My hand-wash stain removal accomplices

I’ve been hearing a creeping increase in the number of friends who have tried, ranted, or raved about subscription clothing boxes in recent weeks… to be honest, the idea of a collection of strangers (even strangers who are professionals) picking out some clothes that I have to commit to buying sight unseen is a little scary! Some services are now operating on a rental model, which I am more on board with — you don’t have to keep the items, so the risk is a little lower (you can just return it), and even though the costs are often the same for the rental vs purchase services, the rental ones tend to have higher-quality or designer items, which I would be more inclined to buy full price anyway.

I was discussing one of these popular rental services, Rent the Runway, because of its new offerings and a friend mentioned that these kinds of services may be better at reducing net consumption, but also have the costs of so much shipping and plastic, as well as enormous laundering enterprises. Reading about (an outdated but) detailed overview of the dry cleaning infrastructure required for a rental clothing service like this made me reflective of my own laundering practices, or lack thereof — I don’t really wash my clothes in a laundry machine very often, half because it’s down two flights of stairs in a dingy basement, and half because I tend to wash most of my items by hand, and have a method for different categories of items…

General Wearing

Growing up, my mother would always encourage me to wash clothes after a day of wear. But as I got older, I would smell and check my clothes for stains after a day, and find that they were honestly fine to wear again (I give and receive lots of hugs and no one has ever commented contrarily. I check often.). I don’t wear deodorant, for one, which induces more yellowing in the underarm area of tops for me, so that’s one factor eliminated. I also don’t sweat or move too much day-to-day — leisurely walks to the bus and academic work at a desk or coffeeshop doesn’t really motivate a full wash and dry cycle.

I would say the exception to this is “going-out” or “nighttime” clothes — situations in which you’d expect clouds of smoke, spilled drinks, sketchy bathrooms are also the situations in which I’m most inclined to peel off every layer and toss into the hamper immediately. Out of convenience or coincidence or necessity, these clothes tend to be either my sturdiest or cheapest items — trendy tops with well worn leather or denim jackets, trusty and easily-replaceable black stretch skinny jeans.

I guess jeans are another caveat to this – I read that it’s not good to wash jeans (although a recent Google tells me this may or may not be the case). I do operate by the smell test for jeans as well, and find usually that hanging them overnight on a clothes horse before packing them away again keeps them fresh for many wears. I would say I wash my jeans once a season.

What about stains?

I’m not a super human, in fact, I would say I get mystery stains more than the average person might! I could attribute this to my continuous coffee and tea drinking or some other factor, but the truth is I’m not particularly self aware when it comes to my body and my clothes, well, they tend to hang out near my body since that’s what their job is.

Anyway, I get stains on my clothes like anyone else, and instead of washing the whole item of clothing when that happens I spot treat and wash the stain. But, because my sink is not particularly large and I am messy, the spot treatment ends up becoming an area rinse and wash, so essentially every time I get a stain about half the garment gets a hand wash. Then I hang the garment to dry on my shower rod or clothes horse.

Collar Stains aka my nemesis

Collar stains from foundation are the biggest drama of my life. I get them on almost any high-necked shirt or sweater, and it happens almost immediately so there’s no resolving it. If this is something you are unfamiliar with and can’t imagine the cause of, let me describe: I like wearing foundation on my face, which I then need to also apply to my under-chin and neck to ensure a uniform color; upon wearing a collared shirt or other high-necked garment, the foundation will brush against it leaving a brownish ring around the collar of every button-down I own.

(I also once got a large circular foundation stain on the cuff of my favorite Everlane oxford shirt which I can only surmise came from resting my forearm on my face?? But who does that?? Especially while wearing makeup?? Rest assured, the techniques described below resolved that stain as well)


I have usually been known to spot treat with a bar of lavendar soap, Trader Joe’s Lemongrass Clary Sage Hand Soap, or Dr. Bronner’s Lavendar Castile Soap. I’ll run some hot water over the stain, soap and lather the offending area, and then rinse repeat until clean. For particularly stubborn stains, I may also use a stain removal pen I got at a recruiting fair – I don’t use it often so I haven’t had to replace it, but it usually works well as a last resort.

I like spot treating and hand washing because so often the whole garment doesn’t need a deep wash, especially some of my more fragile knits and vintage clothes that I would hate to send through a whole intense washer-dryer cycle. I also feel like it’s better for the environment, saving 30-45 gallons that the old laundry machines in my apartment building use.

The Dreading Great Bra Washing Day

Bras are the only thing that get repeated, purposeful deep hand washes — my white bras get a yellowing and the rest become this dingy color that really emphasize the need to wash deeply but delicately. I use the same technique for stains, but begin and end with a soapy soak in my bathroom sink (this process is also great to motivate me to clean my bathroom sink before washing!) for general cleaning. Then I hang them all dry on my shower rod at the center gore — I don’t think this is the correct thing to do but it’s easiest to get them to drip dry fastest. I try to wash my bras once a month but it often is closer to once a quarter — another benefit of attending a quarter-system university is that I get some days off every three months, which give me enough idleness to feel guilty about having not washed my poor beautiful bras in a while. After autumn and winter quarter, my stockings get a similar treatment.

Why do all this at all?

I think of friends with gorgeous personal washer-dryer setups in their bathrooms, or those who just drop their clothes off at their tech-company-dry-cleaning service, and the convenience that they get, and it’s so tempting to take all this time back in my life and just do it an easier way.

It’s true that I used to dry clean my clothes once a quarter, and hand washing was a stop gap between trips to the local cleaner. But dry cleaning is expensive, and often unnecessary for the items that I need cleaned. Many dry cleaners use solvents that end up being bad for the clothes over time – a white cotton button-down that I dry cleaned too many times ended up losing all the pigment around the collar and looking more unsightly than before I started “taking better care” by dry cleaning my shirts.

But, there a couple reasons I don’t wash my clothes the “high-efficiency” way and opt to hand wash and spot treat my clothes:

The first is that I don’t need to – I mentioned before (and I don’t mean to brag, but I do actually because I think people just think everyone is smelly and don’t evaluate how their clothes are actually doing) that I don’t get my clothes that smelly. After a day of sitting in a windowless lab, I find that my clothes are not much worse for wear and can be packed away without any consideration.

The second reason is that I like hand washing and spot treating my clothes – what started out of a desire to preserve my more delicate items ended up being something that lets me treat all my garments with some care and affection, which I enjoy doing.

The third reason is that my laundry machine is in the basement of my apartment building, in a not-particularly-clean room, and the whole situation just feels counter to the act of cleaning and removing dirt from your clothes. Hand washing in a bathroom that I clean myself with the nice decor and natural light I arrange for makes the experience more enjoyable, and makes me feel like my clothes are cleaner.

The fourth and Most Noble reason to take so much time with my clothes, and which inspired this post at all, is that it’s pretty wasteful to take the easy way out — an old washer like the one in my building uses 30-45 gallons of water per wash, whereas spot treating all my stains every two weeks uses 5 at best. A standard dryer cycle will use 3.3 kilowatt hours of energy, whereas hang drying is free for the environment. These impacts are small, obviously, but compounded on top of the wear and tear and pilling that comes from using a standard washer-dryer setup make hand washing the clear preferred choice.

How do you take care of your clothes, delicates, natural fabrics, etc? Do prefer hand washing to dry cleaning? Do you find that having your own personal setup makes a difference in your laundering habits?

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