Washing Clothes Without a Washer Is Easier Than You Think

hands washing clothes in basin
birdbyb stockphoto via Shutterstock

We've all been in a situation where we've had to learn how to wash our clothes without a washer. Maybe your washing machine is on the fritz, or you're on vacation and can't quite bring yourself to spend quality time in a foreign laundromat. Whatever situation you're in, washing clothes by hand is a painless process without the need for any fancy equipment or supplies. After all, our ancestors did it every day. If you're going to be doing this often, however, there are some handy items you can pick up to make the process even simpler.

How to Wash Clothes Without a Washer, Step by Step

All you really need to get the job done are your dirty clothes, something to wash them in, and some laundry detergent or hand soap. The process is a lot like using a washing machine, except that you're going to play the roles of agitator and rinser yourself.

1. Separate Your Clothing Into Lights and Colors

This is the same approach you would use to separate clothes to be washed in a washer. Make two piles of clothing — one of whites and light-colored items, and the other for black and dark-colored items. If there's anything you're unsure of, like a white shirt with bright red stripes, it's usually safest to put them in with the colors.

Keep delicates — think things like stockings or anything with embroidery, fragile fabric, or lacy bits — in a separate pile and wash them apart from your regular clothes. You'll want to use detergent for delicates and then follow the instructions on the packaging. It's always best to hand-wash delicates.

2. Clean Out Your Kitchen Sink or Bathtub

If you have a small pile of laundry to wash, your kitchen sink is the best (and likely most convenient) place to do it. For larger loads, your bathtub will do the trick. Don't have a bathtub? Then do multiple smaller loads in your sink.

Either way, clean the sink/tub out before you start washing your clothes. Whether it's food particles or bath bomb glitter residue, it needs to be gone before you put your clothing in there.

3. Add Water

Female hands washing color clothes in sink
mariakray via Shutterstock

Now it's time to get the water going. You want to end up with enough to completely cover the clothes in the sink or tub by a couple of inches. You can always top it up a bit after adding your clothes if you don't have enough water to start with.

Lukewarm water is fine for most clothing items, or you can opt for cold water. Save the hot water for things like towels and sheets.

4. Add Soap to the Water & Swish

You've got water in your clean sink or tub, so it's time to add the detergent or soap. The amount you use will depend on the size of the laundry load.

  • Liquid laundry detergent - Use one to two teaspoons for smaller loads, and up to five teaspoons for a bathtub-sized load.

  • Powdered laundry detergent - For small loads, mix a teaspoon or two of the powder with a few tablespoons of hot tap water and stir to dissolve it before adding it to the water in the sink. For larger loads, go up to five teaspoons with extra hot water to dissolve it.

If you don't have laundry soap on hand, never fear! Foaming hand soap is a fantastic alternative here. Just add a couple of pumps to the water in the sink or about 6-8 pumps for the bathtub. Or, use a small amount of your favorite laundry detergent substitute.

Once your cleaning agent is in the water, swish everything around together to get it good and mixed. If you've got dry hands or sensitive skin, wear reusable rubber gloves for this part.

Related: It's Easy to Make Your Laundry Smell Good! Here's How.

5. Add Your Laundry

Now we add the clothes to the soap/water mix. Just plop them right in there, and then use your hands to mix everything around and make sure that the clothes are saturated. Leave them to soak for 5-10 minutes, then get your hands in there again and swish them around some more. Repeat this process one or two more times (or, if your clothes are super dirty, four or five more times).

Washing machines work by using agitation to get clothes clean. They rub up against each other in there, moving the water and detergent around and creating friction to remove dirt. Soaking and swishing your laundry by hand mimics this process.

6. Rinse Rinse Rinse

Drain the water from the sink or tub, making sure that the clothes are out of the way so they don't prevent the water from going down the drain. Replace the plug or stopper and refill the sink/tub with cool water from the tap.

Use the swishing skills you developed in step 5 to move the clothes around — the goal here is to remove all the detergent or soap so that your clothing doesn't end up feeling like cardboard when it's dry. Squeeze your clothes gently to get all that soap out of there. Repeat this step a couple of times (drain the water, refill with cool water, swish/squeeze) until there are no bubbles when you swish.

If you're only washing a few items, you can rinse them a little quicker by holding each one under cool running water until no bubbles remain.

7. Dry Your Clothes

Gently squeeze out as much water as you can, one item of clothing at a time. Don't twist them or otherwise pull them or you risk stretching or damaging your clothing. The more water you can get out of them now, the faster they'll dry.

If you have a dryer handy, you can dry them that way. Otherwise, use a drying rack, hang your clothes, or lay them flat to air dry. This will take some time, so be patient.

Related: How Long Does It Take to Wash & Dry Clothes?

Optional Supplies to Make Hand Washing Clothes Even Simpler

You really don't need anything other than water and soap to get your clothes clean, but if you hand-wash your clothing often, there are some items that are handy to have on-hand.

Washboards

There's nothing quite like a washboard to evoke memories of people washing their clothes in the olden days. But there's a reason that they were so widely used. They're really handy. Just take your wet, soapy item of clothing and plunk it on the board, then run it up and down the board to remove stains and general dirt. There are lots of different styles of modern washboards, but we really like these two:

  • Small Plastic Washboard With Basin - If you're doing mostly delicates, baby clothes, or a couple of items at a time, this washboard includes a basin that you can use instead of your sink, with just a small amount of soap or detergent. This is a great addition to your stockpile of camping gear when sinks or bathtubs aren't easily available.

  • Bamboo Washboard - This wooden washboard is a little bigger and works well in your sink or tub. The corrugated, wavy lines keep your clothes from slipping around while you scrub.

Agitators

An agitator can be used instead of your hands to move the clothes around in the soapy water and get them clean. It's a great solution if you suffer from dry hands or just don't want to manually do the swish. It's also a great idea to have in your laundry arsenal if you hand-wash cloth diapers — because nobody wants to be putting their hands in that water if they don't have to.  Try one of these customer-favorite options.

  • Hand-Powered Portable Agitator - This one comes with extra pieces for the handle, so you can make it longer or shorter. This is ideal for bathtub washing since you can stand and agitate without throwing out your back. It weighs about a pound, is easy to use, and comes apart for simple storage in the included storage bag.

  • Portable Washing Machine Wand - I'm a sucker for things that come in pretty colors, and this green agitator definitely qualifies. It's a simple, no-frills agitator that just gets the job done without any bells or whistles.

Get Your Clothes Clean the Old-Fashioned Way

Washing your clothes without a washing machine is a simple process that doesn't take too long to accomplish. Just make sure that you leave lots of time for your clothes to dry (assuming you're also skipping the dryer) — this is definitely not the method you want if you're in a hurry. Not only will you end up with clean clothes, but you'll bring out your inner Ingalls and feel like you're living life on the prairie.