Is It Really Possible To Wash Clothes Without Any Machines? 

The power’s off or the washing machine’s out of order. You’ve got a huge amount of washing to do and you can’t let it wait until the washing machine’s fixed or the power comes on. An unlikely scenario? Not quite. This writer has been in this situation several times, the worst of which happened when I was living in a remote country area (no laundrettes handy) with two children still in nappies (cloth nappies, not disposables) and the power was cut for four days thanks to a severe storm. I have also had a washing machine break down and was unable to get it fixed for a week while I had one child in nappies and my husband doing a dirty job, and was in this situation as a student when our flat’s washing machine died and we were too broke to replace it straight away. I also had to handwash the family’s laundry when my parents were working as missionaries in a developing country.

Washing machine in a house kitchen

It’s always useful to know how to cope with a load of washing when you can’t use a machine. While it may not quite be a life-and-death factor, in an emergency situation, having clean clothes can be a morale booster. You never know when a disaster might leave you without electricity. Or you might just be keen on camping!

Be Careful Though

One warning, however. This is a lengthy process and will take up to half a morning to complete. My recommendation is to do this as part of a deep cleaning exercise when the whole house will be in a temporary mess. Experiment at will when you have plenty of free time and no urgent things to do. Depending on when your washing will be ready is not a good idea for this test. 

To wash clothes without a machine, you will need a large tub or basin. From experience, I have found that a bathtub is best (it can take up to three machine loads of washing and more than one person can work at the task), and a large laundry sink is second-best. Rubber gloves are also useful, and having a good quality moisturiser or skin cream handy is also a real must, especially if you have sensitive skin. A strong stick or wooden spoon can also help but is not essential.

Step 1

The first stage of washing without a machine is to put the clothes, etc. into the tub. You don’t have to separate delicates or woollens – this process is delicate enough for these. Run warm water to cover the washing and allow them to move freely. While the water is running, add laundry powder to the tub under the running water and let it bubble. Do not use biological (enzyme powered) washing powder – you are going to get this solution on your skin. If you don’t have non-biological washing powder, then dishwashing liquid or ordinary soap will work – use plenty! Once you have added enough water, stir the clothes, etc. around a few times.

Step 2

Then go away and forget about the washing for an hour or so and let it soak. Overnight is ideal, but an hour’s soaking is adequate. After the hour is over, then the hard work begins. To loosen the dirt from the clothes, they will need to be agitated and moved around in the water. This can be done by stirring with a stick or hauling the wet laundry to and fro with your hands. If the clothes are in the bathtub, you can trample the washing with your feet – a time-honoured method described in Homer’s Odyssey. Wear shorts and do it barefoot. Small children are often enthusiastic helpers if you are using the bathtub, but put barrier cream on their legs first to protect their skin. You will need to agitate the clothing for at least fifteen minutes. It is strenuous work, but treat it like a gym session or aerobic workout and you will find it more bearable. If you know that some items are particularly dirty, fish them out and scrub the offending spot.

Step 4

After agitating in soapy water, push all the clothing in a heap at the end of the tub/sink furthest from the plughole and let the water out. Squeeze, ring or trample the piled up clothes once most of the water has drained to get as much soapy water and dirt out as possible. Use rubber gloves if you are wringing rather than trampling. Once you have got enough water out of the clothes, replace the plug and re-fill with fresh water. Don’t soak the items this time – just get trampling or agitating again, for about ten minutes.

Step 5

After the first rinse, repeat the drain, squeeze and refill process, followed by another ten minutes of agitating. If you know that you will have to wash without the machine again, do not pull the plug – you will be able to use this rinsing water to wash the next batch. If you need to drain the water (e.g. if you know the bath will be needed to wash people), push the washing to one end as previously, then squeeze.

Step 6

Have a washing basket on hand, as the washing will now need to be taken to wherever you will dry it. In my opinion, this is the worst part of the process. Each garment will need to be wrung out. This is hard on your hands, even if you have rubber gloves on, as it uses muscles that don’t usually get used (if you don’t have rubber gloves, you will chafe your skin with all the friction). Do not wring woollens – squeeze them hard instead. Put the wrung out clothes in the basket and lug it out to the washing line. Don’t try putting the whole lot in the basket at once. The clothes will still be dripping wet and will be excruciatingly heavy.

The clothes will also take a longer time to drip-dry on the washing line. And they will drip! Depending on the weather, some items may take from a whole day to (in the case of a damp, still climate and thick bath mats) three or four days. 

If you have to do this process even once, you will really appreciate your washing machine and consider it to be one of the best inventions of the last 200 years. Even the old agitator and mangle machines beat handwashing!

A word of warning for tenants!

Be very careful and check whether your washing machine powder/liquid drawer has been professionally cleaned prior to vacating your property. Letting agents and landlords' inventory clerks tend to check this little detail quite meticulously. Don't let anything fail your checkout report as it may cost you money. Even if you don't book a company to do your end of tenancy clean (which I strongly advise you do) you can hire a house cleaner to go over those details for you on the day before the landlord's inspection visit. Typical price for a domestic cleaning agency in London would be around £18-£20 per hour inclusive of cleaning materials and equipment.