Laundry 101: Handwashing, dry cleaning, and what goes in the washer

BlogHer Original Post

So let's say you've been editing your closet and buying only really well-made, well-fitting pieces that work in a multitude of ways in your closet. Nice work! Now you need to make a commitment to caring for those pieces properly, to make them last as long as possible, which means knowing what to dry clean, what to hand wash, and what to toss in the machine. It also means using a few smart laundry strategies to keep colors from fading and fabrics from pilling or wearing.

Dry cleaning: Dry cleaning is hard on clothes; over time the chemicals will weaken the fabric and shorten the life
of the garment. Dry clean items as seldom as possible, ideally no more more than once a year (twice a year if the piece is something you wear often). Instead, take precautions to keep your dry clean only pieces clean when you wear them; layer suit jackets over a short sleeved shell, for example, to protect them from deoderant and perspiration. Hang dry clean only garments in a well-ventilated place overnight after wearing them, to let them breathe. Treat small stains immediately with a Tide eraser pen or similar product.

When you DO dry clean garments, take them out of the plastic bags as soon as possible; the bags trap moisture and can encourage mold to grow on the clothes you just had cleaned. If you are cleaning something in preparation for storing it, invest in a canvas storage bag or box rather than defaulting to the dry cleaning bag.

Anything labelled DRY CLEAN ONLY needs to go to the cleaners (they are serious about that ONLY) -- suits, for example, or some wool sweaters. But not all dry clean pieces are dry clean only; some can be hand washed. Which brings us to ...

Hand washing: I am a big fan of hand washing; it's easy, it doesn't cost anything, and it preserves the life and look of pieces. I hand wash a lot of things, primarily dresses and sweaters. But how do you know what to hand wash? and when? and how?

Let's start with what to hand wash: cashmere should always be hand washed (full instructions on how to do this are here), as should anything marked MACHINE WASH GENTLE CYCLE. The manufacturer's laundering instructions are always for whatever the most extreme form of cleaning a garment can withstand, but that doesn't mean you need to put your clothes through that. Cashmere should never be dry cleaned; the chemicals will dry out the fibers. And anything labeled gentle cycle really should be washed with more care than your washing machine can provide.

How often should you hand wash things? As often as you would put them in the laundry. As with dry clean pieces, hang hand wash garments to air after wearing (sweaters can be draped across the back of a chair, with the arms extended out from the body). But if it is hot and you have been perspiring, or if you ate in a poorly ventilated restaurant, or if your ice cream cone got away from you a little, then go ahead and hand wash.

What's the best strategy for hand washing? Fill the sink with cool or cold water and a mild detergent, like Woolite or Eucalan or baby shampoo (for cashmere, of course, but it works for other things as well). You don't need much detergent; the bubbles are there to make you feel good, not to get the clothes clean. Spot treat anything that needs it with an appropriate stain remover. I like OxyClean for big stains, but I use it sparingly on hand wash garments; instead, I will use a tiny bit of whatever detergent I have in the sink to treat the problematic part of the garment. Rub detergent in to the spot with your finger tips -- don't fold the garment over and rub the fabric together; that wears the material.

Now plunge the whole thing into the cold soapy water and gently squeeze the water through the garment. Don't wring or twist, though. Just squeeze. Set a timer for three minutes (or five if you're really concerned about getting something clean) and let it soak. Rinse until the water runs clear, squeeze the excess out (again do NOT wring) and lie flat or hang to dry (knits should lie flat but woven pieces can be hung).

Machine washing: Not everything needs to be hand or machine washed; some pieces can be tossed in the washer and dryer and do just fine. In fact, some pieces really should be machine washed and dried -- underwear, for example; the dryer kills germs and bacteria. But that doesn't mean you should just haphazardly toss things into the washer; take time to sort the laundry and manage it before you wash, and things will last longer.

Sort laundry into colors, darks, and whites. I know that sounds very retro 50s housewife of me, but it makes a difference; minute amounts of the dyes and pigments from your clothes are lost in the wash, and keeping things in with similar color groups limits how much those dyes settle on other pieces. Turn anything that might fade inside out (jeans, for example, or washable black pants) and fasten all zippers, to prevent them from snagging on other pieces. Use the smallest amount of detergent needed (about half of what the box or bottle recommends) and the coolest possible water (I wash everything in cold, except for the occasional white load when someone is sick).

If possible, skip the dryer all together. The dryer does the most damage to your clothes; after all, what gets caught in the lint trap is wee little bits of YOUR CLOTHING. Hang jeans and skirts and woven shirts to dry; if you like, toss them in the dryer for five minutes, just to take the wrinkles out, and then hang to dry. What goes in my dryer? Underwear and t-shirts and towels, mostly. Not a whole lot else, at least not from my closet.

Hand washing, air drying, and skipping dry cleaning are all good for the environment; they use less energy and fewer chemicals, and they make your clothes last longer, which means less waste on your part. When you have shopped so very carefully for an item, it is worth it to launder it carefully as well.

Helpful laundry links:

Textile Affairs has a nifty guide to common home laundering and dry cleaning symbols.

FabSugar asked how much laundering instructions influence your purchases.

Rachel at Planet Green gives up dry cleaning.

Susan Wagner writes about style at Fashion Find and ParentDish, and about everything else at Friday Playdate. Have a pressing style question? Email her at



In order to comment on, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.