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If you soaked clothing in some vessel of water with detergent in it, is the only fundamental mechanism of action in cleaning them in the way a washing machine does, wringing them out?

For example, if one has a dirty cloth or rag, covered in mud, dirt, or dust, one can observe by repeatedly dunking it in water, then wringing you out, you can continually squeeze out more and more of the dirt.

By soaking clothing in detergent, I assume you allow some time for the soapy water to be fully absorbed by all parts of the fabric, where it already naturally neutralizes grime and so on, as soap does.

By then wringing it out repeatedly and rinsing clean water, is there any hypothetical reason why this would not be a sufficient way to clean them? Is there something a washing machine is doing further, that a wringing action by hand, is not? Is scrubbing also necessary to fully clean clothes and expel all grime, odors, oils, bacteria, dust, and sediment from them?

I mean with regards to doing laundry while backpacking, outdoors, or mobilely.

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The fundamental action of removing the dirt from the clothes and getting it into the water is not wringing. It is agitation and time. The chemical boost of the detergent or soap means you will need less of each, because they make dirt or grease (or the combination we call grime) as well as blood, food, sweat, and sunscreen all happier to move into the water.

Having agitated, scrubbed, left to soak or whatever, you now have somewhat cleaner clothes sitting in somewhat dirty water. If you just poured the water off leaving soggy clothes, they would still have dirt in them because they would be saturated with dirty water. So you wring that water out. If you then just hung them up they would still be somewhat dirty and possibly somewhat soapy. So you rinse them with clear water.

At that point you might wring them just to help them dry faster and not for dirt reasons, or you might add more water and soap (possibly wringing first to remove as much dirty rinse water as possible) and repeat the agitation and soaking. That would be followed by wringing and rinsing. And you can do that as many times as you want - most people would go until the rinse water appeared to stay clean -- before a final wringing that is only about drying time.

From a camping point of view, most people work hardest to get things super clean that will be against their skin, such as undies, and accept that jeans and the like will probably not get completely clean during the trip itself. Indeed it's rare for us to wash anything other than tshirts or undies unless there has been a spill or other incident that made a piece of clothing unwearable. In that case the goal is just to get it back to wearable, not spotlessly clean.

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  • That’s really interesting, thanks. What do you consider “agitation” - just movement itself, or like, some amount of friction or squeezing? I’ve seen some examples like people slapping their clothes on a rock (I think in India), scrubbing it on a washboard, or just mixing it around in liquid with something, like a paddle, I think in 1800’s Europe. I guess maybe the takeaway is any combination of squeezing, moving or scrubbing, because they all have the same effect of putting pressure and movement on the fibers. Feb 22, 2023 at 15:03
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Kate Gregory summed it up well, I'll add this answer here with my favourite method to wash things while out in nature: the brook washing machine.

  • Find a small brook / rivulet with clean water and flow that is not too strong and simply place your clothes in it.
  • Secure them by either placing a heavy rock on top, or attach them with a piece of string to some shrub/tree/... (decide based on size of the clothes and flow strength).
  • Then just leave them overnight. No soap, no detergent, no hand-washing/wringing/... You just let the flow of water do a 10 hour rinsing cycle, and it will get even the sweatiest, stinkiest tshirt back to smelling like a mountain meadow with absolutely zero effort on your side.

In the morning you might have to manually agitate the clothes in water just slightly to get any deposed sand/small gravel to wash of, then wring and hang up to dry (on your backpack if you'll be moving out before they dry completely).

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  • To speed up the process, turn the clothes over or beat them on a rock. From here you can see the evolution to washboard and washing machine. Feb 13, 2023 at 23:16
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The soap/detergent doesn't neutralize the grime and so on, it makes it easier to break up, break free, and detach from the clothes to suspend in the water. The wringing, agitation, and scrubbing, etc., all aid in physically detaching the grime from the clothes and mix it with the water.

The less physical disturbance, such as scrubbing, the more you rely on the chemistry of the process, which could reduce the efficiency/increase the time of cleaning the clothes.

One the dirt is dissolved/suspended, it becomes a dilution problem to remove the dirty water, so you never "fully clean clothes and expel all grime"--you only get a fraction of the dirty water out with each cycle. Wringing is important to improve the fraction of dilution in each rinse cycle. Good wringing with fewer rinse cycles might dilute the dirt as well as poor wringing and more rinse cycles.

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