I’ll soon be on the run from the dry cleaning mafia for telling you this, but the truth is that there is almost nothing marked "Dry Clean Only" that you can’t safely wash yourself at home. I’m talking polyester and most synthetics, 100% natural fibers such as cashmere, wool, linen, and silk, lace, studs and chiffon—even beads and sequins! (Hand washing beaded and sequined items is actually far better for them, as dry cleaning fluid can sometimes melt glitzy decorations right off.)
Certain garments are labeled Dry Clean Only simply because clothing manufacturers don’t trust us simpletons to follow hand washing instructions correctly. But skipping the dry cleaner doesn’t only save money—it also extends the life of your clothes, as the chemicals used in the dry cleaning process can cause fabric to break down over time.
It’s also worth mentioning here that unless your dry cleaner is religious about filtering their dry-cleaning fluid, your dry-cleaned clothes could wind up dirtier than if you just washed them at home.
So thumb your nose at all those dollars you’ve wasted at the dry cleaner in the past and get busy hand washing—here's how:
First, Test It and Check It
Always take the time to test the colorfastness of whatever you are planning to wash. You can do this by dripping a small amount of water (along with a drop of detergent) onto an unseen part of your garment and then rubbing a cotton swab across the area. If the dye transfers to your cotton swab, DANGER! Your item really does need to be dry-cleaned.
If you are planning to wash something beaded, sequined, embellished, or bedazzled, check to make sure your baubles are sewn on, not glued—as water can cause the glue to melt and ruin your glittery garment.
Then, Just Go For It!
I use a capful of baby shampoo for my hand washables, but any gentle detergent will really do. Just make sure that whatever you use does not contain the ingredient protease, an enzyme that can break down protein-based fibers like silk and wool (it’s commonly found in big-name detergent brands like Tide).
If you are washing wool or cashmere, consider using a product like Eucalan—a no-rinse detergent that contains lanolin, an oil that sheep produce naturally to help waterproof their coats. (Lanolin also makes woolen garments softer and more durable.) Even though Eucalan wash bills itself as being "no-rinse," I still give any sweater I’ve washed with it a quick dunk in clean water just in case I’ve used a little too much product. I always transfer my special hand-washing detergent into one of these mason jar soap dispensers so I don’t have to fiddle with unscrewing the lid while my hands are wet—plus it makes the whole process much cuter.
You can also add a bit of hair conditioner to your wash water in order to protect wool or cashmere. Much like it helps untangle the hair on your head, a few drops of conditioner will prevent sweater fibers from snarling and therefore shrinking.
Once you’re ready to wash, fill a sink or bucket with cool or lukewarm water depending on grime level (dirtier clothes call for warmer water), add your shampoo or detergent, and get to swishing your garment around. Don’t go crazy, but keep things moving for a good 3 to 5 minutes or so and then rinse carefully in clean water, making sure not to twist or wring—as clothing fibers rubbing against each other repeatedly is what causes pilling and damage. If you’ve got stains, gently work at them with a clean white kitchen towel.
Next, Get into the Kitchen
Yep, the rest of your hand-washing routine will actually take place in the kitchen—because once your item is clean, the very best way to remove excess water without forceful wringing and twisting is actually to pop it in a salad spinner!
Give your freshly-washed garment a good whirl in the spinner, then lay it flat to dry on a clean bath towel. (Synthetic garments can safely be hung to dry, but knits will stretch beyond recognition, so beware!) If you’ve got a cashmere or wool sweater, take the time to gently stretch and reshape it as it dries. If your garment is too big to stuff in a salad spinner, just roll it up like a burrito in a clean dry towel and press the excess water out.
And it might go without saying, but here it is anyway: Never, ever, ever put something you’ve just hand washed in the dryer. It’s all air-dry all the time.
Finally, the Real Work Begins
The thing you are really paying the dry cleaner all that money for is pressing your garments back into shape. Pressing means using heat and elbow grease, but ironing is a tedious slog—and it’s way too easy to have things go horribly wrong. (Might I interest you in a brown, iron-shaped burn on your fave dress?)
Luckily, the best way to remove wrinkles and snap a garment back to attention after hand-washing is also the easiest: Just use the power of steam.
Steaming is better than ironing in every single way. Try as you might, you simply cannot manage to scorch your clothes with a simple stream of steam, and steam will instantly freshen up a garment you are trying to stretch another wear out of. Steam also allows you to get into the tiny nooks and crannies of a garment that a stuffy old iron can’t.
But Here’s What NOT to Wash
While you can skip the dry cleaner most of the time, there are still a few things that are best left to the professionals. Here’s what NOT to risk with a hand wash:
- Suits and blazers, winter coats, and anything lined. The interfacing and padding in a suit or coat is what gives the garment structure—and can be permanently damaged if cleaned incorrectly. Linings also tend to shrink at a much higher rate than outer fabrics.
- Silk velvet can be troublesome to reshape after washing due to its heavy nap (the raised, fuzzy surface of the fabric) and as such, should go to the dry cleaner always. Polyester velvet, however, is A-ok to wash on your own.
- Leather or suede. These are natural materials that lost their water-resistant properties once they were no longer attached to the animal they came from. Don’t attempt to wash them at home!
- Silk items with high-contrast prints (think bright florals on a white background) tend to bleed excessively when wet. Test and proceed with extreme caution. (Better yet, just make them the dry cleaner’s problem.)
- Any item labeled Dry Clean Only that lists rayon as part of the fabric blend is cause for alarm. Rayon tends to twist and catch on other fabrics, causing shrinkage. Send these blends to the dry cleaner or say goodbye to the garment.
- Pleated silk needs the care and attention of a dry cleaner, as the pleats will fall out and need to be re-set after being exposed to water. Synthetic pleats, on the other hand, will easily fall back into place after hand washing.
Wool, cashmere, and silk all come from animals. Does a sheep get ruined when it gets wet in the rain? Do silkworms melt in a downpour? No, they don’t—so your wool sweater or silk top won’t get ruined by a little water either. Now go forth and skip the dry cleaner with confidence.
Alison Freer is the author of How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer's Secrets for Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing.