to become a new routine. 

If you're really serious about washing clothes by hand, you're going to need a washboard. If I were planning to make hand-washed clothes a permanent part of my lifestyle, then I might consider splurging on a fancier washboard from the Ohio-based Columbus Washboard Company, which bills itself as the last American washboard manufacturer. You'll also find a lot of options on Etsy. In the end, I went with a midlevel pick that you can get from Amazon for about $20.

Oh, and you'll obviously need a washtub or two. Two separate tubs is best, but you can make do with a single container if that's all you've got. I had the two tubs pictured (actually planters, which work as long as they're clean) on hand at home already. You can also buy nice galvanized steel tubs for about $20 each, or a pair of plastic ones for $19

If you live in a small apartment or otherwise lack storage space, a small, single tub with a built-in washboard might be the best option. I picked up this one for $11.

Do I really need two different tubs?

Either way, you'll be washing the clothes in the soapy wash water, then rinsing the clothes in separate rinse water before removing them to dry. With wash water in one tub and rinse water in another, the process is fairly efficient. Wash an item, move it to the rinse tub, wash the second item, move it to the rinse tub and so on. 

If you're using just one tub, then you'll have to wash all of your clothes first, then find a place to set the soaked, soapy garments aside while you dump the tub and refill it with clean water for the rinse.

Can I wash my clothes in the bathtub?

Using your bathtub will take longer, and it's not a great choice if this will be your ongoing laundry method, but it will get the job done in a pinch. Just make sure to clean and scrub the tub first, so as to not add more dirt than you're taking out.

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Steve Conaway/CNET

OK, I'm ready. What's the best method for hand-washing clothes?

Using the two-tub method, you'll have your temperature-appropriate water in one tub, and in the other, cold rinse water. The washboard should be positioned in the washtub -- most even have a handy resting place for your soap bar.

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Applying a little bit of soap directly to the washboard can go a long way.

Steve Conaway/CNET

Start by dropping your garments in the tub, taking note of any particularly stained or odorous areas. For these areas, you'll want to apply some bar soap directly onto the fabric. I also like to soap up the washboard ridges in the wash tub, reapplying as I go.

Take one item of clothing at a time and start running it up and down the washboard. Taking the garment in both hands and rubbing it against itself is also effective for cleaning. How long and how hard you should rub depends on how dirty each piece is. If you're washing clothes with things like buttons or imprinted logos on them, you should turn them inside out to avoid any unnecessary damage.

Once you're satisfied with your work, take each soapy piece of clothing and drop it into the rinse tub. Repeat for each item in the washtub.

Should I let my clothes soak?

The two main types of clothes you'll want to soak are delicates and heavily soiled items. 

With delicates, you're not going to use the washboard at all, and you'll even skip rubbing them. Instead, you'll soak them in soapy water, swirling gently to agitate them over time. 

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You'll want to soak heavily soiled garments before hand washing for a better clean.

Steve Conaway/CNET

Always soak similarly colored items together, and don't crowd things: Keep it to no more than a few pieces at a time at a lukewarm or room temperature. Each batch should take about 15 minutes -- but never let your delicates soak for more than 30 minutes, because it's not uncommon to see colors run. That's also why you may need to change this water out in between batches.

For heavily soiled clothes, start by getting rid of any large, loose debris by shaking or beating the item. If you want, you can also pretreat individual stains with the laundry soap bar or with something like a stain stick. From there, let things soak for about 30 minutes in warm to hot water, agitating occasionally with a good stir. After soaking, then give these items the same washboard treatment as regular clothes.

I've got wet, soapy clothes. What's the best way to rinse them?

Rinsing is pretty straightforward. You have soapy items. Use the clean water to get rid of the soap. Swirl. Gently agitate. Squeeze lightly underwater. Repeat until the item drips clear, nonsoapy water. With many detergents you can also go by smell. You may need to change out your rinse water if you can't seem to ditch the soap. 

To finish the process you'll want to get rid of as much water as you can. Try to avoid wringing or squeezing your medium and more delicate items too hard. Also, there are "no-rinse" detergents you can pick up that allow you to skip this step altogether. 

Once all items have been rinsed, switch your tubs if you have another load. Your rinse tub, still with slightly soapy water, now becomes your wash tub. Dump the water from your wash tub and make it your rinse tub by adding fresh, clean water. 

What about clothes I usually take to the dry cleaner?

In all cases, be sure to read the care labels on your clothes first. They should specify water temperatures and treatment options. Items labeled "Dry Clean" can safely be hand-washed, while "Dry Clean Only" items could be damaged by the water.

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Steve Conaway/CNET

Any tips for drying?

Drying your clothes without a machine is mostly a matter of time, and your best bet is to find a good spot to hang everything up. If you have a yard, you can run a clothesline and use clothespins. I picked up a good  travel clothesline for 10 bucks on Amazon. It has 12 clips, and the bungee cord and hooks make it adaptable to most any space.

And, yep, your shower rod will work in a pinch, too. Just remember to try and use padded hangers if possible. Wire hangers in wet clothes often lead to hanger-shaped indentations.

You can also lay your clothes out to dry, but remember that the goal is to get water away from the garments. Having them lying in the water they're trying to shed will slow things down, so consider layering towels underneath to help pull the moisture out.

So there you have it: Your guide to getting started with hand-washing clothes. Don't get too discouraged if it takes you half a day for your first load -- as with most things, hand-washing gets faster and easier with experience.

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