Hand Wash Only

What is it like to wash all your clothes by hand and have no access to a washing machine. Mostly, it takes time.

Here is how I would wash a week’s worth of dirty laundry while in Nicaragua (or anywhere with a lack of machinery to do the work).

  • Bring your clothes to the local source of water. This might be a tap in your home or the nearby stream.
  • Fill a bucket, pan, or any other large container with clean water. Add detergent. This will be your equivalent of a ‘wash cycle’.
  • Place clothes in bucket to soak.
  • While these are soaking, fill a second container with water. This will be your ‘rinse cycle’.
  • To wash your clothes, you can use a washing board, like I found in my hostel in Esteli, but I prefer to do it the way I was taught in Ghana. The basic goal is to rub clothes vigorously over themselves to agitate and remove dirt. This is a long process as you have to clean each item, one at a time, repeatedly to make it clean.
  • For example, to wash a shirt: hold with your left hand, then grab a bit of it with your right hand and rub over your wrist; move the shirt up a bit and rub again; move it up again and rub. Do this two or three times by re-orientating the garment so that you have washed all of it.
  • Do this with each item.
  • Tip: ring out the water over your bucket first to save detergent.
  • Once you have completing washing, place clothes into the second bucket.
  • After they’ve had a bit of time to soak out the last bit of detergent, repeat the hand washing cycle again for an extra clean.
  • Once all items have gone through both cycles, they are ready for hanging. This is the equivalent of a dryer – using the sun instead of heat.
  • Give each item a quick snap of the wrist to get out some extra water and then attach to a clothes line with clothes pins. It will take several hours or up to the next day for them to dry. Watch out for the rainy season, as you may need to take items down and out of the rain momentarily.

In the end, this process would take me easily an hour to go through my own clothes after a week. Some shirts, a few pairs of socks, underwear, and maybe a pair of pants. It is intensive and draining.

Or, to avoid all this hard work (and time) throw everything into a washing machine and walk away.

This is the great privilege we have in the West, which is to have the money to buy technology to save us work, time, and effort with daily tasks. It allows us time to do other things, like further our education, earn more money through working, or have spare time to exercise and enjoy life. It’s easy to forget how labor intensive an activity would be if you’ve never had to try it, as many Westerners have been able to with laundry.

Hans Rosling (in his TED Talk embedded below) beautifully describes the power of the washing machine in opening up opportunities for the women and girls who would other have to do laundry by hand. I have to agree with him and say that the washing machine is truly an invention difficult to give up.

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One comment

  1. Spencer, your integration of experiences did a beautiful job of broadening the narrative around something as seemingly mundane as doing laundry! It vividly reminded me of the poem “Washing Day” by Anna Letitia Barbauld.

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