How to Clean and Care for Delicate Clothing

Someone holding a stack of clothing near a sink

The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu

Overview
  • Working Time: 15 - 30 mins
  • Total Time: 12 hrs - 1 day
  • Skill Level: Beginner

From lingerie to cashmere sweaters, the most delicate clothing in your wardrobe should be hand-washed, not machine-washed, to keep its shape, color, and overall look. Before you wash an item, double-check the care label. Always follow any "dry clean only" labels, and take the garment to a professional cleaner. The label means that water or excessive agitation may damage the garment.

Consider a structured suit: Even if the outer fabric is washable, like polyester, the inside structure of interfacings that give the garment its shape may not hold up in water. However, some unstructured or soft items like sweaters that have the "dry clean" label can be successfully hand-washed. If you're unsure, the best choice is to bring the item to a reputable dry cleaner.

How Often to Clean Delicate Clothing

A general rule of thumb is to clean a delicate item, such as a blouse, after every three wearings. If you need to clean a delicate garment worn close to the skin, such as lingerie, consider washing it after every one or two wearings.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Sink, tub, or large bucket
  • Towels
  • Drying rack (optional)
  • Padded hangers (optional)

Materials

  • Mild liquid detergent
  • Cool water

Instructions

Tools needed for hand-washing clothes

The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu

How to Wash Delicate Clothing
Detergent Mild liquid
Water Temperature Cold or room temperature
Cycle Type Do not machine-wash
Drying Cycle Type Do not machine-dry
Special Treatment Hand-wash each item separately
Iron Settings Varies by garment
  1. Clean the Sink

    It's easy to forget that the sink you're using for hand-washing clothes needs to be spotlessly clean. Kitchen sinks can have traces of grease that will transfer to clothes. Bathroom sinks may have traces of skincare products that will bleach fabrics.

    Someone cleaning a sink

    The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu

  2. Fill the Sink With Water

    Fill the sink or tub with water before adding items. The force of running water can actually stretch some fibers. If you need to add more water, deflect the force of the water with your hand or a cup. When hand-washing clothes, the water should always be cold or tepid—never more than 85 degrees. Hot water can cause color bleeding or shrinkage.

    Water running in a sink

    The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu

  3. Add the Detergent

    When hand-washing, use 1 teaspoon gentle liquid detergent. You don't need lots of bubbles to get a clean garment, and too much detergent means lots of rinsing or a garment with detergent residue left in the fibers. Always add detergent to the water before adding the clothes, and give the water a quick stir to be sure the detergent is dissolved and distributed well.

    Someone adding detergent to a sink

    The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu

  4. Soak and Swish the Garment

    Leaving plenty of room in the sink (never overload it), submerge the fabric in the water. Be sure the garment is completely saturated. Allow the garment to soak for at least five minutes, and then gently swish it through the water. Never twist or scrub the fabric as it could stretch and warp.

    Someone soaking a garment

    The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu

  5. Drain the Sink and Rinse the Garment

    Lift the garment from the sink, and drain the soapy water. Don't wring out the garment. Fill the sink with clean tepid water, and put the garment back in the sink to rinse. Swish it through the water. Repeat this step until no suds are seen.

    Someone draining a sink with a wet garment inside

    The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu

  6. Absorb Excess Water

    If the garment is lightweight and delicate, such as lingerie, it can be hung to drip-dry immediately after rinsing. Always use a padded hanger that won't rust to prevent stains from forming on the garment. For heavier items, such as sweaters, place the freshly rinsed garment flat on a thick white towel, and roll up to absorb the water. You may want to repeat this step with a second dry towel.

    Someone drying a garment with a towel

    The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu

  7. Air-Dry the Garment

    Place the garment on a flat surface to dry in a well-ventilated room. Don't place in a hot clothes dryer or dry by direct heat. For knitted items, reshape the garment before drying. If heavy items are hung, they'll stretch or get marks on the shoulders from the hanger due to the weight. When drying items on a flat surface, flip the garment a couple of times to speed drying time.

    Someone placing a garment flat to dry

    The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu

What Is Delicate Clothing?

Delicate clothing is typically made from fragile fabrics that may be easily damaged by normal wear and tear or machine-washing and drying. Some fabrics considered delicate include silk; satin; lace; and any sheer fabric, like chiffon.

Lingerie is often considered delicate. Clothing embellished with beading, sequins, embroidery, or pleats are considered delicate, too. Delicate fabrics made from synthetic fibers should be given gentle treatment. However, heavier knitted items, such as various wools, including cashmere, are also considered delicate because they can shrink or become damaged if washed and dried by machine.

Storing Delicate Clothing

Creasing is a concern when storing delicate clothing. When folding delicate clothing for storage, roll or fold them around white acid-free paper to minimize creases. Delicate fabrics made of natural fibers need to be stored in ventilated containers and placed in a dark, dry, dust-free, ventilated area. Don't crush stored delicate fabrics by piling heavier items on top of them because the fibers or embellishments may become damaged.

Repairs

Eventually, fibers can become weak and thin and embellishments can loosen even if you've hand-washed your delicate items all along. Most repairs, such a reattaching lace or beading, simply require a needle, matching thread, and a steady hand. If you have a favorite item with a jagged tear or a thinned area of fabric, consider fixing it using fusible interfacing as a patch on the underside of the rip. Use either only steam or a pressing cloth when using fusible interfacing.

Treating Stains on Delicate Clothing

To treat stains on delicate clothing, such as lingerie, gently work a stain remover or mild liquid detergent into the stain with your fingers. Don't scrub it, or the delicate fabric can be damaged. Wait 10 minutes so the stain remover or detergent can soak into the fibers. Then, gently squeeze water throughout the item or the stained area multiple times until the stain is removed.

To remove stains and odors from the delicate linings of a suit or coat, you'll need to spot-clean the affected area. Turn the item inside out. Mix equal parts white vinegar and mild dish detergent. Dip a clean cloth into the mix, dab the stain until clean, rinse with another clean cloth, and let the item air-dry.

Tips for Washing Delicate Clothing

  • Always sort clothes by color and fabric type before hand-washing. Never hand-wash dark and light colors together or you'll risk the color of the darker clothes bleeding and staining the lighter clothes.
  • Don't overcrowd the sink or tub with too many garments. You'll have greater success when washing only one or two items at a time.
  • Do not oversoak. Leaving clothes to soak for an extended period can cause fading and harm embellishments like beads, sequins, or embroidery.
  • The gentle cycle on your washer is not the same thing as hand-washing. The cycle lasts longer and has more agitation, even in a front-load washer, which can harm the fabric. For the most delicate items, always hand-wash.
  • Never place delicate items in a dryer to speed the drying.