My clothes will thank you.
September 19, 2009 10:29 AM   Subscribe

I am clueless in the laundry room. I know nothing about stain removal and very little about sorting, what settings to use on my washer, what needs to air-dry, how to prevent things from shrinking, etc. Teach me how to do laundry like a grownup!

I am embarrassed to admit this, but when I was growing up, my mom did all the laundry for the household. In college, I would throw all my clothes in the wash together in one giant load once a week. Things would turn grey over time but at least it all got clean. If something got a noticeable stain on it, I would generally throw it out. When my bras got ratty and worn-out after a year or so of frequent use, I would go get new ones. I have lost a lot of cute clothes to shrinkage as well.

But now, I am an adult with an office job that requires nicer clothes. I can't afford to throw out a shirt just because I spill my lunch on it or splatter something on it while I'm cooking supper. I have a house with a laundry room in the basement, a washer and dryer all my own, and an enormous concrete laundry tub. I want to take the time to learn to wash things right.

So... I have a lot of questions. How should I sort - whites/lights and darks/jeans? Should I be throwing some bleach in with the whites? What gets washed on hot and what gets washed on cold? Should I be washing my bras all by themselves and hanging them up to dry? How do I prevent shrinking of new clothes? I know you are supposed to treat stains differently depending on what causes them, but I honestly have no idea what to do beyond rinsing, rubbing some extra soap on, and hoping for the best.

I feel like most of this is common sense stuff that I just never picked up on. Please help!
posted by beandip to Home & Garden (30 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I don't necessarily know all laundry orthodoxy but this is how I do my laundry and have never had a problem. Also, my laundry machine only does rinses as cold. There is no warm rinse on my machine.

-socks and underwear together on warm/cold (warm wash, cold rinse). Some say not to wash socks with the underwear because you don't want germs or whatever from the socks getting on the underwear, but I've never had a problem.

For all other clothes, I wash them on cold because I'm a cheapskate and want to save on my gas bill, and also because I'm concerned about shrinkage.

-darks/jeans as a load. Wash dark jeans inside out to keep them from getting lighter fast.

-white/lights as a load. No bleach because these loads are not all pure white clothes, just light-colored ones. I only use bleach if I'm watching stained white clothes by themselves for the purpose of trying to get out the stains.

-don't put bras in the dryer. Hang them up to dry. If you have expensive bras, you may want to wash them gentle cycle, as with any other delicate lingerie, and then hang them up.

-I do wash sheets on warm/cold or even hot/cold. I can do this because mine are big for my bed, so shrinkage isn't a problem.

Sometimes if I've accumulated a lot of laundry, I will split the loads to even more specific groupings, like all polo shirts together (my boyfriend wears polo shirts to work every day), all t-shirts together, etc.

I use Seventh Generation no perfume/dye detergent because I'm a dirty hippie. But really, I have less problems with color fading with this than I did with the strong commercial detergents.
posted by ishotjr at 10:35 AM on September 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

Most clothes have tags that tell you exactly how to treat them! That's a good place to start.

The in-general truth is, washing in cold doesn't hurt anything, you don't really need bleach, and drying on the lowest heat setting preserves your clothes more (but if something says "hand wash cold" or "hang to dry" you need to be aware of it, so that's where the tags come in).
posted by so_gracefully at 10:41 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Cheryl Mendelson's book Home Comforts has everything you could possibly need to know about how to do things right. She's a bit obsessive in places, but it's absolutely worth it knowing the correct way to get things done. It's indispensable for stain removal, among other things.

Note: her book Laundry is just stuff taken from Home Comforts, so the latter is worth buying, not the former.

Also, a general tip: most women's jeans made now have spandex in them, so don't put them in the dryer. The heat relaxes the elastic, and that's what makes them saggy. Yeah, they might be a titch wrinkly, but smooth them out on the line and they'll be fine.
posted by Madamina at 11:00 AM on September 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

Most clothes come with directions. Follow them.

However, as a tall and skinny person, I have learned to never, ever put tshirts in the dryer, lest they become belly tops à la Madonna in 1985. Hang them up, and then when they're dry and stiff, tumble them for a few minutes just to fluff them up a bit.

Also, I'm the kind of person who throws everything in at once and hopes for the best. Wash in cold water, tumble dry low heat. Anything dark, I'll wash separately the first time around, but after that, whatever. If you want whites to stay white, keep them separate. Things that'll get lint on everything else (towels especially), do separately.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:05 AM on September 19, 2009

As for bras .... since I started *only* hand-washing and hang-drying they have lasted a lot, lot longer. And look a lot nicer even after more than a year.

In general, I don't break my loads up near as much some folks -- I pay at a laundromat so if I did a "whites/undies" and a "light colors" and a "dark colors" load I would spend three times as much a month and waste a lot of water. So usually unless I have an unusually large amount of dirty clothes, my regular wash is just one load -- but I have very few whites or really light clothes because I am a klutz and somehow white makes me even klutzier. Most of my undies, even, are not white. Also, I always wash on cold for my regular clothes and do not use very much detergent. Things like sheets or towels might get a hot/cold run, but that's it. I try to always use front-loading washers as they seem to get things cleaner without needing as much detergent.

And, yes! Read tags! It will tell you how fragile a piece is. And warning: some new clothes with deep red, blue or black dyes can bleed easily. Wash separately the first few times...
posted by R343L at 11:07 AM on September 19, 2009

A few other pointers - look for a detergent that is designed for cold water washing - it'll be easy to find them, since they trumpet that on the packaging.

You can wash stuff together and then separate out the stuff you hang dry, if there isn't enough for a whole washer load of one or the other.

I hang dry all my dress shirts. Everything else goes in the dryer - but I look at the tags of clothes before I buy them to ensure they are okay in the dryer.

Dry your towels separately, not simply for lint issues, but also so that you don't use dryer sheets on them - if you use dryer sheets on your laundry.
posted by birdsquared at 11:11 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

You will probably get a lot of advice to wash your bras by hand. I'm too lazy to do that so I've always throw them in the washer. And I've definitely ruined one or two Victoria's Secret bras doing that (ouch). However, I was recently visiting my parents and my mom had two of these: BraBaby. I liked them so much I bought my own. One thing to note, they claim that you can put them in the dryer but I don't do that. So, I'm not sure how that would end up. Also, it says on the box that they can only be used with AA-D cups. I can just barely fit my 34D non padded ones. If you wear something bigger than that it might not work.

Other than that, I do my laundry more like R343L. My loads are sheets/towels; colors (including whites); and blue/black/sometimes red (depending on the item). I hang dry all of my dress pants/slacks, skirts, and button-down shirts.
posted by Nolechick11 at 11:35 AM on September 19, 2009

Oh! Oh! One more thing!

Only use liquid detergent. The powder stuff has a tendency to remain powdery, and remain on your clothes.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:44 AM on September 19, 2009

The Queen of everything domestic always has great laundry tips. Martha Stewart knows how to do everything from getting rid of a stain to folding fitted sheets.
posted by xingcat at 12:05 PM on September 19, 2009

If you wash clothes on cold (and you should), you only need to worry about color bleeding if you have something very new and dye-heavy. If you have enough clothes to reasonably segregate, wash a bleedy item with black, or hand-wash it the first couple of times in the sink, and use a little vinegar in your rinse water, until it stops bleeding dye into the water. Regularly-washed clothes don't need to be color separated. Heat is what shrinks clothes, assuming they are washable at all, so watch your heat and you won't shrink anything.

Wash towels separately. The coarse texture will wear (and occasionally really obviously spot-wear) clothing or sheets and shorten their lives.

I wash bras in zip-up wash bags (lingerie or sweater bags) and hang dry. I also put socks into their own bag or bags so I don't lose any.

If you own a lot of whites, you can use bleach, but you'll get pretty good results with Oxy Clean without risking a splatter onto clothes that ought not touch bleach.

I only use warm water on sheets, and only dry sheets and towels on anything other than the lowest heat setting.

Line/hang dry is for delicates, any clothing that says to air dry on the label, and anything sweater-like, including lighter knitwear. I use the aforementioned bags to wash sweaters, and leave them in the washer after everything else is out to run them through an extra spin cycle, then line, hanger, or flat-dry depending on instructions.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:13 PM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

-Don't put wool in the dryer. I've ruined a few sweaters that way.

-I sometimes pre-treat stains with dish soap-just reqular liquid, dish soap. It works really well if I need something quick. Just rub a dab into whatever and then wash as usual.

-I finally realized I really like my whites white, so every once in awhile I will do a load with just a little bleach and wash as usual. Don't use too much or your clothes will smell like bleach and it's gross. The rest of the time I separate lights/whites and darks, but I don't get obsesso about it. Otherwise you're doing laundry 24/7.
posted by Rocket26 at 12:14 PM on September 19, 2009

I agree with Madamina that Home Comfort's chapters on laundry and fabric in general are very informative.
posted by Lycaste at 12:18 PM on September 19, 2009

We sort laundry into a hamper with three parts: any dark clothing (black/blue/gray/etc), any light clothing (white/pink/yellow/etc), and other items that have more specific instructions on the tags. We also set aside towels as a load, and sheets as another load. Lights, towels and sheets get washed in hot to get rid of germies, as I feel like these items get closest to bare skin. Dark gets washed in cold, and the other items are washed as the directions indicate. I dry just about everything on low heat (except delicate unders/bras and dark jeans, which are line dried), keeps shrinking from becoming an issue.

Also, I have zippered mesh bags that I got in Japan, and into these I put delicates, and any other fabrics that I worry might stretch from being tossed around with tougher materials (light cotton tops in with jeans, for example). These bags are super useful and everyone uses them in Japan, but I haven't seen similar things here in the US - I bet Daiso or others shop that specialize in Japanese housewares would have 'em. They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes to accommodate different garments, including one that has a frame inside that resembles the BraBaby mentioned above. These bags are so ubiquitous in Japan that the price for the BraBaby seems excessive to me, but I suppose it depends on availability.
posted by illenion at 12:32 PM on September 19, 2009

Martha Stewart also has a book on housekeeping, but it's called a Homekeeping Handbook. I've checked it out of the library before, and it's really informative. The laundry chapter is pretty good, as is her section on taking care of clothes in general (ironing, how to properly store them (proteins vs. plants (!), how to prevent wrinkles).
posted by bluefly at 12:33 PM on September 19, 2009

Nthing Lycaste about not putting wool sweaters - or wool anything -- in the machine washer. What happens if you do is: wool and other animal-fibers will mat up and shrink if you treat them roughly ("animal fibers meaning: anything made out of a substance that was once an animals' fur). The sloshing around in your washing machine just rubs the yarn in wool items against itself, which makes it all mat together. The "hot" and even the "warm" cycles in your washer also makes wool do this.

Fortunately, it's really easy to wash wool stuff by hand -- you just soak it! Fill up a sink with just-a-bit-hotter-than-lukewarm water -- it should be comfortable enough to put your hand in it and keep it there a while. Then pour in a capful of Woolite (yep, that's why they call it "Wool"-ite) and swirl it around a little bit to suds it up a bit. Then dunk in your sweater and gently squeeze it a couple times to make sure it all gets good and wet. Then -- just let it soak for about ten minutes.

Then to rinse it out, just sort of hold the wadded-up sweater or whatever against the side of the sink and pull the plug and let the water drain out. Press the sweater against the side of your sink to gently squeeze out the water. Take the sweater out and fill the sink up with that same kind of comfortably-warm water again, then put the sweater back in; gently squeeze it under the water a couple times to let the water circulate all through it and rinse out the suds, then drain it out again.

You don't throw a sweater in the dryer either, after this. Instead - get two big towels ready. Lay the first one on the floor, lay out the sweater on one end of the towel, then starting at one end of the towel, roll up the towel, rolling up the sweater inside the towel (like you were making a sushi roll). When it's rolled up, press down hard with your hands on the towel-roll -- this squeezes out the water, and the towel soaks it up. Unroll the towel again. That first towel will be soaked, and your sweater should be considerably dryer. Lay the second towel out on a flat surface, and lay the sweater on top of it -- make sure it's the right shape (it's the right length, the sleeves are in the right positions, etc.), and then just let it lie there to dry.

I literally just this afternoon wrote a whole article about "how to wash your hand-knit scarf", so this was very much on my brain.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:48 PM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Check the contents of the pockets before you put your clothes in the wash.

A Klleenex or paper napkin left in a pocket will shred and leave tiny bits of fluff all over your laundry. It will take longer to pick them off than it would take to check the pockets.

A pen...don't even think about it.
posted by bad grammar at 3:49 PM on September 19, 2009

To follow up on bad grammar check the pockets for your phone, sunglasses, too.

Also look in the washing machine before you put anything in. There was a great askme some time ago about clothes coming out with scattered black (or blue) specks. They re-washed and there were double the specks. Turns out a pen nib was borken off and caught nib-sice-up in one of the drain holes and marked every item as the machine turned.
posted by philfromhavelock at 4:51 PM on September 19, 2009

I always wash underwear/socks and towels on hot (cold rinse) for sanitary reasons. I also use bleach on my (white) towels.

All other clothes go on a cold/cold gentle cycle. I turn most everything inside-out, but that may just be habit.

I have enough clothes to make up two full loads, so I usually split them out into darks/lights, but that's not really that necessary if you're washing in cold water. I also use a Shout Color Catcher sheet to soak up any dye floating around in the water.

I was raised using powder detergent and dryer sheets (over liquid). I now use liquid detergent (so much better), but still prefer dryer sheets over liquid fabric softener.

I also sometimes use oxiclean (for organic stains) and white vinegar (discoloration, odor, static, etc).

Typically I follow the clothing instructions on tumble vs line dry - even if I do grumble a bit. I love tumble dried everything, even as environmentally un-friendly as it is.
posted by clerestory at 5:14 PM on September 19, 2009

My grandfather was in the laundry business, he had a test laboratory, and he tested various brands of detergent. His findings were that the recommended quantities of detergent are about twice what they should be. Avoid the temptation to add more, thinking it will make your clothes cleaner. It will just leave them with a soapy residue.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:03 PM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing the recommendations for the Cheryl Mendelson books.
posted by box at 6:06 PM on September 19, 2009

Zout, packaged in an orange-red spray bottle and sold in supermarkets, is excellent at removing difficult spots, even grease, chocolate, red wine, ballpoint pen ink, and blood. But you may not need it most of the time. Instead, you can try liquid detergent directly on the stains, or mix powdered detergent with warm water and apply. Rubbing the pretreat product into the fabric can help.
posted by wryly at 6:09 PM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

A few things to add:

Always keep towels separate from other items in the laundry. Besides the friction issue mentioned upthread, they'll leave lint all over whatever you wash and dry with them and you will regret combining the loads.

You'll notice a lot of "high efficiency" detergents in the grocery. Don't use them unless you have the fancy front-loading type washing machine.

I've been cutting dryer sheets in half lately, and there's more than enough "stuff" in a half-sheet to take care of a full load. Come winter, though, a full sheet might be necessary to reduce static.

There have been several mentions of bleach: Chlorine bleach is only for cottons. Non-chlorine bleach, also called color-safe bleach (such as Chlorox II), can be used for other fabrics as long as they're light colored.

For really tough greasy stains, a very detergenty shampoo, like Prell, is a great pre-treatment. (I.e., rub a little bit of it on the stain before you throw it in the washer.)
posted by DrGail at 7:42 PM on September 19, 2009

A lot of good tips already, but here are a couple more.

If you get blood on something, always use cold. Hot water will set the stain. In fact, running the item under cold water in the sink before washing with an enzyme cleaner is probably the best bet.

If you have any clothes made out of the fabrics that are supposed to "wick away sweat", don't use fabric softener, as it can decrease this ability of the garment.
posted by weathergal at 9:32 PM on September 19, 2009

Wash almost everything inside out. Protects the outer surface from abrasion, keeps it looking newer longer
Hang dry as often as you can-- your clothes will last a lot longer.
Zip up the zippers. If your bras are not in a zip up bag, fasten the hook and eyes. Prevents snagging on other items.
Separate by weight, keep the Heavies away from the Floaties. Never dry jeans with other clothes, only with towels or other heavy stuff.
Use less detergent rather than more. I've completely stopped using liquid fabric softener. I probably won't buy more fabric softener sheets.
Dish soap applied directly on food and drink type stains, or body stains.
Amen check the pockets.
If you are not using public machines, soak your socks and underwear before running a wash cycle. I use the "prewash" or "second rinse" cycles to rinse out the dissolved crud.
posted by ohshenandoah at 9:40 PM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

target it immediately. Especially with blood stains and tomato stains. (Keep a spare shirt at work.) COLD water (never hot) and soap. Scrub. rinse. Scrub again. leave to soak, if it's a belligerent stain that won't come out easy. If you get to it before it dries you have a better chance. (Not that dry stains are impossible, just require more elbow grease and longer soakings.)
posted by titanium_geek at 12:16 AM on September 20, 2009

I never separate my darks from my lighter colors, and so far (7 years) I've never had a problem. I wash on warm/cold. I dry everything on medium setting, except for underwear and bras that I care about clothes that fit justright - if it's a shirt I stretch it out to a normal (not lumpy) shape and hang it to dry. Jeans also don't go in the dryer for me because I've had a few shrink a little, unless I need them to shrink back down because I stretched them out.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 3:47 AM on September 20, 2009

I'd like to third the recommendation for Mendelson's book, Home Comforts. I've been doing laundry for decades, and trying to do it right, and still learned a lot from this book -- and it's interesting to read, believe it or not. One thing I learned: Clothing manufacturers are only required to provide one washing instruction on the tags. So, for example, even if it says "dry clean only," that may not be the only way to wash it safely. The tag does, however, state the fiber content (cotton, linen, etc.), and that plus the weave of the fabric (knit, etc.) makes the difference in how it can be washed.

The book isn't just good in the laundry section, either. I never thought I'd like reading about the "domestic sciences" as it is just not my thing at all, but really it was enjoyable and informative. It's completely worth the price of the book.
posted by Houstonian at 4:42 AM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I sort laundry into three main color categories: black/dark gray/navy blue/forest green, plus likely-to-bleed-red; colorfast bright colors; and light gray/pastels/khaki/white. These loads all get washed on cold, as they tend to have a mix of colors thrown together within each range.

If I have a significant number of towels to wash, they get their own load, so they don't get fuzz on everything else; if I just have a few, they get thrown in with like colors, so any fuzz is less noticeable. An all-towel load, though, gets washed on warm or hot.

Anything cotton and new and brightly or darkly dyed (T-shirts and towels, usually) goes in with the dark load for the first few washes; I worry far less about this with synthetic fabrics like nylon and Spandex (e.g. brightly colored athletic shorts).

Anything with printing or a logo on it gets turned inside out. Otherwise the printing can get worn down in the washer and/or even outright melted in the dryer. I also find it useful to turn my little black T-shirts inside out in the washer, but right-side-out in the dryer, to wash off as much deodorant as possible, then avoid cementing what's left to the shirts' armpits.

Bras, esp. newer, nicer ones, get thrown into one of those little mesh zipper-close delicates bags, so their hooks don't get caught on things (they esp. seem to have an affinity for mesh athletic shorts) and so they don't get beaten to a pulp amid all the other clothes. Only the hardiest ones (sports bras) get thrown in the dryer; all others get hung up over the back of a kitchen chair for a day.

Always check your pockets before washing; picking Kleenex lint off of things, as someone mentioned above, is an incredible pain.

Also, if something gets stained, particularly if I'm at home and can just take off the item of clothing in question, I quickly run cold water over the area in the bathroom sink, then rub in liquid hand soap. I try to get as much as possible off the item, then, if it doesn't all come out, leave a little of the hand soap to dry into it. It usually completely comes out in the washer later.

After taking items out of the washer, before throwing 'em in the dryer, I give anything particularly badly crumpled a little shake to uncrease it; I find this helps keep printing, especially, from crumbling in the dryer, and helps keep my pants from developing big heat-pressed folds and creases. See this AskMe.

Also, I was raised to use powdered detergent, but found in college that it would often leave little clumps of undissolved powder on things. I now use ultraconcentrated liquid Purex, with no added coloring or fragrances. Contrary to what one respondent said above, I haven't had any problem using this in top-loading washers. I also recently started using Bounce Free dryer sheets—and I really don't miss the scent. These are much better for my sensitive skin.

Some things marked as "dry-clean only," especially synthetic-blend pants, can be thrown straight into the dryer without a second thought. Sometimes these items have shrunk or pilled slightly, but otherwise, it's been fine. Anything with a large percentage of wool or rayon, though, should be hung up or laid flat to dry—or sent to the dry-cleaner.

I dry everything that can/should be dried, though, on high. It helps kill any bacteria or fungus picked up in the washing machine, and generally doesn't shrink things if your loads are large enough. (My loads are usually what others might term a double load.)

Heh. And now you know everything about how I do laundry.
posted by limeonaire at 10:13 AM on September 20, 2009

As I mentioned upstream, I come from a laundry family. I'm not going to go all the refinements in my mother's laundry process, definitely TMI.

But here's a couple of things I've been trained to do: Assuming you are using your own washer, start the cycle with the washer lid open and no clothes in there. It will stop automatically when it's full of water. Add your liquid detergent to the water, close the lid for like a few seconds to agitate, then add all you clothes now that the detergent is blended into the water.

When the machine is in the part of the cycle where the clothes are soaking in soapy water, pull out the control dial or however else you stop the machine, and let the clothes sit in the water for an hour or two, then restart the cycle. On completion, manually set the dial to run a second spin dry cycle, your clothes won't need to be in the dryer as long.

If you are bleaching whites, use hot water. Bleach is way activated by heat.

If you aren't paying much for cold water, for that extra clean effect, run a second cold cycle with no detergent. This will get all the soap and bleach smells out.

Woolite has a product for blacks only. For those extra black blacks, use that, turn everything inside out, gentle cycle cold, hang dry.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:18 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh, for powdered soap, if you're doing the wash at home you should add the soap, then let the water run for a minute so that the soap dissolves, before adding your clothes. I've been doing alright at the laundromat with just throwing in the soap and then clothes and water, but the last laundromat I went to had instructions to put the soap on top of your clothes and I tended to have powder or weird marks on my clothes after that.
posted by Lady Li at 2:26 PM on September 21, 2009

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