Hand-Washing on the Homestead: Off-Grid Laundry

Wren Everett
19 Min Read

The freedom of going off-grid is very appealing to a lot of us, but when the rubber hits the road, there are several tasks that are less than romantic sounding, but no less important.  If you are setting yourself free from out-of-your-control services, among the solar panels, composting toilets, and gravity-fed water systems, there’s one important task you’ll need to grapple with: how to get the laundry done.  Our homestead has been off-grid for years, and my journey to laundry independence has taken many forms as I tried to figure out how to happily manage a family’s washing.  So, many endeavors, some debacles, and a lot of experimentation later, here is our homestead’s completely manual, off-grid laundry method.

Tools and Cleaners Needed for Off-grid Laundry

Wash Tub: I like my roomy galvanized steel tub from Behrens’s, but you could use any container. A 5-gallon bucket is a great, easy-to-acquire option that also works very well

Washing Plunger: I know it looks like a glorified toilet plunger, but these tools are the key to successful off-grid laundry washing (in my book). These manual agitators are sometimes a little difficult to locate, but if you know what you’re looking for, you can find them for cheap at local antique malls. You can also buy them new from Lehman’s, but it will cost you far more.

Wash Board/Washing Stick: These are sold both at antique malls and at Lehman’s (and even Amazon), but you can just as easily make your own by cutting and sanding some grooves in a piece of wood. Whether it looks fancy or not, as long as it doesn’t have splintered edges for the clothes to catch on, it’ll do the job.

All-the-tools-needed-for-hand-washing off grid laundry

Soap: There are literally grocery-store aisles full of cleaners and chemicals that could be used in a load of laundry, but I have a secret. You (maybe) need some soap. That’s all. The soap pictured here is a lye soap that we make on our homestead from rendered beef tallow, but I imagine pretty much any soap will do. I do recommend using all-natural soaps, however, because I’d recommend them for any activity in which you’ll literally be lathering yourself. I originally started using a homemade detergent recipe (with a combination of borax and washing soda) when I started doing manual laundry, but it made the skin on my hands and fingertips lose sensation, dry out, and crack incredibly painfully with what could only be described as chemical burns. Ever since I switched to soap, I’ve not had those problems, and the clothes are still clean.

Essential Oils (optional): I like a combination of lavender and tea tree oil or eucalyptus, but you could probably use any bright scent that you enjoy. This is totally optional, as the clothing will be naturally fresh-scented after hanging in the sun.

Clothesline: Of course, you could spread laundry to dry on clean grass or on bushes if you want to go really, REALLY old-school, but those of us with free-range animals and/or free-range children probably don’t want to run the risk of footprints all over our bed sheets.

Basic Process

I must admit that when I first approached doing the laundry manually, I was intimidated by the prospect. I had researched historical laundry processes, and they seemed an impossible endeavor to fit into an already busy homestead lifestyle. As I continued to read, entire days (usually Mondays) were dedicated to the soaking, scrubbing, scalding, bluing, bleaching, drying, starching, and ironing of garments and bedding. As I thought about it, however, I realized that my research had been entirely book-research and all of the authors seemed to have been detailing only the methods of Victorian Britain. I had no interest in bluing, starching, bleaching, or ironing. I just wanted to get clothes clean with my hands, a process that everyone had accomplished for All of Time until washing machines appeared and we suddenly “needed” them.

My suspicions were confirmed as I kept pursuing my “backward” task. As John Seymour writes in Forgotten Household Crafts, “…[European Country girls before 18th century were] either tramping their washing clean with their feet in washing tubs, or bashing it on the rocks of a stream with flat-headed clubs called beetles. They washed their clothes without soap or lye or anything else, bleached them in the sun, and went away rejoicing.” The process of doing the wash, as I discovered and will explain, is not nearly as convoluted as it is written to be in many resources that are capitalizing on the historical “shock value.” The clothes need to be made wet, scrubbed, or beaten to loosen the dirt, rinsed in clean water, and laid in the sun to dry. As long as those key steps occur, it really doesn’t matter how you go about them.

So, with all that said, let’s walk through a simple load of off-grid laundry, step-by-step.

First, fill your washtub. For this load, I’ve pumped water from our manual well, but rainwater could work too if you have a system rigged up for it. When you add the laundry, make sure the cloth can move freely in the tub—if it’s too jam-packed, you won’t be able to clean it easily.

handwashing laundry

Next, hunker down with your soap and washboard and work through each piece of laundry. Pay special attention to scrub the dirtiest part of each item—the bottoms of socks, the armpits of shirts, the stained part on the dishtowel, and so on. No washing machine can give you this level of attention. Not-as-dirty items can just be generally soaped up—they’ll get clean with the next step.

scrub laundry on washboard

Now, take your washing plunger and agitate the laundry with steady up-and-down motions. I usually work my way “around the clock” to make sure all the clothes get a good, vigorous movement. It will take some practice, but you’ll eventually be able to do this without making a ton of splashing. Nevertheless, this is not a dry activity—expect your feet to get a little wet.

If the clothes were particularly dirty, now is a good time to let them sit and soak for at least an hour. If not, continue.

washing Plunger-off-grid-laundry

Now, wring the water out of each item. I do this by hand, as I’ve never seen the need for a wringer, but you could employ one if you need to protect aching joints and knuckles. I usually carefully balance them on the handle of my washing plunger as I work through them. Pour your dirty wash water into a waiting 5-gallon bucket (more on that in a minute). Then, put the wrung-out laundry back into the tub and fill the tub a second time with fresh water.

As before, agitate the water to work all the residual soap out of the laundry. Usually, this one rinse is enough, but if you went crazy with the soap, a second rinse might be necessary. Either way, save your used water in a second 5-gallon bucket. If wanted, you can use that “rinse” water for a second load of laundry if one is waiting in the wings. If no other laundry is waiting (yay!) then send that water to the garden so it isn’t wasted.

Now, wring the cleaned laundry a second time, and hang it to dry on your clothesline. Let the sun shine on them not only to whiten and dry them, but to perform a very important sanitizing process. Diapers dried in the sun, for example, come back inside smelling like very little at all. Diapers dried in a dryer or hung to dry inside will retain odors that no fabric softener can overcome.

And, honestly… that’s pretty much all there is to it. No slaving away at a steaming hot wash-tub for hours and hours, no chemical spills, and no need to cry woe on your lot in life. It’s hard to whole-heartedly hate a task when the sun is shining on your back, the birds are singing, and you are that much more self-sufficiently freed from your inheritance of machine-dependency!

Now, with all this slopping and sloshing going on, you’re right to assume this is hardly an indoor task. I honestly would not recommend doing indoor laundry unless your washtub fits in your bathtub. But you’d be surprised how much you can do with less-than-ideal weather—clothes do dry, eventually. I have had many a washing-load get a “bonus rinse” from a pop-up summer rainstorm, and I’ve lived to tell the tale. And in the winter, bear in mind that a clothesline strung over the woodstove makes a great blizzard-day clothes dryer. Be sure, in that instance, to wring out clothes as much as possible before hanging them in the house, and perhaps invest in a wringer to aid you through the winter.

All this said, there are certain items that might need to be handled differently. Woolen garments can often be brushed or shaken, spot cleaned, and hung in the sun to air out, rather than going through a laborious soaking and washing process that could possibly damage them. Washcloths should probably be boiled (I boil mine in a pot over at our outdoor kitchen) to keep them sanitary. I also boil dishwashing cloths with a bit of borax (it loosens grease), especially after they’ve been used to wash anything that had touched raw meat. I also give cloth diapers their own dedicated buckets and washing plunger separate from my other clothes-washing materials.

Working it into your lifestyle

I can’t truly write instructions on when to wash your clothes, because every family and every homestead is different. That said, here are some ideas on how to manage the wash without dedicating a seventh of your life to it.

Make Less Laundry: On our homestead, we have “outside” clothes and “inside” clothes. Outside clothes are used sometimes for a week at a time (what’s the point of washing the mud off the pants today when they’re going to be worn to do the same muddy task tomorrow?), but they’re not worn all day. As soon as the work is done for the day, those work clothes are laid aside in their own place and indoor clothes go on. These clothes go to town, visit friends, or sit on the couch. With this system, clothes don’t need to be changed at the end of the day. Instead, they are only put in the laundry basket when they are actually dirty enough to merit their presence there.

The same philosophy can apply to bulky items like towels—if you only used a towel to dry your clean body after a bath or shower, it’s obviously not dirty enough to banish it to the hamper. Hang it to dry (in the sun, if possible), then continue to use it until it actually needs to be washed.

Look for similar opportunities to cut do on the laundry your family generates. These may seem like strange, obvious suggestions, but trust me—once you’re washing your family’s laundry by hand, you’re going to really want to make that effort count.

Wash a little at the end of every day: Of course, if dedicating one day a week to doing a ton of laundry fits into your schedule, go for it. A different approach, however, may be to do a manageable amount at the end of each day. One 5-gallon bucket of laundry may not seem like a lot, but if done at the end of the day, it’s a 20-minute activity that will potentially forever forestall the dread of the Laundry Mountain of Doom.

Don’t Forget the Laundromat: There is certainly something to be said for your local laundromat. Some days you may be sick, or hosting out-of-town guests, or nursing a new baby, or in the middle of a hectic calving season, and the last thing on your mind is laundry. If they’re accessible, a laundromat is a great fall-back for the occasional weeks when you just can’t get to the wash and still need it done. Just because we’re regaining the skills of washing our own clothes doesn’t mean we have to turn it into some pedantic, pseudo-moral imperative.

A Word On Modern Manual Washing Machines

Before I started using a washing plunger, I admit I tried other off-grid laundry devices with uninspiring results. There are several manual washing “systems” on the market, some of them foot-powered, some of them functioning like giant salad spinners, and others giving you the option to agitate by hand with a built-in agitator basket. In my opinion, now, these are all gimmicky things meant to appeal to the armchair prepper market, but not to be used in the daily long-term by people actually living this life.

I’ll leave the ones I’ve attempted unnamed as a courtesy, but they didn’t do a good job at all. Most of the modern ones are made out of plastic—a dubious material to depend on, because once it inevitably breaks (as one of mine did when it got cold and brittle in the winter), you can’t fix it, and then it’s on the planet forever. Additionally, most of them only performed well if they were being used to wash clothes that weren’t visibly dirty. On a homestead, as you likely well know, clothes rarely get “lightly soiled”. I found myself scrubbing dirty clothing by hand anyway, and ended up using the machines merely as an (overpriced) water-swisher. Finally, many of them required a lot of water to do a tiny load. With my washtub, I could use the same amount of water to wash a family-sized load. When you don’t have on-grid water, this is an important consideration!

Of course, I haven’t tried every manual laundry washing device. There may be one out there that actually does a good job and is sturdy enough to last several years. Having figured out my own process, however, I’m just not interested in spending the money to find out. I would welcome discussion in the comments below for those who have tried out different systems to see if your experiences are different than my own.

In the meantime, I hope that my simple system can help any of you out there looking to regain some freedom from machines, relearn some forgotten skills, and make your homesteads just that much more self-sufficient. Maybe even in this strange modern time, there can still be some of us out there, beating the dirt out of our clothes with glee and “going away rejoicing.”

About the Author: Wren was once a teacher living in the city.  But she and her husband decided to make their escape from the confines of modernity and its dependence and move their family to 12 acres of land in the Ozarks. They are currently in the middle of establishing an off-grid homestead, and now happily spend their days as modern peasants, seeking out, learning, and trying to preserve the old skills that their urban backgrounds never gave them.

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