Laundry Basics: Size of Loads and Starting the Washer

This week is Back to Laundry Basics at Mama’s Laundry Talk. 

If you were never taught the proper way to wash laundry or if you just need a refresher, this series is for you!

Size of Loads and Starting the Washing Machine

Make sure you don’t miss the other posts in this series!


Next in Back to Basics we’re talking about how to determine the right size for a load of laundry and actually starting the washing machine.

Determining the size of a load of laundry can be a mystery.  Do you fill the machine to the brim?  How do you know when it’s full enough to be considered a ‘good’ load?  Can you wash just a few items at the time?

These are all very good questions, and some of the answers can vary from machine to machine.

Overcrowding the Washing Machine

It’s hard not to overcrowd the machine, it seems.  You’ve loaded the washer and there are 3 shirts left out.  Surely they’ll all fit, right?  That King Size comforter will definitely fit.  Maybe?

Overcrowding is never a good idea.  An overcrowded load will absolutely not come clean (I proved this to myself again just last weekend).

Clothes need a certain amount of room in the washer to move around.  This way, the clothes are subjected to a sufficient amount of water and detergent.  This extra room also causes them to move against each other, and that abrasion helps get them clean as well.  If the clothes aren’t subjected to enough water the dirt, grime, sweat and detergent cannot possibly be released from the fabric.

And all of that equals dingy, still dirty clothes.

Overcrowding can cause clothes to wrinkle since there is not enough room in the drum of the washer for them to move around.

When you move your clothes from the washer to the dryer and every single item is wrinkled, it is a sure sign you’ve overloaded the machine.

Lastly, overloading can cause your clothes to pill more readily.  When overcrowded, the clothes rub against each other too much and this abrasion causes them to look older faster and to pill.


How Full Should the Washing Machine Be?

For all of the following load sizes, keep in mind that these are loosely packed clothes in the washer.  If you have to push your clothes down to make room for more in the washer…then you’ve got way too many in there.

A Small Load usually fills about 1/3 of your machine.

A Medium Load fills the machine to about 1/2 full.

Large Load is around 3/4 full.

The more often you use your machine, the easier it will be to judge when a load is too full.

If you are using a top-loader this matters in that you might have the option to select the load size.  If you are using a front-loader this won’t matter much at all since the washer senses the load and adjusts the water as it sees fit.

Which Load Should You Wash First?

If I’m backed up in laundry and I’ve got 5 piles waiting to be washed, my first load to wash is the one that is most needed. 😉

If everyone is out of underwear and socks, then the whites are the first to go in.  If no one has jeans, they get top priority.  Even if you have 3 loads of towels to wash, it does no good to wash those first if there are no shirts clean.

If you have a small water heater or if hot water is an issue in any way, then make sure you wash your loads that require warm or hot water first.  You don’t want to get stuck at the end of the loads washing white t-shirts in cold water.  This is not a good combo.


How to Actually Start the Washing Machine

So once you are confident that you’re ready for your load to go in the machine, you have to add your detergent and laundry boosters (if you use them).

In a top-loader, it is best to add your detergent and laundry boosters first.  Then select the cycle and water temperature you want to use.  The detergent needs time to dissolve before adding clothes.  If it doesn’t dissolve, it can potentially lighten random areas on your garments which is definitely not what you want.  This is especially true with laundry boosters, so make sure they are dissolved thoroughly before you add clothes.

Once dissolved, you can briefly turn the flow of water off (usually by pulling the dial out) and then load your clothes.  Until you can see what a full load of clothes looks like in your machine, it’s helpful to learn with the water off.  With the water gushing in, it packs the clothes down which can make it hard to tell when the load is full.  Remember that you don’t want to overload the machine.  Once you are happy with the size of the load, turn the water back on (push the dial back in) and let the washer do its thing.

If you have a front-loader, adding detergent is a little easier since there is a designated place to put it.  Load your clothes first.  Then add your detergent and laundry boosters in their assigned spot.  Wait to select the cycle until after you’ve closed the door to the machine.  Most front-loader doors lock automatically once you’ve selected the cycle and pressed ‘start.’

Questions about load size or how to actually start the machine?  Ask away in the comments….


Make sure you don’t miss the entire Back to Basics Laundry Series!


  1. Hi, I have always turned the water on, added my detergent & Borax if needed, then let the wash cycle begin and agitate the water and soap for a minute or two. Then I add the clothes one piece at a time, until it seems full. Is this ok, or not a good idea?
    Also, if I am going to use bleach, I do all of the above but wait till the clothes have been on the wash cycle for about 5mins, then I add the bleach to it. Is this good or am I just wasting my time doing it in so many steps?

    • mamalaundry says:

      Joanne, Is it working for you?

      I’ll admit, it seems a little time consuming. The washing machines of today (and by ‘today’ I mean the last 15 years or so) are meant to take the babysitting out of the whole wash process. It puts in your fabric softener when it should go in and your bleach too.

      Honestly, that schedule would be too high maintenance for me. I use the features on the washer to add my additives at the appropriate time in the wash cycle so I can get busy doing other things.

      If you want to step away from that level of involvement, you could always try being a little less involved. First try adding the bleach to the bleach dispenser. If that works well, then start adding the clothes all at once after the detergent dissolves.

      If you don’t like your results, you can always go back to your current method. 😉


    • I do that as well Joanne. I have a basic top loader machine with no auto-adding-booster compartments. I feel that adding all detergent and boosters THEN completely filling my washer THEN adding clothes, gets them clean more evenly. If you add your clothes prior to completely filling, then the first few clothes you put in will soak up a majority of the water with the detergent, while the last few clothes on the top layer will simply soak up just water with little to no detergent. I’ve tested both methods and the clothes that don’t get to reach the detergent water mixture at the bottom, come out still smelling dirty or of my perfume/deodorant, while the ones of the bottom have a very heavy scent detergent (and some actually still felt soapy). I’ve always always always let the water completely mix with everything prior to adding clothes.

      Another tip I’ve found for washing my “cold temperature” clothes… I use OxiClean with every wash, and it is impossible to dissolve in cold water. Also, detergents and softeners are harder to mix in cold water. So I start with hot water, very quickly mix in detergent, etc, and before the washer gets more than a few inches full, I switch back to cold water. By the time it’s done filling, its back to cold but with properly dissolved detergents. Then, as usual, wait until it’s completely filled then add my clothes.

      • Lauren Hill says:

        Laela, YES, this was my exact method when I had a top loader and could easily adjust the water temperature. If you can dissolve the detergent and Oxi Clean (or whatever detergents/boosters you’re using), it helps tremendously. I’m certain it makes for a more uniformly clean load of clean clothes.

        Thanks for leaving your tips! xo

        • I used to let everything dissolve first to but since I got this water efficient washer,i dont no what to do. You don’t have the option to do that. It says to add detergent,add clothes,then turn it on. It’s very confusing and i don’t think my clothes are getting washed properly

          • Lauren Hill says:

            No, I’m not a fan of that method either. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many options given by the manufacturers. 🙁


      • Lacy Gallimore says:

        If you fill completely then add clothes want the machine be overfilled when you put clothes in ?

        • Lauren Hill says:

          Lacy, you can definitely still add clothes, but you have to do it rather slowly. Add a few garments, then let them soak up the water…add a few more, then soak up the water…repeat.

          It’s definitely not a good method if you’re in a big hurry and just need to throw a load in (this is usually me!), but it works well if you have just a few extra minutes to spend.

          xo, Lauren

  2. Crafty Mama says:

    Thanks for posting this! Very detailed and helpful!!

  3. Michael Voisinet says:

    If you have only 8 t shirts to wash what position should you put them in? Should you put 4 at the bottom and 4 on top? And should you load them on both sides of the agitator?

    • Lauren Hill says:


      Yes, load the clothes as evenly as you can space them around the agitator. I don’t think it necessarily matters whether there’s 4 on top and 4 on bottom. It’s much more important for the load to be as balanced as possible.


  4. How many clothes would you say a medium load would be of towels and sheets?

  5. What if you have a washing machine that requires you to put everything into it at once and the lid locks?

  6. Hi Everyone. 🙂 I want to thank MamaLaundry for confirming my steps to “washing clothes”.

    I was explaining this thing called washing machine to my father and he either doesn’t believe me or, he prefers to have wrinkled clothing. Hahaha! He’s 81. At least he’s stoped asking me to iron his jeans. Hahaha

  7. What would stop a washing machine from washing large loads

  8. Can you wash one garment and dry it at a time?

    • Lauren Hill says:

      Steve, it depends on the garment. If it’s just one pair of jeans or one bulky sweatshirt, you probably could. It’s certainly not the most effective or efficient way to wash something, but if you’re in a pinch, it would work.

      My washer actually has a cycle for only 1-3 garments. The water level is super low and the cycle is short.

      If you’re using a traditional top-loader, you can set the size of the load to ‘Small’ and wash the item.

      I don’t recommend this method for regular use, though! 🙂


  9. I need help! I have a roommate that thinks 2 shirts 1 pair of paints 2 underwear and 1 pair socks is a load. I can get almost 20 garments in and still have bunch of space. Coast less and I get more done. My clothes always come out clean. Am I right or is she right

    • Lauren Hill says:

      In my opinion, it depends on the size of the washing machine. If it’s small, she might very well be right! If it’s a large capacity, you’ve probably won the argument. 😉

      -Lauren 🙂

  10. Hi Lauren

    Thanks for the great post.

    I unfortunately don’t have a hot water tap leading to my top loader. When my towels are washed and air dried and i use them after a shower it tends to smell. Any ideas on resolving this? It’s pretty disgusting.


    • Lauren Hill says:

      Hey there! So washing towels in hot water is really a must, in my opinion. The hot water helps get all of those built up skin cells, any traces of mildew, etc. out of the fibers of the towels. My guess is that the towels need to be stripped.

      Follow the instructions in this post: How to Revive Smelly Towels

      You might need to visit the laundromat to strip them (even though their hot water is not usually ultra-hot), but it would be worth it to have them smell nice and clean again!

      -Lauren 🙂

  11. I have black socks and white socks. Should I wash them separately? Should I wash my white socks separate from my white bras and sports bra? Delicates should be washed in cold water but what about dark delicates? I’m only washing for myself so I feel like I’m wasting water just to divide loads based on fabric type and then subdivide them based on color

  12. David R. says:

    What if I’m washing a small load but my washer doesn’t allow you to select load size? Do I add in the amount of detergent recommended for a full load since it’s still filling to the top with water, or just use the amount specified for a small load anyway? Thanks for your advice, I appreciate your posts!

  13. Ville and Riku from Finland says:

    Thanks so much! We’re two brothers who just moved away from our parents, and had almost no idea on how this whole process works. Sure, I could wash my T-shirts at home, but I always just remembered the exact button combination on the machine. With figuring out a new machine and things besides T-shirts to wash, you really saved us. The first load’s in the washing machine now… again, after remembering to turn the water inlet valve on.

  14. Hi Lauren!

    I would really appreciate it if you can answer this question.
    Does a machine run faster if there are only a few clothes put in there? Does smaller loads cut down the cycle time? I’m really curious about this.

    • Lauren Hill says:

      Hey Khristine! No, the amount of clothes shouldn’t have an effect on the cycle time. Most machines are programmed to run a specific amount of time per cycle.

      The only reason it would is if you’re using a machine that has a ‘dirty cycle’ sensor. The washer can sense when clothes are extra dirty (like if you’ve worn them for yard work or they’re ultra gross from sweating at the gym), and it can make the cycle run just a bit longer.

      But on the whole, no, the amount of clothes doesn’t matter for most washers.

      Hope that helps!


  1. […] learned that I’ve been over stuffing my washing machine at Mama’s Laundry […]

  2. […] friend Lauren (who just had a baby – congrats, Lauren!) posted awhile back about not over-filling your washing machine.  I have to tell you: this has made a tangible impact in my laundry habits.  Clothes really do […]

Speak Your Mind


Send this to a friend