How to hand wash clothes

How much of your laundry do you wash by hand? Some people put everything in the washer and dryer. (If an item is worse for the washing machine wear, so be it.) Some hand wash the occasional expensive sweater or antique linen. And others diligently sort all laundry according to colors, fabric content (I wash jeans in their own load, for example), and laundry symbols, yielding a regular pile of “hand wash only” items. 

Hand washing items (correctly) helps them last longer than machine washing. Even the delicate (or gentle) cycle on a washing machine causes more abrasion to fabric than gently washing it yourself does, so there’s a big upside to hand washing.

Of course, few of us are about to hand wash all of our laundry. What’s the best way to prioritize those items that really will benefit most from your hands-on TLC?

Which items should be hand washed?

hand wash only, delicate white clothing made of sheer and lace fabrics hanging on white wooden hangers

Check labels when they’re available, and hand wash anything that says “hand wash” (or has a tub symbol with a hand in it!). 

In general, these items do best if washed by hand:

  • Lingerie
  • Bathing suits
  • Wool, cashmere
  • Tights and pantyhose
  • Items with embellishment (such as sequins or beads)
  • Delicate fabrics, such as silk and lace

Can I hand wash items that say “dry clean” on the label?

I can’t safely recommend it, though I’ll tell you that I do it. Carefully. Be very careful washing items that say “dry-clean only,” though. There’s probably a good reason for that caution. For example, if you wash a silk blouse with different colors in it, those colors may bleed together. Or if you wash curtains that are lined with a fabric different than the main curtain fabric, the two fabrics may wash differently and no longer hang well together (experience speaking here!). 

Can I wash items labeled “hand wash” in the washing machine on the delicate/gentle cycle?

Many items that are designated “hand wash” can be placed in the machine and washed on a delicate/gentle cycle. A gentle cycle usually has slowed agitation, reduced washing time, and no spin cycle. So it’s much better than the normal cycle for your delicate items! Put these garments in a mesh laundry bag before laundering, and use a mild detergent and cool temperature.

Keep in mind, though, that even your machine’s most delicate cycle isn’t as gentle as hand washing. Not all machines handle delicates the same, either. If you have a machine without a central agitator and with a delicate or gentle cycle, most hand wash items will be just fine. I wouldn’t put anything with embellishments, such as sequins or beads, in a machine, though, or anything that’s very valuable to you (something with sentimental value, for example).

stack of brown, tan, and cream folded sweaters

How to hand wash

  1. Separate colors. Wash like colors together. The first time you hand wash (or machine wash, for that matter) an item that might bleed dye, be sure to wash it by itself. Once you see that it’s not going to bleed color, you can wash it with other like-colored items.
  2. Pretreat any stains.
  3. Turn the item inside out (if possible).
  4. Clean the sink or washtub thoroughly. 
  5. Fill the sink or wash tub with room-temperature water and a delicate laundry soap (mild detergent or dishwashing liquid). Use only about a teaspoon of detergent for a large basin. Swish to mix well.  Never use bleach on delicates.
  6. Place the item in the soapy water and swish gently. Don’t scrub or twist the fabric.
  7. Let the item soak for about 15 to 20 minutes.
  8. Rinse in clean, cool water until all of the soap is removed. Drain and refill the tub with cool, clean water and gently swish the soapy item until fully rinsed. Repeat until all soap is removed. Or (if the item isn’t too delicate) hold the item under the faucet of cool running water until thoroughly rinsed.
  9. Gently squeeze — don’t wring! — the water out of the item.

How to dry hand washables

DO NOT put hand washables in the dryer. This is even more important than hand washing versus machine washing! Not only is all that tumbling hard on the delicate fabric, the heat of the dryer can weaken and damage fibers very quickly. I never machine dry any delicate fabrics or anything with elastic in it (including stretchy fabrics or items with actual elastic, such as in waistbands).

red bralette drying flat on a white towel after hand washing

After rinsing, spread the item out on top of a clean, absorbent towel. Roll it up firmly to remove excess water. Repeat — using clean towels — until the item is no longer soaking wet. 

Unroll and either lay the item on a flat mesh drying rack or a clean, lint-free towel to dry. Or hang the item on a drying rack to finish drying. Sweaters or other items that may stretch out of shape are best dried flat (gently pull them into shape when placing them flat on the towel or rack), while most other delicate items (like lingerie) can be hung on a rack. 

Which items to you handwash? Do you have a favorite method or favorite gentle detergent to share?

You might also enjoy:


Swimsuit care

Tights — How to make them last (pantyhose, too!)

Quality clothing — How to tell if clothes are well made

Prevent pilling

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