I had an argument with my colleague last week. We were sorting the washing pile at work, and she wanted to send as little as possible to the dry cleaners. I work as a TV stylist, a role that involves all sorts of things from helping people select what to wear on TV, to shopping for them, physically helping them put their clothes on, making alterations when they’re needed, and, yes, managing the washing of those clothes. We were nearing the end of our shoot and had spent almost all of our dry cleaning budget.
I’ve always been particular when following washing instructions on clothing tags—if it says dry clean only, I do what it says! She told me about how toxic dry cleaning is, how bad it is for the environment, and, then, confessed that she had been washing most of our dry-clean-only clothing for months. I was a little upset, not because she had been sneaking around being a magical washing fairy behind my back, but because I like to be the most educated (and fiscally responsible) green warrior in the office and she was beating me at my own game. (Yes, I’m a little competitive.) Later that night I fell down an Internet rabbit hole and learned everything I could about dry cleaning. I came across this government website, which confirmed, “Perchloroethylene (PERC) dry cleaning solvent and the waste produced from the dry cleaning process are suspected carcinogens and are toxic to the environment.”
If the Australian government is worried about the safe disposal of these chemicals, then I should do everything possible to avoid dry cleaning in the future. The next day, I returned to the office, swallowed my pride and asked my fellow TV stylists their tips to avoid dry cleaning. Whilst I used a lot of these tricks for on-set emergencies, it never occurred to me to use them as a way to reduce dry cleaning, save money, and the planet.
1. Hang your clothes.
Be honest, how many times have your clean clothes ended up at the dry cleaner because you threw them on the bathroom floor? Prevention is better than a cure. Hang your lightly worn clothes as soon as you take them off.
2. Invest in a clothes steamer.
Every stylist I know uses a steamer to care for their clothes. It’s a magical machine that uses steam to eradicate wrinkles and is best used on soft, floaty fabrics like silk, rayon or chiffon… or your tee shirts! It’s safer on delicate fabrics than an iron (say goodbye to shiny iron marks) and is great for those occasions when your blouse is clean but wrinkled. Handheld steamers start at about $40 and as long as you have access to power and tap water, it’s cheap to run. Compared to a trip to the dry cleaners it is much kinder to the environment, your body, and your wallet. Check out steamers used by the pros here. For more suggestions, on steamers, click here.
3. Know your fabrics.
The reason many garments say dry clean only is because designers legally only have to provide one method of cleaning, and professional is often safest from their point of view. However, you can often forego the dry cleaner for most fabrics. Not sure what fabric your garment is? Check out the care instruction label inside and follow the below instructions.
Silk: Silk is fine to wash by hand with care. It’s the agitation process and heat from the water, which causes silk to shrink or become damaged. When washing silk at home, hand wash using cold water and a gentle washing detergent, then turn the garment inside out and lay it flat to drip dry in the shade so it doesn’t fade. Depending on what dye has been used, water can cause the dye to run, so for multicolored prints, it’s best to leave it to the professionals.
Synthetics: Synthetic fibers are man-made and were popular in the last century, so you will frequently find them in vintage clothing. These days they are often blended with other fibers to give the fabric a more wearable property (ie. the elastane in your stretch cotton jeans). Generally, synthetic fabrics like polyester, Lycra, and nylon can be machine washed. Some synthetics such as acetate and nylon should only be hand washed or put on a delicate cycle inside a delicates bag. If it’s a 100 percent man-made fiber it will likely dry quickly and gain too much static electricity or be easily damaged with the heat from the dryer, so stick to air drying.
Wool: Your favorite wool sweater can be hand washed, but too much movement will matt the fiber, create pilling or felt. Too much heat and the fibers will shrink. Unless you plan on donating that wool sweater to your hairless cat, always gently hand wash wool in cold water. Use a gentle detergent like a specifically formulated wool wash or learn to make your own. After rinsing it, gently remove excess water with a towel (don’t ring it tight) and lay the garment flat to dry so it doesn’t lose its shape. Do not put it in the dryer! If you’ve been sending your wool garments to the dry cleaner to remove the little balls of pilled fabric that sometimes occur, then you can save yourself the trip by investing in a sweater comb. Wool coats and blazers should be sent to the dry cleaner because of the way they are made (water may cause the inner structures to become damaged). You can follow some of my tips below to minimize the amount of time they spend with your dry cleaner.
Cotton and Linen: Are natural fibers and are usually fine to machine wash in cold water. If they are washed in hot water or haven’t been preshrunk before they were constructed then garments will likely shrink a little the first time they are washed. Wash them in cold water and avoid a hot dryer to minimize this. If it is a linen or cotton blazer or structured coat, it will likely require dry cleaning because of the way the garment is constructed. However, most pants, shirts, and dresses are fine.
Blended Fabrics: Many modern fabrics are a blend of two different fibers. If you come across this on a care label, always follow the washing instructions for the most delicate of the fiber combination. For example, with a silk/linen blend, follow the instructions for silk which is more easily damaged then linen.
4. Bring out the booze.
Vodka is your friend (yes, vodka), put it in a misting spray bottle and lightly spray it on the inside of your favorite sequin or embellished dress or wool coat. As the alcohol evaporates it will kill any germs or smells in the lining without a trip to the dry cleaners… and you can drink the leftovers. Just don’t use flavored vodka that will leave a strong smell.
5. Your crispest shirt yet.
Scrub your cotton or linen business shirt collars with stain remover and a nail brush to remove makeup or other stains before putting them in the machine on a cold cycle. Remove any collar stays (the small piece of metal or plastic inserted in your collar to keep it looking stiff) before you put the shirt in the machine and press the shirt with a warm iron while it’s still wet. This helps the shirt to dry quicker while removing most of the machine wrinkles before they set in the shirt. (Ironing linen can be a disaster otherwise.) Hang it on a coat hanger to finish air drying and put the collar stays back in after the final iron. Remember, always wash natural fabrics in a cool wash as hot water will cause them to shrink.
6. Know your washing machine.
Understanding the various cycles on your machine can help you determine which wash will prolong the life of your clothes. Regular has a fast wash and fast spin cycle, which is fine for sturdy, thick fabrics like towels and sheets. Permanent press is a fast wash with a slow spin, and the safest to use on most clothing. Delicate is a slow wash and slow spin, making it the best cycle to use for most “Dry Clean Only” fabrics. When I’m traveling I always pack delicates bags in my suitcase for when I use a laundromat. Washing clothes in a delicates bag can help even out the uncertainties of machines you don’t know so well. I like Guppyfriend bags because they protect my clothes and capture microplastics from synthetic garments so they don't enter waterways.
If you have space for a washing machine, these days you can get a machine that has a wool cycle, or even a freshen cycle that steams your clothes on a cool tumble. If you’re best mates with your dry cleaner because you have a dinosaur of a washing machine, investing in a new model washing machine is a great low toxic alternative!
7. Keep masking tape handy.
Using masking tape or gaffer tape to remove makeup is a great trick to use on fabrics like silk that don’t spot clean well. Most stains sit on the surface of the fabric so using a wet cloth to rub the stain can work the stain deeper into the fabric, making it bigger and harder to remove. Wrap some masking tape around your fingers and gently dab the stains until the makeup is gone. You should see the stain start to lift on to the tape, but as the tape loses it’s stick you need to rotate it. Be careful to avoid snagging the fabric.
8. Use talcum powder or cornstarch.
To draw oil stains such as butter or grease out of your silk garments (or any fabric, really). This method is best used when the stain is fresh, put it on the stain and let it sit for at least ten minutes. The longer the better. Brush the powder off and the pain… I mean stain away! You may need to repeat it a couple of times. If this fails, hand wash the fabric with a dishwashing liquid that contains a degreaser.
9. What about leather?
Spot clean leather using pure rubbing alcohol and a clean white cloth (it should be white or natural to prevent dye transferring onto the leather). Be careful with colored leather, it’s always a good idea to spot test an inconspicuous area first. And never steam leather! Water and leather do not mix—that’s a sad story for another day.
10. Finally, suede or velvet.
Never wash suede or velvet in water. However, you can remove a multitude of sins with a suede brush. As I said earlier, most stains are sitting on the surface of the fabric and can simply be brushed off. Do not use the tape method here or it will destroy the delicate texture. If it is wet and has soaked in, you could try the talc method to draw it out and then brush it away. And if it’s a little smelly? Turn it inside out and lightly spray the lining with vodka. If it’s not lined then it’s probably best left to the professionals.
Words: Lauren Bush
Copy Editor: Sonjia Hyon