How to Hand-Wash Clothes—And When You Actually Need To

Follow these steps to care for your more delicate pieces and extend their lives.

Hand-washing clothes

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We’ve all been there: A piece that says “hand-wash only” accidentally makes it through the washing and drying cycles, only to come out teeny tiny, damaged, or ruined for good. It only takes one of these spoiled garments to lock in the lesson. When a tag says “hand-wash only,” it really means business. (The same advice should be followed for “dry-clean only,” of course. Listen to your tags!) 

Here are our best tips for hand washing, including the specifics around drying different items to help them retain their integrity. 

How Do You Know When You Need To Hand Wash? 

Before you start a load, be sure you're familiar with the symbols on the care labels on your garments. If a hand-wash symbol, which looks like a hand in a bucket of water, appears on the tag, you'll know it's time to clean by hand. Some items that instruct you to dry-clean can also be hand-washed at home, but it's always important to test on a small, hidden area to ensure the fabric is colorfast. Any tag that is labeled dry-clean only should not be washed at home. Always be on the lookout for delicate fabrics that need particular care, like silk blouses. They may hold their shape and color best when washed by hand.

Be sure to hand-wash clothing fairly regularly, even if you aren’t able to clock stains with the naked eye. Mites, dust, and the oils from our skin can really do damage to our more delicate clothing, so shooting for a “once-a-quarter” washing schedule will do the trick. 

What You'll Need

  • A clean basin of some kind (sinks and tubs work well) 
  • Mild detergent
  • Access to a water source 
  • Clean, full-sized towels 
  • Hangers or a drying rack (not required, but helpful)

How To Hand-Wash

Step One: Clean Your Basin Thoroughly

A key element to this process is that your water receptacle is completely clean. Whether you’re using a bathroom, kitchen sink, or bathtub, inevitably there are traces of other products (or even food, yikes!) where you plan to wash your clothes. Before you pick up your laundry, ensure that your basin has been scrubbed down completely. 

Step Two: Fill Your Basin With Water And Add Detergent

Follow the same rules you would with laundry: Cold or lukewarm water will help your colors stay protected for longer. Fill your basin prior to adding any clothing. The tumble of the harsh stream of water pouring in can actually mimic the damage a washing machine cycle can cause. Use about a teaspoon of laundry detergent and mix it into the water with your hand. Remember: Suds aren’t required here. Too much detergent will make your delicate items filmy and necessitate an additional rinse. Ideally, you should try to handle the items as little as possible. 

Step Three: Submerge And Swish 

Allow your clothing to be totally covered by the surface of the water and saturated throughout before you begin gently swishing the garments from side to side. This shouldn’t feel like a washer cycle. Instead, think about it more like a slow dance—no jerky movements, no wrapping the fabric around your hand, no scrubbing. The detergent and the water are doing what they’re meant to do.

Step Four: Drain, Rinse, And Repeat 

After your initial thorough cleaning, it's time to remove any remaining soap suds. Drain your original water, then refill the basin with clean (still cold or tepid) water. Move your clothing back and forth in the same motion as before until you no longer see soap bubbles appear. Drain and refill your basin as many times as is necessary to clean the item of any residual detergent. 

Step Five: Towel Or Hang Dry 

The weight of your garment will determine your approach to drying. For lighter-weight pieces (think lingerie, tights, silk scarves, or handkerchiefs), hanging them to drip-dry is acceptable as they don’t need to retain a shape. For heavier items like sweaters or suiting, lay the garments flat on a towel and roll them up to squeeze out the extra water without twisting or distorting the piece. These heavier pieces will need to be laid flat to dry, or draped carefully over the rungs of a drying rack. Here, it’s best to follow the old adage: No wire hangers, ever. Wire hangers mixed with water can give your clothing nasty rust stains that are difficult to remove. 

Step Six: Pay Special Attention To Re-Shaping 

Some items, like bras, suit jackets, or knits, depend on drying in the correct position to retain the shapeliness they started with. For bras, make sure the cups have been readjusted to their appropriate shape prior to laying them out to dry and aren’t accidentally inverted. Roll up a towel or washcloth and place it inside of the shoulders of a jacket to keep it looking elegant. Knits always need to be laid flat. If you hang them on a hanger, the shoulders will become stretched.

How To Tackle Stains 

To remove stains from more delicate clothing, avoid scrubbing: Treat the stain with a small amount of stain remover or mild detergent, wait 10-12 minutes, then gently rinse by running water over the stain. Let the detergent do the work for you to avoid any textural changes in the fabric that can arise from too much friction. 

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