There’s a unique thrill to beating the system. Scoffing at the “dry clean only” label on your delicate duds may not be the most exciting rebellion imaginable, but it’s a scheme that pays off on laundry day every week. It has for me: Instead of spending my money at the dry cleaners, I wash most of my silk and wool at home, right in the bathroom sink.
Yet certain items really do need the extra TLC of a dry clean. So how do you know which is which? We asked the experts, including a master tailor, a laundry specialist, and an authority on cleaning fine fabric, to help sort out when to heed the label’s warning and when to break the rules.
According to Lindsey J. Boyd, co-founder of the specialty laundry brand The Laundress, “The instructions found on care tags aren’t necessarily the best way to clean an item.” The key to a successful wash lies in the fabric. Most items made from plant fibers like cotton and linen, and durable manmade fabrics like nylon and polyester, have labels that say they’re machine washable. If they’re too fragile for the washer (which may be the reason dry cleaning is suggested), our experts say these fabrics are generally safe to hand wash.
“Items made from wool, silk, linen, cotton, and other natural fibers usually can be hand washed,” said Gerri Young, owner and founder of Allo Laverie, a cleaner specializing in fine linen. Although these and other animal fibers—such as cashmere—sometimes “require” dry cleaning per their label, they usually tolerate water very well. Martin Greenfield, owner of custom tailor shop Martin Greenfield Clothiers, told us wool rarely needs dry cleaning. “Wool is an animal’s hair—they [animals] don’t get dry cleaned. They go out in the rain.” He recommends that his clients spot-clean and steam-press their suits, which restores the natural finish. “We find the dry cleaning fluid to be very caustic on fine wools, so we try to avoid it as much as possible.” Dry cleaning certain delicate fabrics may also shorten their lifespan, causing them to lose their luster and contributing to wear and tear. “The clothing gets tossed into a machine with a spin cycle—it’s pretty rough on hand-tailored clothing,” Greenfield said.
Hand washing is simple and cheap—you likely have the supplies on hand. For best results, use a detergent for delicates (many all-purpose cleaners can be rough on wool and silk). We like no-rinse formulas like those we recommend in our guide to the best detergent for hand washing. Just fill your basin with tepid (never hot!) water and your detergent, and soak for 15 minutes. Then carefully squeeze out the water and air dry. “Never put silk in the dryer!” said Cora Harrington, founder and editor of The Lingerie Addict. Similarly, keep wool away from hot water and agitation unless you want to make felt.
It’s often easiest to hang up silk blouses and dresses in the shower, where they can drip dry. Wet sweaters must be laid flat and blocked—that is, shaped so they dry correctly. It might be worthwhile to invest in a drying rack (like this one from OXO), which helps air circulate, but you can also use a bath towel. Hand-washed clothing, especially silk, often dries with some wrinkles or crunchiness, but a once-over with a steamer will quickly bring back its suppleness and luster. We have several recommendations in our guide to the best clothing steamers.
It’s always a bit of a gamble when you go off-label and ignore a manufacturer’s advice. “Generally certain things should be able to withstand hand washing,” Young told us. “But that doesn’t always translate into everything going well.”
To lower the risk, the experts suggest testing your fabric to check for warping and color transfer. “Find an inconspicuous area on the garment, like the side seam or hem, and dip it in water,” Boyd told us. “If you notice any sort of distortion, we don’t recommend washing.” Young said she used a similar method to check for dye transfer: “Place a white paper towel on each side of the dampened area and press down. If any color is seen on the paper towel, the item isn’t colorfast.” And, she said, the more colorful your garment, the bigger the risk. “When it comes to silk, dark and brilliantly-colored pieces and patterns are best dry cleaned.” Patterns with contrasting colors are especially susceptible to damage, as any leaking dark dye can easily stain the lighter areas.
Another clue? The price. As Young told us, cheaper, low-quality silks are often less stable than the expensive stuff, so they don’t do as well with hand washing. “A good test for silk items is to gently bunch it into a ball with your hands, then release. If the fabric feels luxurious and liquid, it likely will do fine with hand washing. If it creases and wrinkles badly, send it to the dry cleaners.”
“There are some fabrics that react poorly to water like viscose, a type of rayon,” Boyd told us. “Although many rayons can be washed, viscose has been known to shrink to extreme proportions.” Similar fabrics in the rayon family include lyocell (known by the brand name Tencel), modal, and cupro (often branded as Bemberg), although these are usually washable. “The important takeaway about rayon is to follow the care label,” said Young.
Remember, if your item has a blend of fabrics (or two different fabrics, as in a coat with a lining), always clean according to the more finicky one. You may be able to hand wash silk, but since viscose usually requires dry cleaning, you shouldn’t wash a silk-viscose blend at home.
No matter the fabric content, when the label for an item with a decorative finish (such as moiré or pleats) or delicate beading recommends dry cleaning, don’t ignore it—those details are very easy to ruin. If you have something particularly sentimental or fragile, playing it safe may be the better option. “[S]peaking generally, it’s often fine to handwash silk. For very special pieces, you may still want to opt for a dry cleaner,” said Harrington. For particularly filthy or stained items, call the professionals. “If somebody spills red wine all over your suit then yes, you’d need to have it dry cleaned,” Greenfield said. “But only when it’s absolutely necessary.”
1. Martin Greenfield, owner Martin Greenfield Clothiers, email interview, May 1, 2019
2. Lindsey J. Boyd, co-founder, The Laundress, email interview, May 1, 2019
3. Gerri Young, owner and founder of Allo Laverie, email interview, May 2, 2019
4. Cora Harrington, founder and editor of The Lingerie Addict, email interview, October 16, 2018
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