How to handwash clothes

'Handwash only' means you just stick it in a bowl of soapy water then rinse, right? Wrong... Find out how to handwash clothes so your (probably expensive) buys stay looking as good as new for as long as possible

a women tidying away folded clothes to organise her home
(Image credit: Appliances Direct)

Want to know how to handwash clothes like a pro? It's not rocket science, but it is amazing what a difference using the right techniques can do to extend the good looks of your clothes. 

In this guide, we'll take you through whether you have to handwash everything that's labelled as handwash only, tell you the best handwashing techniques and some clever ways to dry your precious buys, too. 

Once you're done, check out how to do laundry, our guide to washing everything from clothes and shoes to pet beds, and don't miss our best laundry hacks, too. 

folded laundry

(Image credit: Getty/Poh Kim Yeoh / EyeEm)

Do you have to handwash clothes?

The simple answer to that is 'no'. If your item is labelled 'handwash only', it should be handwashed, just as if it was labelled 'dry clean only' you should have it dry cleaned. 

If, however, it's labelled as 'delicate' or 'handwash', it should be okay to go in the washing machine, but only on a delicate cycle. And, again, if it's labelled 'dry clean', it may be okay to handwash. 

However, we'd always advise two things: if you're not sure, if the piece was very expensive, if you don't want to risk it, always take the safer route. And, if you do decide to handwash, always check a small area at the back of the item first for colour-fastness.

Why handwash clothes and not machine wash?

Some delicate fabrics – think lacy underwear, woollen jumpers, silk blouses – will usually keep both their original colour and shape better if handwashed properly rather than machine washed. 

However, always be aware that bright- or dark-coloured items can bleed their colours, which is why a test on a small area is best done first and why a lukewarm or cool wash is often the most sensible route.

How to handwash clothes: preparing the sink or bowl

This piece of advice is hard-won by the Real Homes team; more than one of us has carefully handwashed an item in a bowl that wasn't quite rinsed of bleach from an earlier cleaning job. #washdaydisaster.

So, ensuring the bowl or sink that you'll be handwashing the item in is squeaky clean is an absolute must. Wash yours well with a little warm soapy water, then rinse thoroughly before beginning your handwash.

How to handwash clothes: choose the right water temperature

Always follow the clothing's care label for instructions on choosing the water temperature for handwashing clothes. If there's no label or no clear instructions, choose lukewarm water, and bear in mind that woollens usually do best in a cool or cold wash.

The downsides to getting the water temperature wrong? It won't surprise you to know that if you use hot water for a delicate item that should be handwashed in cold water, the colour might run and its fibres might weaken, meaning it will shrink or stretch. But you may be surprised to know that handwashing something in cold water that needs a hot wash will make it stiff. 

Muuto Restore Round BaSket

(Image credit: Muuto)

How to handwash clothes: choose the best detergent

For starters, don't use your regular washing powder. Why? It needs the agitation a washing machine can produce, but you can't with your arms, to break down properly. 

Instead, buy a delicate handwash detergent, and ensure it's totally dissolved in the water before you immerse your clothing. Liquid wash detergents are better than powders because they dissolve faster, and to handwash clothes, you'll only need about a teaspoon's worth. 

You can also use a mild washing up liquid (find the best in our buyer's guide) or dishwasher detergent. 

For fabrics such as wool, silk and rayon give biological, high pH wash detergents a wide berth. Instead, look for pH neutral non-enzymatic detergents; these don't contain enzymes, bleach or brightening agents.

How to handwash clothes like a pro

Have you spot tested your detergent on an unseen part of your garment? If so, you can now spot treat your clothing with a little of your washing detergent; gently apply it to any spots on the fabric with your fingers and allow it to soak in for 15 minutes.

Next, add your clothing to the water, keeping whites and colours separate to prevent colour bleeds. Swish the clothing around in the water, but don't scrub, twist or wring, and leave to soak if there is no colour run and if they are heavily soiled. It's better to give dirty woollens two washes with a rinse between.

Empty the bowl, then rinse the clothing thoroughly at least three times in clean, lukewarm water, until it runs clear. Ensure all soapy water is removed (you can check it by smelling the clothes; if they smell of soap, you'll need to rinse again). Leaving out this thorough rinse stage can weaken your clothes' fibres. Add a fabric conditioner to the final rinse water, to ensure that the garment stays soft.

Gently (*very gently) squeeze the excess water from your clothing. Do not wring or twist it, which can spoil its shape.

How to dry handwashed clothes

With the excess water squeezed out, transfer your handwashed item on to a clean white (to avoid colour transfer) towel on the floor or countertop. Now roll the towel tightly to remove still more water.

Reshape your clothing gently, then hang silk, polyester and cotton clothing on hangers or racks to dry woollens and cashmere should be dried flat on a dry, clean white towel, out of direct sunlight and away from direct heat.  

If the towel has been washed several times, all the better, since this will help remove any lint from it. You may need to swap to another dry towel when you flip the clothing after a few hours.

A good quality dehumidifier (see our buyer's guide for recommendations) can help speed up the drying process without damaging your clothes.

If your washing machine has a delicate spin that you can stop after a couple of minutes to remove the item, you can also use this now; it's especially useful if the clothing's dye is likely to run, too. But never tumble dry handwash items.

How to handwash clothes: bras and lacy underwear

Dissolve handwashing detergent in lukewarm water, soak the bras and underwear in the water for around 15 minutes, gently working the soapy suds in to the fabric with your hands. 

Empty the bowl of water then run the bras and underwear under a tap running lukewarm water until it runs clear.

Dry the clothing by blotting it with a dry, clean towel before hanging it up to dry. 

Laundry room with washing machine and washing by Ikea

(Image credit: Ikea)

How to handwash clothes: tights

Turn your tights inside out. Dissolve handwashing detergent in lukewarm water (not hot, which can affect your tights' elasticity), then gently work the soapy suds in to the feet and crotch with your hands. Soak the tights in the water for around 15 minutes, then empty the bowl of water then run the tights under a tap running lukewarm water until it runs clear.

Ball up the tights to squeeze out, blot them with a clean, dry towel and lay flat to dry (hanging them up will cause them to stretch). 

How to handwash sweaty clothes

If you have a top that's a little niffy, you need to neutralise the smell of the sweat. 

To do this, fill your bowl or sink with lukewarm water, mild handwash detergent and just over half a cup of white vinegar.

Pop the top or sweater, inside out, into the water and swish gently. Allow to soak for 10 to 15 minutes (assuming there's no colour run), then drain the bowl or sink and run cold water over the clothing until it's thoroughly rinsed. 

Follow our drying instructions above for perfect results.

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