Estimated reading time: 15 minutes
Whether it’s a Power Outage, a Broken Washing Machine, or Just Living Off the Grid, Laundry is a Continuing Fact of Life.
In the category of things that we take for granted, a clothes washer and dryer rank near the top. Most times, the biggest complaint is folding and putting the clothes away.
All of that will change if you ever have to do laundry by hand, and we’re not going to use alternative machines or apparatus. We’re sticking with the pioneer spirit.
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Table of Contents
- Why Would You Do This?
- The 3 Basic Steps
- The Pioneer Approach
- Basic Pioneer Laundry Equipment
- The Outside Approach
- The Inside Approach
- Some Notes on Detergent and Soap
- Shortcuts and Tips
- Do-It-Yourself Clothes Drying Rack
Why Would You Do This?
It’s easy to assume that a local Laundromat would solve any laundry challenges. But if there are widespread power outages or you’re living remotely, that may not be so easy. And if you look at the past yea,r many people have been reluctant to go to a Laundromat because of the pandemic.
Regardless of the reason, there are some basic pioneer skills that can make short work of doing the laundry. Well, maybe not short, but your clothes will be clean again.
The 3 Basic Steps
From a functional standpoint, all you’re doing is washing, rinsing, and drying. That sounds easy enough, but each step presents some challenges when you’re doing it by hand. You could also do some prewashing like shaking out the clothes.
Here are the basics and then we’ll get into detail.
Washing machines agitate and move clothing through sudsy water to loosen dirt particles and stains. Detergent has surfactant properties that suspend dirt particles in water. When you’re washing clothes by hand, you need to recreate that agitation and you’ll definitely need to use detergent.
Washing machines also pre-soak clothes in hot water and detergent while the washing machine tub is filling and before agitation. You can do that by letting the clothes sit in your tub before getting started.
Washing machines also do something that is one of the most strenuous challenges when doing laundry by hand. The spin cycle removes the soapy water, allowing for a better rinse.
There’s also an agitation cycle during rinsing to rinse out any residual detergent. This is followed by a final rinse and spin before the clothes are ready to go into the drier.
You’ll now be doing all of this by hand. You can buy a wringer for this difficult and strenuous step if you need to wash clothes by hand all the time.
This seems easy, but weather can be a daunting challenge. The ideal way to dry clothes by hand is to hang them on a clothesline. That’s assuming you have a warm, sunny, and breezy day. But it can take more than a day for some things to dry and an overnight rain or heavy morning dew is going to delay your progress.
Winter is a more daunting challenge, and while pioneers hung their clothes in winter and took them in as stiff as a board, there are other options like indoor drying racks that you can easily construct.
The Pioneer Approach
Ideally, it’s best to do laundry by hand outside. One reason is that it’s such a splashy mess. Here again, winter makes that impossible, but if the weather allows it, outside is the best place to start.
Basic Pioneer Laundry Equipment
- 2 washtubs (you could also use an empty cooler, large crock or stockpot)
- A washboard
- Plenty of water
- A basket to hold the clothes between steps
The Outside Approach
The ideal water source outside is a garden hose. But there’s a problem. It’s cold water. If you want to at least wash your clothes in hot water, you’ll either need to bring some out in buckets from the hot water tap or boil it in a large pot over a fire.
Be careful with any water heated over a fire. You can burn yourself if you plunge your hands into a tub of boiling water.
Some pioneers tossed their clothes into the tub, sprinkled it with detergent or soap, and poured the boiling water directly into the tub while stirring the clothes around with a stick. They let the clothes soak in the water until it cooled sufficiently and then started to use their washboard.
A washboard is a standard tool for washing clothes by hand. It’s placed into the tub on an angle and leaned against the rim. You grab a soaked and sudsy item of clothing and rub it up and down over the ribs in the washboard.
This isn’t a one-time scrub on the ribs. Re-immerse the item into the sudsy water and turn and bundle and rub it again at least 3 times; maybe a few more for really dirty jeans or socks.
Rinsing outside is a little easier than inside because you have a better volume of water from a garden hose. To rinse clothes, wring the soap out of the clothes first and drop them into the second washtub filled with either hot or cold water.
Continue to wring clothes from the suds tub until the rinse tub is full. Swirl the clothes around with your hand to work out the detergent. Drain the tub by leaning it over while holding the clothes back with your hand, then wring them again and refill the rinse tub with fresh cold water and repeat the process.
Two rinses should get most of the detergent out, but if you want to be sure you can go for a third rinse. The wringing process is the most demanding part. You may need to take a break halfway through depending on the weave of the clothes and the size of the load(s).
Toss each item after wringing into a basket in preparation for drying.
This is the easy part, at least outside. All you need is some rope for clotheslines, clothespins, and your laundry. Try to pick a sunny spot that gets a breeze if one comes up. The key is to make sure the clotheslines are taut and tight. They’ll sag, especially while the clothes are still wet.
If you don’t have clothespins, you can always fold over the clothes on the line, but it will increase your drying time due to the fact that you may have two pieces of wet fabric pressed against each other. A sunny day with a breeze will help, and you can always flip the clothing to give the interior side a chance to catch some sun.
You might want to get the clothes on the line early in the day. Some items like blankets and especially denim jeans take a while to dry. Check the clothes periodically and when they’re dry, you can pull a load of socks, shirts, and underwear from the lines while the jeans keep drying. If you have to leave them out overnight, check the weather and give them enough time on the line the next day to lose any morning dew.
If the weather forecast is consistently pleasant, you can cheat a bit on the strenuous wringing challenge. Get some of the water out after the second rinse, but don’t strain yourself with heavy wringing if the clothes are only dripping on the ground and a good breeze and bright sun are coming.
The Winter Challenge
Doing your laundry inside is easy but it’s going to be a potential mess, and you might have to improvise or build a clothes rack for drying inside. You can buy them on Amazon, but building one is easy.
The Inside Approach
Washing clothes by hand inside your home is a completely different experience, as you’ll see.
The kitchen sink is your go-to option for doing laundry inside. A bathtub works too, but most kitchen sinks have two side-by-side sinks so it’s easy to use one for washing and the other for rinsing.
You’ll have to do smaller loads depending on the size of your sinks, but your wrists and hands will appreciate the break.
Drop some detergent in one sink and fill it with hot water to work up the suds. Fill the other sink with clear hot or cold water. Drop the clothes in one item at a time and swirl around in the soap sink.
Put your washboard in the sink, working the legs around the clothes, and lean it against the edge. Repeat the same process as washing outside working the clothes.
When done washing, wring out as much of the suds as you can in the soap sink and drop the clothing item into the rinse sink. When you’re done with the sudsy clothes, drain the sudsy water and rinse out the soap, then fill that sink with clear water as well.
Swirl the clothes around in the first rinse sink and wring out over the first rinse water. Drop into the second rinse sink which you just filled with clear water, and repeat until all of the clothes have had their first rinse.
Swirl the clothes around in the second rinse and wring out and drop into the basket on the floor for drying. Some heavier weaves like hoodies, towels and jeans might need a third rinse.
The easiest way to dry inside is with an interior clothes drying rack. Buy one or build your own. You could also string a clothesline inside if you have a way to attach it to the walls. Regardless of what you use to dry inside, there’s a new problem you’ll have to solve.
No matter how hard you wrung out the water, the clothes will still be wet and as they hang on the line or drying rack, the water will drip from the bottom of the clothes.
An easy way to solve this problem is to spread some large, unfolded garbage bags or sheets of plastic on the floor under the rack. Winter heat from your woodstove or furnace will help everything to evaporate, and the moisture will nicely humidify the interior air.
Protecting the floor or anything underneath a clothesline is a different story, and you either need a roll of plastic unrolled underneath, or you could go with the drying rack. The drying rack also serves to isolate the clothes so you’re not bumping into blankets and underwear all day. In fact, you may be doing that for more than a day.
It can take 2 to 3 days for clothes to dry inside without a breeze. If you have heating vents in your home with any type of forced air, that may be a good place to locate your rack. Relatively close to a woodstove is another possibility.
Fortunately, you don’t have to do laundry every day.
Some Notes on Detergent and Soap
The best detergent to use for clothes washing is a liquid, laundry detergent. A washing machine dissolves and mixes a powdered detergent quite well but when you’re using your hands to agitate, the powder may not entirely dissolve, leaving clumps behind.
If all you have is a powdered detergent, you’re fine. Put it in the tub or sink first and stir as you add the water to make sure it’s dissolved. If it’s an emergency and all you have is dish soap or bar soap, use it.
Any soap is better than no soap, but you’ll need to rub each item with the bar soap as you wash. In fact, you can buy bar soap designed for hand washing laundry.
If you have no soap, hot water is an option to at least rinse out some of the dirt and stains. If you’re a real pioneer, you can make your own soap out of water, wood ashes, and fat, but that’s a whole new project
Shortcuts and Tips
- Watch the weave. Clothes with a heavy weave like towels, jeans, and sweatshirts should be washed as a separate load from socks and underwear. There’s no science to it, it’s just easier.
- Large items like blankets, sheets, and coats should be washed and rinsed individually. What usually happens when you combine very large items with smaller ones is that you find socks and underwear trapped in the folds when you hang the blanket to dry. That means they were not sufficiently washed or rinsed but simply got caught up in the material while still in the tub or sink.
- Unfold and re-hang when drying indoors. Anything folded on a drying rack indoors will often still be moist on inside folds. It’s like drying outside without clothespins. Pull the socks after a while and flip them around so the folded side is exposed to the warm air. Without an active breeze, the drying process is slower and not as efficient.
- Don’t get complacent when drying outside. When the clothes are dry, get them off the line and inside. Everything from airborne dust, pollen, bird droppings, and anything else drifting in the wind will end up on your clothes. If the jeans just won’t seem to dry, don’t leave everything on the line waiting for them to catch up. When some clothes are dry, get ‘em down.
- Wrinkles are common when air drying. A clothes drier can get rid of a lot of wrinkles, but most things off a clothesline or drying rack will wrinkle. One solution is to dry shirts on a hanger. You also have the ironing option.
- Save the grey water. If washing outside, toss the rinse water on your garden. Why not multitask while you’re doing the laundry?
Do-It-Yourself Clothes Drying Rack
This is basically 4 long poles connected towards the top with nuts and bolts that allow the poles to be spread apart and stand freely. The one shown was made out of sapling trunks and some tree branches.
Cordage was used to add some drying space from one pole to another and using rope allows you fold up the rack so you can easily store it on the back porch, garage or shed. You can add some felt padding to the bottom of the support poles to protect your floors.
Some cordage tied across the sides of the rack keep it from sliding and collapsing on the floor from the weight of the clothes. You can use it indoors or outdoors for really big loads.
If you don’t have the time, skills, or inclination to build a drying rack, you can always put some broomsticks across the top of two chairs and dry the clothes on clothes hangers over a heating vent. This may be your only option in an emergency, especially if you live in an apartment in the city where resources may be limited.
Hopefully, doing your laundry by hand will be a short-term solution but you never know—you just may enjoy reconnecting with your pioneer past.
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