Myths About Hand Laundering

Having been doing most of my laundry by hand for a while now – dang, for several years at this point –  I think I’ve earned the right to Have Opinions about the way hand laundering is often written about and depicted by folks who’ve known nothing but machine washing. So here’s a post debunking a few of the most common myths surrounding the chore of washing clothes in a tub with a little elbow grease.

1. It’s hard.

Not really. Unless, of course, you’re measuring it against the act of dumping dirty laundry into a couple of electric boxes that magically spit out clean laundry 20-30 minutes later, then yes, it’s hard. But it’s no harder than sweeping your own kitchen floor, or replacing the sheets on your bed. In fact, the difficulty of washing laundry by hand is quite often indirectly proportional to the time you have to accomplish it: that is, the longer you can afford to let your clothes soak in hot, soapy water, the less work you have to put in to agitate it. Let the “load” soak overnight, and in the morning you barely have to do any agitating at all. A few simple pumps* of your hands will do the trick to circulate the water through the fibers, and wringing them out afterward only takes as much muscle as you feel like putting in.

*Cupping your hands together, side by side, and pushing down into the clothes like you’re performing CPR is the most energy efficient way to agitate without tools of any kind. (Oh, and if you own a breathing hand washing device, it’ll take even less effort.)

2. It’s time-consuming.

See above. If you don’t have all night or all day to let your clothes soak (and odds are, you do this regularly for pre-soaking soiled clothes anyways), then expect to spend, on average, 10-20 seconds per garment in the load to wash, and half that to rinse. If you have a small/capsule wardrobe whose entire contents can fit into a 5 gallon bucket, and they’re not covered in stains, then you might spend at the most 5 minutes washing, rinsing, and wringing your clothes.

I’d like to see a washing machine do a load in 5 minutes.

The other benefit of hand-washing over machine washing is that you are constantly inspecting the clothes as you agitate them, visually and manually. You can spend less time on minimally-soiled clothes, saving time, and give more TLC to garments that need it. You’re more likely to notice the beginnings of damage like holes and fraying. And you’re more likely to avoid setting stains because you threw them in the wash without noticing them. (I catch almost all oil stains while I still have a chance to wash them out now, for instance. Before, oil stains were the #1 killer of my clothes.)

I’d like to see a machine do that too.

3. Modern front-loading washing machines are so water-efficient, though. Washing by hand probably can’t compare.

I use about an average of 2-4 gallons of water to wash, and 1-3 to rinse with. I can wash a full set of California king-sized sheets and 4 pillow cases with less than 10 total gallons of water. Once again, I’d like to a see a machine do that.

4. Washing machines are part of what helped to liberate the Western wife and mother from a life of hard, household labor.

Yes, that was the case… for maybe a decade. But as always, the consumerist hedonic treadmill was quick to crank up the speed, and suddenly that housewife had more clothes to launder per person than before, and she had higher and higher standards of cleanliness to achieve as a result. A classic example of the Jevons Paradox: efficiency gains provided by a technology are often not just squandered, but undone many times over by more intensive and sustained use of that technology.

So sure, instead of doing laundry by hand every day, the liberated Western woman now goes to work for 8+ hours daily, buys the expensive laundering appliance (probably on credit, so she winds up paying even more for it when all’s said and done), and goes home after a long day of wage work and gas-guzzling commuting to do a load of laundry every day anyways. (And probably pays for a gym membership so she can work on her arm and back strength, which is sorely lacking because of all this manual labor she’s been liberated from.) And instead of being satisfied by a sufficiently clean load of clothes, garments are now expected to be completely wrinkle free, form-fitting, spotless, and smelling like a cheap cologne store at a second-rate mall. And that’s not even mentioning that the size of our wardrobes have since disproportionately exploded in response to this so-called labor-saving device, now the average family does at least one load daily. Don’t make me laugh!

5. Jeans and towels are too hard to wash by hand.

If you have more than a few pairs of jeans, and if you wash them more than once a month, then yeah, it would be on the slightly more inconvenient side. But if that’s the case, then you probably have too many jeans, and you probably wash them too often. Moreover, plush terrycloth towels are, in my opinion, a waste of precious cotton more often than not. Get a peshtemal instead; they’re no more difficult to wash than a large t-shirt. It doesn’t soak up water like a sponge the way terrycloth does, but it’ll still get you dry before pneumonia sets in, and only gets more absorbent with use.

6. Clothes stretch out if you don’t put them in the dryer.

Putting clothes in the dryer isn’t technically what makes them shrink: agitating the fibers is what does it. (Otherwise, leaving your clothes on the clothesline to dry when it’s 120F out would shrink them.) Technically, you could agitate clothes by hand enough to accomplish this – stirring around with a stick for a few minutes and using hot water would help. But the whole phenomenon of clothes stretching out wouldn’t be such an issue if they weren’t made so cheaply – and if they were designed differently to begin with.

7. Laundry probably comes out smelly and dingy that way.

This hasn’t been my experience at all. If you rinse well and don’t wash your whites with your darks, then it’s a non-issue. Hang whites out in the sun to dry and they’ll be lightened up by UV action as well; no whitening products necessary. As for smell, they can smell like anything you want them to, depending on what detergent you use. I don’t recommend using typical laundry detergent, however: it’s very sudsy and more difficult to rinse out. I use a small squirt of Sal Suds in my laundry, no more than a tablespoon, which produces few suds and degrades quickly in water. Those cal king sheets I mentioned above? Done by hand in an 8-gallon washtub with Sal Suds, rinsed, wrung, and hung out on the clothesline. And it passed my husband’s very stringent smell test. He said if I hadn’t told him they were hand-washed, he would never have guessed.

Washing by hand is half design – buying sturdier clothes, buying clothes that fit differently than the throwaway kind you find at the likes of Target and H&M – and half outlook. Outlook? Here’s what I mean.

Reasons washing by hand is better than using a machine:

1. You control what happens to the water when the wash is done.

2. You’re more likely to catch small stains or oil spots before accidentally setting them in.

3. It’s good exercise.

4. It’s meditative.

5. Your clothes last a lot longer.

6. It’s less stressful all around.

Not a bad deal, huh? When you think of it this way, it’s clearly the superior process. It saves energy, time, sanity, and doesn’t wear out your clothes. That’s like… four ‘wins’.

In my completely biased opinion, I think it’s worthwhile to give it a go. It’ll take some getting used to, but once it becomes part of your routine, you may not want to go back. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.