How to Wash Any & Every Piece of Clothing You Own

Thursday, April 13, 2017


Who doesn't want the clothing they invest in to last longer? Gone are the days when clothing was cotton, silk or wool only. These days you can have an item that's part nylon, part polyester, part lyocell and part rayon jersey -- and there are multiple types of each of these materials! It can be so confusing trying to figure out how to wash certain items to keep them looking new and as wearable as they day you brought them home.

This guide is all about how wash everything and anything in your closet, from clothing to bags to shoes to jewelry -- including items that the labels say not to wash. Dry cleaning is expensive, but your laundry bill doesn't have to be.

The full guide, inside...



Before we begin, let me start this post with a disclaimer: All of the advice below is based on my personal washing experience and is not meant as an expert guide. Washing items against clothing label directions can be risky. My general advice is that for any clothing that you'd be devastated to lose, follow the label directions exactly.

That said, many clothing retailers mark their clothing as "Dry Clean" or "Dry Clean Only" when it doesn't have to be cleaned that way. Why do they do this? To cover their butts! I don't know about you but growing up I never learned how to do laundry and as a young adult that led to a lot of trial and error, and some accidentally destroyed clothing. No retailer wants to be remembered for that shirt that shrank the first time you wore it or the skirt that got destroyed in the washer. So they slap a dry clean label on their clothing and exhale, hoping customers won't ruin their synthetic-content clothing that may be a bit tricky to preserve.

In truth, while delicate materials such as suede, taffeta, velvet, fur, down and anything pleated (think pleated skirts) shouldn't be washed, most everything else can be. That rayon dress that feels like silk? You can probably wash it. That cashmere sweater? You can probably wash it. That lightweight wool skirt? You can probably wash it too. It's all about knowing how to wash your items with the right cleaning agent.

To make things very easy, I've created two shopping lists for everything in this post. My Laundry Shopping List has nearly everything in this post; and my Pantry Laundry Shopping List has all the products that are only available via Prime Pantry. Prime Pantry is one of the bonuses that comes with being an Amazon Prime member. Not a member? You can get a FREE trial month via my referral link. Do you need all of the products in these lists? Not hardly -- these are all the best options from which you can pick and choose as needed.


This post is divided into sections for easy reference. You can click on any of the links directly below to go to that part of the post.
Materials and how to wash them
How do I know what water temperature to use?
Your guide to care label laundry symbols
How to properly load a washing machine
My favorite laundry detergents, pre-treaters and drying aids
Some final tips & tricks for washing and drying your clothing



Materials and how to wash them
There are so many man-made clothing materials these days and each one has a different care regimen needed to keep it looking new and fresh. Below is a mini-guide divided by material.


ACRYLIC: Used mostly for sweaters, this man-made material approximates the look and feel of either wool or cashmere and is known to pill heavily because of its short fibers. In general, you'll want to wash these on cold or the "bright colors" cycle. Once the cycle is done, gently pull the acrylic item at each edge to stretch it back into shape. Lay on a flat surface to dry. For stains, I recommend pre-treating with this spray. If your item is stained you can wash it in warm water but be sure to catch the load as soon as it's done to gently stretch your item back into shape. A cold wash can be left for up to 45 minutes before being attended to. If your acrylic item is pilling, use this sweater shaver on it when dry.

BAGS: See leather, nylon and suede sections.

CASHMERE: Yes, you can wash cashmere! In fact it's my preference to wash cashmere over dry cleaning, because the latter breaks down the lanolin -- the natural oil in cashmere that keeps cashmere soft -- and can add a chemical smell to your cashmere over time. Regular detergents are much too harsh for cashmere and will also strip that oil out, leaving you with a rough, unwearable $300+ dog blanket instead of a nice, soft, cashmere sweater. I recommend using this cleaning agent as detergent, and if your cashmere is stained, this spray. Wash on the "delicate" or "hand-wash" cycle (or warm wash with a cool rinse if your laundry machine is designated that way), and pull immediately when the cycle is finished. You want to avoid any cycle with a spin or heavy agitation. Gently re-shape and lay flat to dry. I usually do this wash as my last cycle before bed. 

COTTON: As an organic material, cotton is fine with being washed and dried over and over again! The biggest obstacle to its proper care is knowing how to wash it! For you see no two cottons are quite the same. A cotton item with a "pre-shrunk" label can be dried and will feel just like it did before for example, while cotton that is not pre-shrunk may be shrinky-dinked when you take it out of the dryer -- *gulp*.  In general white cotton can be washed on hot, light colored cottons on permanent press or warm wash-cold rinse, and bright or dark colored cotton should be washed on cold or the "bright colors" setting. No need to reshape after washing -- just throw it into the dryer whenever you can. Pre-shrunk cotton can be dried fully but non-pre-shrunk cotton should be damp dried and then finished via air drying. Make sure you use a dryer sheet to keep your items nice and soft! You can wash it with any detergent you like and pre-treat it with any stain remover or pre-treator you like; see also my list of favorites.

CREPE: See silk.

DENIM: To wash or not to wash denim? Sources vary on this. I'm not a denim expert but in my personal opinion it's pretty gross to wear something that's never been washed or cleaned. So while I stretch the time my denim washings as long as possible (mostly by sticking the jeans in the freezer in a Zip-Loc overnight), I do wash them at least once every two months. For denim that is less than 90% cotton, I wash on cold or "bright colors" with my regular detergent and then dry them completely. For denim that is 90% cotton or higher, I wash on cold or "bright colors" with my regular detergent and then air dry them. Air drying is critical for high-cotton jeans! They will shrink a size or so if you try to dry them and may not stretch back to their original size.

JERSEY: There are two types of jersey -- cotton jersey (much nicer!) and rayon jersey (not nearly as nice). For cotton jersey, you can wash it on any cycle (white or stained items should be hot, light colors on warm and bright or dark colors on cold) and then dry it on medium. Rayon jersey is much less dense and more susceptible to permanent staining and material breakdown. To help mine last longer, I pre-treat it and then wash it on warm wash-cold rinse (aka permanent press). I dry it on low to damp dry and then air dry it the rest of the way.

JEWELRY: I think we all know you can't put jewelry in the washing machine, but for a long time I was afraid to even attempt cleaning mine because I feared I'd destroy it. But now that I have some family heirloom pieces, cleaning is necessity. I'm so glad I discovered this inexpensive and complete kit, which is safe on fine jewelry and costume pieces too! It works beautifully on everything from natural soft stones to your platinum wedding ring. Even better it's Made in the USA of non-toxic materials! Use caution on costume jewelry, especially thinly plated pieces.

LEATHER: Anyone whose ever been a horseback riding buff knows that it is possible to clean leather (hello saddle soap!), but not with a washing machine. Instead, you'll want a small container of warm water, a round sponge or two, and saddle soap. Dip the sponge in the warm water and then squeeze it until damp. Make light circles in the saddle soap to get a bit on the sponge, and then gently rub your leather item (be it a leather jacket, a smooth leather purse or a pair of boots) with a circular motion. It doesn't take much so don't overload the sponge, just a very light coating of soap will do. Saddle soap barely foams so don't expect it to be like your bar of hand soap or body soap! Instead, it gently lifts dirt and stains while preserving the natural oils of the leather. Once your leather item is soaped up, dampen your second sponge and then clean the saddle soap off the item as much as possible, and allow it to air dry in a shady spot. Sun can crack leather, especially damp or wet leather. This saddle soap is great for thicker leather items that are black. 

LINEN: Certainly washing machine-friendly, but linen can come out stiff and scratchy if not washed correctly. The secret? Washing it in warm water. You can use any detergent though I love using the Laundress's Classic Detergent or Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Laundry Detergent in Lavender because I love the smell of both! You can dry linen using a medium or low setting, but air drying is the best tactic if possible.

LYOCELL: See rayon.

NYLON: Present in everything from activewear to jeans to blouses, nylon is a pretty hardy material. In general, you can wash it in cold or warm water and tumble dry on low or medium heat. It wrinkles easily when used in anything besides activewear so be sure to pull it from the dryer as soon as you can!

PIMA COTTON: See cotton.

POLYESTER: At once a scruge to clothing yet also a breathable alternative to cotton in the summer, polyester is made from plastic but is somewhat less durable than nylon, another plastic-derived material. You can wash polyester on any heat setting according to how stained it is (the more stained, the hotter the water should be) but only dry it on low to preserve the item for as long as possible. 

RAYON: Rayon is probably my least favorite clothing material because it tends to break down quickly. You can't make rayon be as hardy as, say, cotton, but you can make it last a little longer by only washing it on cold and then air drying it. Heat is rayon's enemy so the dryer and hot washes are a no-go if you want your item to last longer than, say, a year.

SHOES: In my early 20s I used to foolishly throw out shoes that seemed too dirty to wear anymore. Now I know so much better -- that nearly any kind of shoe can be cleaned well! Sneakers made of mesh, nylon, knits or anything but leather can be thrown into a cold wash with any kind of detergent, air dried and will come out looking like new! (And if you use a deodorizing agent, even better.) Also, although I can't say exactly why, this sponge is a miracle on sneakers! Shoes made from leather, suede, silk or other materials can be cleaned carefully using a kit like this one or this one. You should always test the inside of a shoe before using a kit, because colors on shoes are more likely to bleed or darken than on clothing. See also the LEATHER and SUEDE sections.

SILK: If your silk is colorfast (it will say on the care label) then it can be washed. If it is NOT colorfast, do not pass GO, go straight to the dry cleaners instead! Colorfast means the colors in the silk have been set, while non-colorfast silk will bleed. For silks that can be washed, you'll want to either hand wash it using warm water, or use that setting if your washer has it. The delicates cycle might be OK but there's normally some light agitation in a delicates cycle that can damage the fibers in silk over time. Woolite and The Laundress Delicates are two great detergents to use with silk. You never want to put silk in the dryer -- air dry only! 

SPANDEX: If you work out, you're probably very familiar with spandex, but even if you're not very active clothing like jeans and even blouses may have spandex in them these days. To keep the fibers in spandex elastic, you'll want to avoid heat whenever possible. That said, I usually wash my spandex on cold -- I separate lights and darks or brights as the colors will bleed -- and then tumble it dry, because I only have so much room on my air dry rack! Drying spandex in the dryer will cause it to fade. If you want to preserve your spandex for as long as possible, air dry it.

SUEDE: You can't wash wash suede in a washing machine but it can be cleaned. You don't want to use water with suede unless absolutely necessary. Soft circular motions with the proper brush or vigorous motions work wonders for scuffs. For tough stains, an eraser is highly effective! 

VISCOSE: See rayon.

WOOL: Although scary the first time I tried it, wool can absolutely be washed. No matter whether thick or thin, wash it on cold, always. After the cycle is done, be sure to tug it gently back into shape and then air dry. Thicker wools will want to shrink as they dry so you may want to check it every couple of hours the first few times you wash it to gently keep stretching it back into shape. To keep fine merino or other wools soft, use a gentle detergent free of chemicals. 




Ready to build your laundry arsenal? See all the products mentioned in this post in two handy lists, my Laundry Shopping List and my Pantry Laundry Shopping List.




How do I know what water temperature to use?
Water temperature is key to the long-term preservation of your clothing. If you're unsure, cold water is the safest way to go. In general, here's a quick guide.

COLD WATER: Think of cold water as color preservation for your clothing. Denim, jewel tones, color mixes, sweaters, your athletic, active or yoga gear, sweaters and such should all be washed in cold water.

WARM WATER: As a kid, I learned 'warm water is right for whites and brights!' Especially when stained, delicate items such as blouses have a better chance of coming clean in a warm wash. If your machine allows it you can do a warm wash and a cold spin -- on most washers this is also known as the permanent press cycle. The exception to this rule is for white socks and towels; as you'll see below you want to wash those on hot.

HOT WATER: Disinfecting central! Wash things like socks, towels, and heavily stained items. For stained colorful items, you'll want to use a color-safe bleach or this incredibly effective pre-treater.



Your guide to care label laundry symbols 
What exactly do those little pictures on the care label of your clothing mean? Wonder no further...

This one's your washing temperature. Whatever the number is, that's the temperature
(in Fahrenheit here in the USA or in celsius abroad) you should wash your clothing in.
In general, 30 degrees means cold, 50-60 means warm and 90 means hot.


Next is your dryer symbol. Sometimes you'll see roman numerals -- I, II or III -- to denote temperature.
Or sometimes one, two or three dots.
But more often than not you'll see "low", "medium," or "high" here.
If this box has a slash or an X through it, it means you're not recommended to dry it.
See my material-by-material list above to determine if the retailer was being too cautious or not.


When you see a triangle, it means bleach. 
A triangle with a slash or X through it means "Don't Bleach This!"
Often, bleach alternatives are still fine in that case.


This symbol represents an iron. If you see it on the care label it means your item is safe to iron.
Sometimes this symbol will have a temperature written on it, but often not.
When in doubt, try your iron on cool first and make it hotter as needed.


Want more laundry symbol definitions? This handy graphic has nearly all of them explained!


How to properly load a washing machine
This may come as a surprise to you but there is in fact a right and a wrong way to load a washing machine. Mainly, you want to make sure your washer is never overfilled or stuffed to capacity. Why? First of all it's hard for a washer to efficiently work when it's overfull. Secondly, your clothing may not come all the way clean (due to packed in clothing getting hits and misses of cleaning agent, water and agitation). Items can end up with soap stains, permanent streaks or simply not come clean. But worst of all, you can actually damage your washer if it's too full! During the spin cycle your washing machine uses counterweights to keep it upright. A too-full washer can damage the balancing system over time, causing your washer to shake violently or crack the washing basin. You'll know if your washer is too full if you can't move items around freely with your hands or, ahem, if you have trouble closing the door without something slipping out or blocking the washing machine door from closing properly.

Items such as denim, cashmere and wool benefit from being turned inside out before washing, unless stained. Never lose a sock again by using mesh laundry bags, which are also great for bras or anything with hooks.




My favorite laundry detergents, pre-treaters and drying aids
With years of clothing-washing experience under my belt, I have discovered through trial & error what items work and don't work to get my clothing clean in the washer. From removing stains and odors to keeping clothing in like-new condition, these are my tried, tested and true recommendations.

These days there is a big push towards organic cleaners of all kinds. But I must say that organic does not necessarily mean safer, healthier or even tested! Some so-called organic brands take advantage of marketing double-speak to try to sell us on products that have not undergone the rigorous testing processes cleaners with chemicals have. Chemicals does not equal unsafe! Many chemical compounds in cleaners are naturally occurring, but marketers for some 'organic' brands would have you think chemicals are unhealthy or dangerous. For example you may be familiar with a compound you encounter everyday safely -- di-hydrogen oxide? Or as we call it in everyday parlance, water?

Please note that all products listed in this section don't use this kind of offensive marketing double speak.

You may be wondering, do I need all of the cleaners listed in each section? No. I've simply listed out all of my favorites here and you can pick and choose the ones you'd like to purchase from each section.


PRE-TREATORS
Borax -- Without a doubt, Borax is the one cleaning tool I use the most. First discovered in 1881 in Death Valley (under its scientific name, sodium borate), there's a reason Borax has been in use for over 130 years! For clothing, I primarily use Borax to lift stains and eliminate odors (the latter of which it is amazing at), but it's also great for cleaning around the home and repelling pests such as ants.

Biz Stain and Odor Eliminator -- This stuff is amazing for getting out poo stains and blood stains. Several of my mommy friends swear by this stuff to clean onesies, cloth diapers and the like. I've used it to clean towels and small rugs after pet incidents too, and to clean my boyfriend's shirts when he's accidentally bled post-shave on collars and such. You don't need to use very much, we've had the same bottle for over a year now. One more thing it's great at -- getting out sweat stains from places like underarms!

Shout Advanced Ultra Gel Brush -- I first used this product at a hotel after I'd stupidly spilled red wine on a light-colored dress. I didn't have time to wash the dress right away but the concierge promised me that if I treated the dress that night and then washed it within a week, the stain would be gone. I was dubious to say the last, but she was right! This stuff is great because I don't have to insta-wash stains on most clothing, I can treat and wash at my leisure. It's also safe on colorfast clothing, though you'll want to treat those just before washing, five minutes or so max.




DETERGENTS
Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Laundry Detergent in Lavender -- My boyfriend hates scented laundry detergent, but loves this one. Almost as much as I do! HE-washer-capable, but also fine for regular machines, this stuff cleans clothing so well and leaves a very pleasant, calming light scent on clean clothes. Even coworkers with big-time perfume allergies ask me what I'm wearing when I have just-cleaned clothes on! This detergent also comes in a basil scent, a bluebell scent, and honeysuckle, but I can't attest to how heavy or light the scents of those versions are.

Forever New -- This product is incredible for anything with spandex in it -- bras, activewear, you name it. Even my Victoria's Secret bras, which tend to stretch out quickly, snap back into shape after being washed in this stuff.

True Laundry Detergent -- The first time I used this detergent, I thought I hadn't put enough in my washing machine because there were so few suds. Turns out that's by design! I notice my clothing is exceptionally soft when I use this stuff, so it's great for tees, shorts, mixed-composition denim, that kind of thing. It has a light scent after washing but I notice that once the clothing is dry I can't smell anything except clean clothing.

TYLER Glamorous Wash, Diva -- If you don't mind scented detergent, this stuff is so great for athletic wear and delicates!! It definitely has a strong scent yet it works so well to clean tough scents and sweat. A little goes a very long way with this detergent; I'm always tempted to add more to the washer but you really only need a bit in each load. If my boyfriend wasn't so scent-averse we'd use this on our sheets and towels. For now, I'm the best-smelling runner on the East Side esplanade in Manhattan. :)

Le Blanc® Original Linen Wash -- Perfect for sheets, curtains and cloth shower curtains as well as linen clothing, I love the light lavender scent of Le Blanc® too. Bonus: our kitties are no longer interested in scratching or shredding our curtains or bed linens since we started using this!!

The Laundress Wool & Cashmere Shampoo -- I'm a longtime Laundress fan and with good reason -- my favorite cashmere sweater from 2008 is still going strong! I often get asked where I got it as though it's a current season item. The secret with using this stuff is doing your laundry at a time when you can be attentive to it. As soon as the cycle is done I pull my cashmere out and gently tug it back into shape, and lay it flat to dry. What raises this product over other cashmere detergents for me is the lack of 'wet wool' scent when the wash cycle is done, and how over time it preserves my clothing so well. The Laundress makes several wonderful cleaning products for delicates that I use and love.

Woolite -- Awesome on delicates, including silk, lace, wool and cashmere. You don't need very much per load. Works great for hand-washing or in the machine.


DRYING
Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Dryer Sheets, Lavender -- Much like the detergent listed above, I love the light and calming lavender scent of these dryer sheets! There are multiple scents to choose from if lavender isn't your thing.

Bounce Outdoor Fresh Fabric Softener Sheets -- Good ol' Bounce still works wonders, and this particular scent is heavenly. Like some of the other products mentioned in this post, Bounce works for more than just drying your clothing with a great scent! These 19 uses are pretty awesome.

Heart Felt Wool Dryer Balls -- For people who have given up on dryer sheets, these are a fantastic alternative! My sister is a huge fan and got a set for my mom, who's also a convert. I'm not quite there yet myself but I have to admit they are pretty cool. My sis drops essential oils on hers and her clothing comes out just as soft as dryer sheets make them. These are very affordable (and reusable!); here's an even less expensive set and a set with hearts on it (which let's be real, is the set I'd go for)!




Ready to shop? See all the products mentioned in this post in two handy lists, my Laundry Shopping List and my Pantry Laundry Shopping List.



A helpful infographic on how to remove common stains -- see the article here.


Some final tips & tricks for washing and drying your laundry
Here are some miscellaneous tips I've learned to help me do my laundry.

:: Have an item that's wrinkled? Throw it in the dryer for 15 minutes on low or medium with wet bath towels.
:: If a stain doesn't come out the first time you wash an item, don't dry it! Re-treat it, allow to sit for 15 minutes, and then wash it again.
:: Separate lint producers (like towels & blankets) from lint magnets (such as corduroy & fleece).
:: Want advice on how to remove specific kinds of stains, from red wine to spaghetti to baby formula? Tide has a comprehensive guide.
:: Washing wool and cashmere with lavender or cedar-scented cleaning agents helps keep moths and other pests away.



What else would you like to know how to clean? What sections should I add to this post? Do you use and enjoy any of the products I love and mentioned in this post?