Wash or Dry Clean Clothes: How to Decide

Dry cleaning
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Take a minute to look at the care label sewn into one of the seams inside your clothes. On the label, you'll find a wealth of information from the fiber content of the fabric to where the garment was made and how to clean the garment. 

More and more items, even simple T-shirts and jeans, are labeled as "Dry Clean Only". Many clothing manufacturers recommend the most conservative type of cleaning treatment of the fabric to ensure the best results for the consumer. Dark blue denim jeans may receive the "Dry Clean Only" label to prevent fading or the jeans may have embellishments like leather trim or studs that could cause issues when, in fact, they can be washed just like any jeans.

For instance, some fabrics that are labeled as dry clean can be hand washed or cleaned with a do-it-yourself dry clean kit at home, but should you? This is why it is important to note the fiber content of the fabric so you can make an informed laundry decision.

Guidelines to Wash or Dry Clean Clothes

If you are experienced in doing laundry, you have learned the best way to clean clothes through trial and error. The care label, type of fabric, and the way the garment is constructed help you make the decision on how it should be cleaned.

If you are a novice at doing laundry or uncertain about what to do when a piece of clothing is label as "Dry Clean Only", either follow the care label guidelines fully or use these guidelines to help you make a decision.

If the answer to any of these 11 questions is “yes”, take your garment to a professional dry cleaner.

  1. Are there spots or stains on the garment that you don’t know how to treat?
  2. Is the garment made from acetate, triacetate, or rayon? While these fabrics can be hand washed in cold water, both can shrink or become misshapen in water. 
  3. Is there a special finish on the garment? Stiff fabrics have a stabilizing finish to help them hold their shape that water or excessive agitation in a washer can ruin.
  4. Is the garment difficult to iron? If there are lots of pleats or tucks to iron, you may never get them to look crisp again.
  5. Is the garment structured or tailored like a coat or suit jacket? Even though the outside fabric may be washable, the interfacings that give lapels and shoulders their shape may be ruined by water.
  6. If the garment is lined, are both the inner and outer fabrics washable? Different types of fabric have different shrinkage rates that can leave linings showing after the garment is washed.
  7. Is the garment trimmed with or made of leather or suede? Water can strip the natural oils and ruin the finish.
  8. Does the fabric transfer dye when it gets wet? You can test whether the fabric is colorfast by wetting a cotton swab with plain water and rubbing it on an inside seam or hem. If any color comes off the surface of the fabric onto the swab, it is not colorfast and needs special treatment when washing or dry cleaning.
  9. Is the garment made of a fiber that you’re not familiar with and have never successfully home laundered?
  10. Is the garment expensive or special to you? If you ruin it by washing it at home, will you be upset? Remember that many laundry mishaps cannot be easily reversed and most leave the fabric ruined permanently.
  11. Is the garment several seasons old? If it is losing it's good looks or headed out of style, you may want to risk washing. It is important to consider the value of the garment in comparison to repeated dry cleaning costs.

Remember, just one "yes" means that you should ask someone who is more experienced in doing laundry for a recommendation or head to the dry cleaner!

  1. Use the Best Water Temperature and Detergent

    Always use cold water and a gentle detergent (Woolite is a brand name) for the first washing.

  2. Hand Wash or Use Gentle Cycle

    Hand washing is best. If you decide to use the washing machine, opt for the gentle cycle. Excessive wringing and agitation can cause problems.

  3. Wash the Item Alone

    Wash the item alone just in case it is not colorfast and the dyes run. Do not mix with other garments until you see how it goes.

  4. Air-Dry the Garment

Skip the clothes dryer. If the garment is knit, dry flat to prevent stretching. If it is a woven garment, hang to drip dry.