How to Clean and Care for Delicate Clothing

how to hand wash clothes

The Spruce

The most delicate clothing should be hand-washed, not machine-washed, in order to keep its shape, color, overall look. Before you wash an item, double-check its care label. Unless you are very experienced at the laundry, always follow the "Dry Clean Only" labels and take the garment to a professional cleaner. The label means that water or excessive agitation will probably damage the garment.

Consider a structured suit—even if the outer fabric is washable, like polyester, the inside structure of interfacings that give the garment its shape will not hold up in water. However, most unstructured or soft items like sweaters that have the "Dry Clean" label can be hand-washed.

How to Hand-Wash Clothing
Detergent Mild liquid detergent
Water Temperature Cold or room-temperature
Drying Cycle Type Do not machine dry
Special Treatment Wash each item separately
Iron Settings Varies depending on garment

Project Metrics

Treat hand-washed clothing gently. The amount of time it will take to hand-wash clothing depends on how many items need to be cleaned and how soiled they are.

Working time: Varies

Total time: Varies

Skill level: Beginner

What You’ll Need

Supplies

Tools

  • Sink, tub or large bucket

Instructions

  1. Clean the Sink

    This seems so simple, but it's easy to forget that the sink that you're using for hand-washing clothes needs to be spotlessly clean. Kitchen sinks can have traces of grease that will transfer to clothes. Bathroom sinks may have traces of skincare products that will bleach fabrics.

  2. Fill the Sink With Water

    Fill the sink or tub with water before adding the items to be washed. The force of running water can actually stretch some fibers. If you need to add more water, deflect the force of the water with your hand or a cup.

    When handwashing clothes, the water should always be cold or tepid—never over 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot water can cause color bleeding or shrinkage.

  3. Add the Detergent

    When handwashing, use 1 teaspoon of gentle liquid detergent. You do not need lots of bubbles to get a clean garment; too much detergent means lots of rinsing or a garment with detergent residue left in the fibers.

    Always add the detergent to the water before adding clothes and give the water a quick stir to be sure the detergent is dissolved and distributed well.

  4. Soak and Swish the Garment

    Leaving plenty of room in the sink (never overload), submerge the fabric in the water. Be sure that the garment is completely saturated. Allow the garment to soak for at least five minutes and then gently swish it through the water. Never twist or scrub the fabric as it could stretch and warp the garment.

  5. Drain the Sink and Rinse the Garment

    Lift the garment from the sink and drain the soapy water; don't wring it out. Fill the sink with clean, tepid water and put the garment back in the sink to rinse. Swish through the water. Repeat this step until no suds are seen.

  6. Towel off the Garment

    If the garment is lightweight and delicate, such as lingerie, it can be hung to drip-dry immediately after rinsing. Always use a padded hanger that will not rust to prevent stains on the garment.

    For heavier items, such as sweaters, place the freshly rinsed garment flat on a white, thick towel and roll up to absorb the water. You may want to repeat this step with a second dry towel.

  7. Air-Dry the Garment

Place the garment on a flat surface to dry in a well-ventilated room. Do not toss in a hot clothes dryer or dry next to direct heat. For knitted items, reshape the garment before drying. If heavy items are hung, they will stretch or get marks on the shoulders from the hanger due to the weight.

When drying items on a flat surface, flip the garment a couple of times to speed drying time.

Treating Stains on Handwashed Clothes

If you're handwashing clothing, it probably means the item is quite delicate. To treat stains, gently work stain remover or liquid detergent into the stain with your fingers—don't scrub it, or the delicate fabric can be damaged. As the stain remover soaks in, gently squeeze water throughout the item multiple times until the stain is removed.

Tips for Hand-Washing Clothes

Tips

  • Always sort clothes by colors and fabric types before hand washing. Never hand wash dark and light colors together, as you risk the color of the darker clothes bleeding and staining the lighter clothes.
  • If you don't have a large sink, use a plastic bucket or storage container for hand washing clothes. Use the bathtub for very large items.
  • Do not overcrowd the sink or tub with too many clothes. You'll have greater success in washing only one or two items at a time.
  • Do not oversoak. Leaving clothes to soak for an extended period can cause fading and can harm embellishments like beads, sequins or embroidery.
  • The gentle cycle on your washer is not the same thing as hand washing. The cycle lasts longer and has more agitation, even in a front-load washer, that can harm the fabric. For the most delicate items, always hand wash.
  • Never place delicate, hand-washed items in a dryer to speed the drying.