I have a dirty little secret: there are some pieces in my closet that I’ve never cleaned. In fact, my friend and I have a running competition over whose wardrobe staples have gone the longest without a wash.
I’m not talking about underwear, socks and pajamas here. Those hit the spin cycle on the regular. But my leather-trimmed pants, perfectly broken-in jeans, embellished tops and delicately woven sweaters—aside from the occasional spot clean—live a nearly soap-free life.
This approach doesn’t come from a lack of laundry skills. In fact, my mother was adamant that I learn how to properly take care of my clothes. I remember gently rolling hand-washed sweaters in clean towels at 10 years old. Instead, my reticence to take on the now-seemingly gargantuan task stems from the abundance of dry clean only tags attached to clothes today. To be honest, I’m terrified of ruining expensive items.
According to Sandra Tullio-Pow, associate professor of fashion at Ryerson University, “there was a time when everyone’s clothes were either made out of cotton, wool, silk, or linen, [and] in those days we washed everything,” she says. Now, without knowing how to wash delicate or tricky fabrics at home, coupled with the fact that brands are protecting themselves by slapping dry clean only labels on more and more pieces, we find ourselves rushing for the nearest laundry service.
But do we really have to dry clean everything that carries that tag? Here are the top tips we learned from Tullio-Pow, as well as Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd, the co-founders behind fabric care company The Laundress.
What you’re probably safe to wash at home
Washing at home—either by machine or hand—is not only the more cost-effective option, but the more sustainable one too. Wool, delicates, silk, cotton and cashmere all make the at-home care cut. While many brands list polyester as dry clean only, it’s another fibre that—when handled delicately—can generally be washed at home. The one caveat, “if you are laundering a ‘dry clean only’ item, always perform a water test on an inconspicuous area of the garment. If you see colour bleeding, warping, shrinkage, etc., take it to the dry cleaner,” caution Whiting and Boyd.
What you should always dry clean
Hand washing and delicate cycles can only go so far. For a handful of special fabrics, it is best to call in the experts. Anything made with viscose, polyamide, items with manufactured pleating, structured pieces like neckties and blazers with shoulder pads, suede, and non-washable leather are all considered dry clean only, according to The Laundress ladies.
Tullio-Pow also recommends considering factors beyond the fibres. Are there special finishes to the fabric that may come off if washed in water? Decorative beading, flocking and sequins applied by glue (rather than sewing) are no-gos in terms of home care and must be handled by the pros.
How to hand wash dry clean only clothing (or even machine wash it)
Tullio-Pow points out three factors to consider when washing at home: water temperature, detergent and amount of agitation. As a general rule of thumb, use cool water, a made-for-delicates detergent and the least amount of agitation possible—that means no scrubbing or roughness which can cause fabrics to stiffen and change shape. And never use heat to dry, opting instead to lay pieces flat to air dry.How Much Money Should You Really Spend On Clothes?
Since wool and cashmere are so nerve-wracking to wash (turning your wool sweater into felt is a legitimate laundry nightmare), Whiting and Boyd advise these simple steps: “Hand wash your pieces inside out in a bath of cool water with a [fabric-specific soap]. After submerging the item and agitating the water to mix in the detergent, allow to soak for up to 30 minutes before rinsing the item with cool water, pressing (not wringing!) water out of the item. Always air-dry woolens.”
Keep in mind that there’s no need to wash your pieces after every wear. Unless there’s a serious stain or you know you’ve had a particularly sweaty day, you only need to wash pieces that are actually soiled or dirty. This will save tons of time on all those silk blouses, scarves and beautiful bras.
Front loading washing machines vs. top loading
Advances in washing machine technology really take the guess work out of laundry day. “Front loading washing machines tend to be gentler on fabrics and use less water than most top loaders that use a central agitator, which causes more wear and tear,” explain Whiting and Boyd.
How to wash wool and cashmere in your washing machine
While not the gentlest method, you can actually wash wool and cashmere in the machine by putting your pieces in a mesh bag and making sure the settings are set to cold water and low spin.
The dryer remains off limits. “Always hang to dry or lay items flat in its natural shape on a drying rack. Never use the dryer as the high heat damages delicate fabrics. Do not use the iron for the same reason; steam to remove wrinkles and restore luster,” say Whiting and Boyd.
Why tough stains are dry cleaner territory
“You don’t want them to sit and set over time,” advises Tullio-Pow. Oil-based stains are harder to remove than water-based stains, so get those ones to the cleaner stat.
If you’re looking to cut back on your dry-cleaning bill, Tullio-Pow recommends, “something as simple as wearing a scarf around your neck so that [a] leather collar isn’t coming into contact with the oils in your skin.” Same goes for pieces that you can layer over a camisole that will absorb body oils. “This will make a big difference in garment longevity,” she says.