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Make Hand-Laundering Less of a Chore

Think of this as Hand Washing 202.

Photo: Pamela Hanson/Trunk Archive

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Out, Damned Spot has long provided general tips to keep your fashions looking amazing, but now, twice a month, I'll also be answering questions about the very specific problems your new (or old!) purchases may present. Do you have questions for me? Ask away!

What's the best way to hand wash clothes? I live in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn that does not have a washer or dryer, and I have a lot of delicate professional dresses, so I end up hand washing a lot of my clothes in my bathtub. It's tiring, time-consuming, and a little back-breaking.

Is there a best detergent to use? Do you recommend using a wash board? Have you tried the company Soak's washing liquid, and would you recommend it? Or do you think I should invest in one of those little "handwash" machines?

Thanks for any advice you can give! —Lisha

Not only can I offer help here because I'm a cleaning expert, but also because I, too, live in a very small apartment in which I do a decent amount of hand washing. So the advice here comes not just from the years I've spent researching and thinking about laundry, but also from living it.

If you're entirely new to hand washing and are looking for instructions to get you started, check out my guide to the basics of hand washing. What we'll go through today is basically Hand Washing 202: Advanced Theories and Techniques.

Save Your Back, Hand Wash in the Kitchen Sink

I'm going to go ahead and make a bold proclamation (I put in in bold so you'd know I was serious): Hand washing should take place in the kitchen sink.

Now, there are some caveats, as well as a reason why I'm saying that's a bold proclamation for me to make. Generally, when I talk about hand washing, I suggest several options for where it might take place (the tub, a washing bucket, the kitchen or utility sink, etc.) and leave it to you to determine what's best for your particular set-up. Why? Because not everyone's home is the same — some people have a shower-only bathroom, which means there's no tub option at all. Some people have bathroom sinks that are quite roomy, while others have bathroom sinks with smaller basins that don't have enough space for water, detergent, a garment, and your hands to get in there and move around. That is also true of kitchens — some people have rather small kitchen sinks (that's the caveat). But if we're operating under the assumption that you've got a standard-sized kitchen sink, that's going to be the best place to do your hand washing, in part because it's got enough room for the operation, but also because sinks are mounted higher in the kitchen than in the bathroom, and therefore you can do your washing while standing, rather than stooping, or worse, kneeling in front of the bathtub.

The major exception to this rule is when you're working on something oversized, like a duvet cover that you want to soak overnight before laundering. For those jobs, you'll need the roominess of the tub or large bucket, but for hand washing a single dress, a load of bras, or a cashmere sweater, the kitchen sink is the jam.

Just remember to wipe it down before you start your laundry operation, so you don't wind up washing your best underpants in last night's alfredo sauce.

No-Rinse Detergents Are A++

Lisha asked if there was a "best detergent" for hand washing, and from my perspective the answer to that is no, if only because the question is framed in a limiting way. There's no one single detergent that I'm going to insist you use.

You may absolutely use your regular laundry detergent for hand washing; free and clear formulas are especially versatile. But if you'd like to get a specialty detergent, by all means please do so! When it comes to specialty detergents for hand washing, I do love and recommend Soak Wash, because the convenience of the no-rinse formula truly does make the process much faster, and much easier. It's also a very good detergent.

On Washboards, Manual Washers, Portable Washing Machines, and Drying Racks

It's certainly tempting to look for ways to make hand washing clothes easier, and as you start to consider purchasing items like washboards or no-hook-up washing machines, you should spend some time researching user reviews before you bust out your credit card. Of course, online comments should always been viewed with skepticism, but in my experience, you can glean a lot about whether a potential purchase is worth it by checking out Amazon reviews.

Using a washboard is unlikely to help make hand washing an easier, less back-breaking chore. It's also going to introduce a lot of friction to the process, which undermines the whole point of washing your clothes by hand rather than in the machine. Skip 'em.

Then there are manual washers, like Wonder Wash and The Laundry Pod, which are operated either by crank or foot pedal. I've had my eye on these babies for years, but I've never pulled the trigger because I suspect that they won't deliver a significantly easier hand washing experience. Plus, like Lisha, I live in a small apartment with limited storage space; I don't relish the thought of a hulking piece of plastic sitting in my kitchen or bathroom because I don't have a utility closet in which to stash it. But! They're an option, and those drawbacks may not scare you off the purchase of a manual washer. If you do get one, or you already have one, be a doll and let me know how you like it.

The next step up from manual washers are portable electric washers and/or dryers, which can be used without requiring a washer/dryer hook-up. Allow me to level with you: I'm deeply skeptical of these machines. I have yet to find a guide to these types of machines that I trust — my usual sources, The Sweethome, Consumer Reports, and Good Housekeeping, haven't reviewed these types of washers. The best I could come up with that I feel comfortable passing along to you is a 2014 crowd-sourced post from Apartment Therapy that features a lot of helpful comments from people who own portable washers.

The one thing I do recommend you invest in is a good drying rack. There are lots of styles out there, and you should definitely choose one that will work best both for the needs of your wardrobe and for the size and arrangement of your home. If you want suggestions, check out our guide to the best products for hand washing!