How to handwash clothes (and why it’s good for the planet and great for your garments)

Eco Hand Washing

There’s no doubt that the modern washing machine is one of the 20th century’s greatest inventions. However, you really can’t beat handwashing if you want to keep your clothes looking their best for longer.

The benefits of handwashing for your clothes

Not all clothes can be machine washed. Silk, wool and other delicate fabrics just can’t cope with the rigours of a washing machine. Even garments that say they’re machine washable often benefit from a gentler solution.

Wool, for example, is easy to shrink. Washing your jumpers by machine can result in them losing their shape – becoming baggy and shapeless or a bit too tight. It also increases pilling. Your brand-new jumper could look old and worn in just a few months if you wash it in a machine.

Silk undies and pillowcases quickly lose their softness and gain holes. Brightly coloured clothes soon fade. Sports leggings lose their elasticity. Embroidered or beaded items come out of the machine damaged. And most women have lost a bra wire or two in the washing machine at some point.

In short, handwashing keeps clothes looking like new for longer. But that’s not the only benefit…


The benefits of handwashing for the planet

While modern washing machines don’t use as much energy as they used to, they still eat up around 2.1 kWh of electricity an hour (which costs you almost 60 pence). However, the main environmental impact comes from water use. An average cycle uses a staggering 50 litres of water. So, washing by hand is better for the environment (and your wallet), especially if you’re only washing one or two items at a time.


How to handwash clothes

Handwashing doesn’t take as much time or effort as you may think. Clothes often only need a quick dip and spot clean to freshen them up. Wool is naturally antibacterial, so it repels unpleasant odours. This means it only needs washing when it’s really grubby or you’ve spilled something on it. The rest of the time, you can just use a knitwear mist such as Clothes Doctor’s No.14 to refresh your jumpers.

If you do need to properly handwash something, check the label first to make sure it’s not dry-clean only. Then, get everything together that you need: 

  • A sink, washing up bowl or bucket. (Give it a wipe to make sure there’s no traces of food, bleach or harsh cleaning products)
  • Gloves if your skin is sensitive or you have long nails
  • A gentle, non-biological laundry detergent
  • Fabric conditioner (optional).


Step 1: Treat stains

If there are any noticeable stains, pre-treat them with a stain remover. If you don’t have one to hand, you can use a dash of laundry detergent. Rub it gently into the stain, then leave it to work its magic for the amount of time it says on the bottle (usually around 10 minutes).

Step 2: Fill the bowl

Half fill the sink or bowl with water and a splash of laundry detergent. Use cold water if there are any blood, coffee, tea, chocolate, fruit or wine stains. Most other stains require warm water. Aim for just above room temperature. Pop your gloves on if you’re using them. If you’re not, remove any rings.

Step 3: Agitate the clothes

Push the garment down into the water. When it pops up, push it down again. Repeat this several times. This process is called agitation. The air bubbles help to remove dirt.

Step 4: Leave to soak

Leave the garment to soak. Cotton clothes can be left overnight, but don’t soak silk or wool garments for longer than half an hour.

Step 5: Agitate again

Keep pushing the garment down into the water. If there are any really grubby areas (think collars, cuffs, armpits and stains), gently rub the fabric together. You can also squeeze the garment to push the air through it. Change the water if it starts to look dirty.

Step 6: Rinse

Empty the bowl and refill it with cold water. Repeat step 5 to rinse the detergent out. (You might need to change the water again if it looks soapy.)

Step 7: Add fabric conditioner

Fabric conditioner isn’t essential, but it can help to make clothes softer if you live in a hard water area. (Plus, it smells nice.) Pour a small amount into the bowl and stir to mix. (Don’t use too much or it’ll take ages to rinse out.) Leave your clothes to soak for a few minutes and then rinse.

Step 8: Remove excess water

Empty the water out of the bowl. If you’re handwashing robust clothes, like jeans, you can twist them to get more of the water out. Otherwise, just squeeze the fabric gently. Lay the item onto a clean towel and roll the towel up. This will transfer some of the water onto the towel without damaging your clothes. You may need to repeat this a few times. 

Step 9: Leave to dry

Most clothes can be hung up to dry. However, wool jumpers should be dried flat to avoid being stretched out of shape. Don’t dry silk on the radiator as you risk damaging it.


Handwashing top tips

  • If you’re handwashing several garments at once, separate them into darks and lights.
  • Choose the right detergent for the garment (eg colours/whites/silk/wool etc).
  • Remember to use cold water for certain stains, such as blood and chocolate. Hot water actually sets the stain into the fabric, making it more difficult to remove.
  • Use gloves if you have sensitive skin or long nails.  
  • To avoid stains and water marks, never pour fabric conditioner direct onto fabric, and never let laundry detergent or stain remover dry on clothes.
  • If you have a large item to handwash, such as a duvet cover, or several garments, use the bath rather than a sink. (You’ll need to put a pillow on the floor so your knees don’t get sore.) Showering the clothes is a great way to get dirt out without damaging the fabric.
  • If you’re handwashing nappies or other items that have come into contact with bodily fluids, eg hankies, use a sanitising detergent like Bio D’s Nappy Fresh.


Best laundry detergent for handwashing clothes

A multipurpose laundry detergent is always handy, but it’s also worth investing in specialist detergents that have been designed for particular fabrics. They’re more likely to be effective at treating any stains, and less likely to cause any damage. There’s a Clothes Doctor laundry product for pretty much every eventuality, from baby clothes to cashmere. They’re all made in the UK, free from palm oil and vegan-friendly.

Other great options include:

Ecozone Delicate Laundry Liquid

This is a great allrounder that works well and is gentle on silk, wool and other delicate fabrics.

Ecover Delicate Detergent for Black and Dark Laundry

Want your indigo jeans and black T-shirts to keep their colour for longer? This detergent is the answer.

Sonnett Sensitive Laundry Powder

If you have eczema, psoriasis or dry skin, you’ll want to use a detergent that’s suitable for sensitive skin. This one is fragrance-free and doesn’t contain petrochemicals or other harsh chemicals. (It’s perfect for washing baby clothes.) It also won’t fade bright colours. 

Ecodoo Savon de Marseille 

Washing leather, jeans or other hardwearing clothes? A solid laundry soap is great at getting the stains out.

Ecodoo Concentrated Lavender Fabric Softener

If you want your clothes to smell fragrant but not overpoweringly floral, this is a good choice. You only need 20ml per 10 litres of water when you’re handwashing, so a single bottle could last you for months.

Dri-Pak Oxi Boost

Soda crystals ‘boost’ other laundry detergents, keeping your whites whiter and coloured clothes more vibrant, while tackling stains.

While the above products are some of our favourites, we have hundreds of laundry detergents, fabric conditioners, stain removers and other products to choose from. As with everything we sell, they’re all cruelty-free and eco-friendly.


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