This is a picture of my mom when she was my age. She’s washing clothes with a village woman in Papua New Guinea. We lived in this village for a short time when I was seven years old. Laundry seems to be a huge off grid obstacle for women. It seems that washing clothes by hand is impossible to imagine. I can’t blame them for feeling this way. Laundry is an overwhelming never-ending task, but so necessary. I’ve heard many comments from women who think that off grid living sounds great, but they are decidedly convinced that they cannot wash clothes by hand. I am here to say that it is doable.
Sometimes I look back in astonishment at how many clothes I washed when I used a washer and dryer. I went to the laundromat every week when my oldest son was little. He wore seven complete outfits every week and many of those days we were just home in the air conditioning. We could have worn our clothes at least twice on those days and I could have cut my laundry in half. Things have changed a little bit now that I do all of our laundry by hand! So, how do I manage to get anything else done and still keep my family in clean clothes? Here are my best tips for washing clothes without electricity and still have a life!
- Don’t get frustrated. This is the most important thing! Washing clothes by hand can be very overwhelming, especially if you are washing for a family. I wish I would have had a list like this when I first started, but I learned along the way. And I survived! For however long you plan to wash by hand, just remember that millions of women have done this before you. A washing machine is a modern invention largely for western countries. Today, it is a luxury that many women in third world countries don’t have access to. I don’t have to haul my laundry to a river and scrub clothes on a rock. I have a wringer and access to clean water just a short walk from my back door. I have so much! These are things I remind myself when I do get frustrated. It helps me keep things in perspective.
- We have town clothes and farm clothes. I’m very careful about what clothes we wear around the homestead and which ones get worn to town. We don’t mix the two. If a nice town shirt gets worn around the homestead, it will very quickly become only a farm shirt. We try to have unstained, unfaded, hole free clothes to wear to town. Town clothes are taken off as soon as we get home and if they are not dirty, they are put away for the next time. We work hard and our boys play hard, so we can be hard on our clothes at times. Separating our clothes in two categories helps us be presentable when we need to be.
- I’m very conscious about what clothes go into the laundry to be washed. I evaluate if clothes are really dirty. Just because something has been worn once, does not mean that it needs to be washed. Each member of my family has about five t-shirts in our rotation for farm clothes. In the summer, everyone gets one clean t-shirt everyday. In the winter, we try to get two days out of each shirt. We also each have three pairs of shorts and pants, depending on the season. We generally wear the same shorts for up to a week in the summer and one pair of pants can be pushed to two weeks in the winter. This may sound crazy to people who are used to washing everything after wearing it once, but this is probably the most important practice for keeping my sanity while washing clothes without electricity. Getting dirty is part of life on a farm/homestead and washing a pair of pants just to turn around and get them equally dirty the next day, just doesn’t make sense.
- When I decide that something will not be worn again, I put it directly into my washbin to be washed. This really helps remove the sorting time later. This way I don’t have to pick through every item of clothing that got into the laundry basket and wonder if it really needs to be washed.
- Before clothes go into the washbin, I shake and remove any dried on dirt, grass clippings, seeds, etc. This is especially true of my husband’s pants pockets and socks. Sometimes I think he brings the whole forest back in his pockets!
- These are the tools I use: Mobile Washer, 5 gallon buckets, big plastic bin/tote, wringer, and washtub. I put my clothes in my plastic bin inside the bathtub with enough water to enable the clothes to move around. My bin can hold a normal sized load of laundry and takes 9 to 10 gallons of water to fill. I use the mobile washer to plunge up and down, agitating the soapy water. I generally do this for a total of 5 to 10 minutes with soak time in between. There are also other ways of washing clothes without an electric washer, such as the WonderWash. But methods like this all have one problem. They can’t hold very many clothes! If you are like me and have a family, I suggest using as big a bin as possible. It helps to wash them all at once, as well as letting them soak while you do something else.
- I use 5 gallon buckets for carrying water into the house, as well as washing clothes. The Mobile Washer is actually advertized for use in a 5 gallon bucket.
- I’m not concerned about colors and whites that are washed together. It is a time saver to wash everything together and I have found that cold water hand washing does not affect colors like warm water in a machine. The only exception would be an item that is brightly colored and brand new.
- I use water for washing and separate water for rinsing. After the wash, everything gets wrung out and then put in the rinse water. This is an important step! It really helps to get the dirty soapy water out before clothes get rinsed. You don’t want that going in the rinse water. After the rinse, everything gets wrung again.
- Using a clothes wringer saves so much time compared to squeezing clothes with your hands. It is important to make sure clothes lay flat as they move through the wringer. It can break zippers, buttons and snaps, so these are especially important to lay flat. Some things take some strength to crank through, but a wringer can build up strong arm muscles! A hand wringer is much safer than an electric wringer because there is no risk of fingers getting hurt. If a finger gets close to being caught, simply stop turning. I’ve never had an injury using my wringer.
- There are some things that I squeeze out with my hands because I don’t want to risk damaging them. I learned this the hard way! I never put my bras through the wringer anymore. They have underwires and hooks that are easily bent or broken. One size cloth diaper covers have many plastic snaps that can get stuck and broken.
- I always save my rinse water! It is not completely clean water, but I use it for rinsing out used cloth diapers. It would also be really useful for prewashing a really dirty item of clothing, cleaning the floor, or scrubbing the bathtub.
- Adult pants and shorts are the hardest clothes to wash, so I alternate days. I wash mine one day and my husband’s the next. Because they are usually very dirty, I wash them in a 5 gallon bucket by themselves. I also do not put them through the wringer (literally). There’s a reason why this expression came to be! Some things are very difficult to crank through the wringer. I’ve found that they get dry just fine on the line without wringing. To keep my rinse water clean, I only put the pants in after I have rinsed and wrung everything else.
- Pajamas. During the winter, I usually wash pajamas once a week. We only sleep in them! We get dressed as soon as we get up and they are put away for the next night. I don’t let my kids run around in their pj’s because I don’t want them to get dirty. Our rule is: Get up, get dressed! In the summer, we all sleep in a clean t-shirt and wear that t-shirt the next day. I wash pj shorts once a week. Summer nights can be hot and sweating after showers is often the norm. If we wore a shirt for sleeping and another shirt the next day, I would end up washing two shirts for each family member every day.
- Cloth diapers. I could write an entire article about my experiences in hand washing these! Let me know if that interests you. I’m so thankful that my youngest is now mostly potty trained, except for nights and naps. So I only need to wash two diapers a day and no poopy ones! I’m so happy about that! When he was little and using a lot more diapers, I used to alternate days with my other laundry, diapers one day and clothes the next. I’m so thankful that I don’t need to do that anymore! Now I put the diapers in their own five gallon bucket and wash them at the same time as everything else.
- Bath towels are an extra thing to wash, so I try to limit the times I need to wash them. It usually happens every couple of weeks or when I see that they really need it. If the air is very humid inside, I will often hang the towels outside without washing them. The sun is great for sterilizing and taking out that mildewy smell. We also never use a bath mat! There’s a reason why hotels use towels for the floor. They may be slightly thicker, but they are essentially a towel. Bath mats take up a lot of room in the wash and take more time to dry. We actually just use a hand towel. It’s big enough to step on and that’s really all we need it for.
- Kitchen towels and dish rags. I usually rinse these out in rinse water left from doing dishes. This gets out any food residue. Then I wash them with the rest of my laundry.
- Sheets are another big item. These take a lot of water to wash and I usually have to set aside another wash day to do them because I don’t keep that much water in the house at any given time. I wash pillowcases with my regular laundry, so they get clean more often. I try not to wash sheets unless I really need to. My best strategy for keeping them clean and lightening my laundry load is showering at night. My boys shower right before bed and my husband and I only shower after our work is done for the day. As an added bonus, it feels great to fall asleep clean after a hard day’s work.
I think I have washed everything imaginable from baby clothes to heavy Carhartt winter coats. It really is possible. Yes, a washer and dryer is easier. But no matter how we choose to wash our clothes, let’s stop complaining about laundry! There is always a woman somewhere who has a more difficult situation. Remember the women in third world countries who haul their clothes to the river and scrub them on rocks. Whatever our situation, we are so blessed.