Light, fast-drying, hand-washable travel clothes?
June 18, 2012 2:45 AM   Subscribe

Where can I get light clothing that can be hand-washed, dry quickly, and look like normal clothes?

I travel a fair bit, and I dislike packing a large bag for a three-week trip. What I was thinking of doing instead is buying some clothing that I can hand-wash that dries quickly, and only pack a few days worth of clothes. That way, I can pack a carry on. The trick is, the clothing has to look "normal" - casual street clothes, up to "business casual" (khakis, button-down shirts) suitable for scientific conferences (that no one dresses up for anyway, except grad students...).

What brands/lines of clothes should I look at? I've found that the style/functionality of clothes that Rohan makes is generally suitable, but I've been unhappy with the quality (specifically buttons loosely sewn on, and not looking great after a few washes). But that's the sort of functionality that I'm looking for.

Answers in the US, UK, and continental Europe are good. Any extra ideas along these lines from experienced travelers would be appreciated (what to do about the bulky clothes needed for cold whether, for instance).
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (23 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Do they have Tilley stores in the US or UK? They sell travel clothing like that, though I've never looked closely at it. Their hats are extremely well made.

I also like the Magellan's catalog (such near gear). They also sell things meant to be handwashed.
posted by jb at 2:52 AM on June 18, 2012

As to bulky clothes - you minimise them as much as possible. I find that I can normally be comfortable in my normal all year round clothes even in very cold weather if I layer several thin items appropriately. That means that a jumper/cardigan and a waterproof coat would probably get you through near freezing temperatures if you layer with some warm socks, thermal underwear, a t-shirt, a long sleeved shirt etc. Unless you are faced with extreme temperatures, very wet and or windy conditions - if you're looking at below freezing I'd add a warm, longish coat, preferably with a hood etc so you can minimise hats, scarfs and gloves for example. You can wear the coat, as opposed to packing it. And again layer your all year round clothing as required.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:55 AM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

posted by victory_laser at 3:09 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Clothing made for hiking/camping is often lightweight, packs well, and quick drying. Look for nylon blends such as these pants and shirts.
posted by drlith at 3:19 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Tog 24 carries some t-shirts that look like normal t-shirts but are good quality wicking quick-dry ones. They also have merino base layers that pass for normal clothing under a jacket.

Merrell carry quick-dry trousers and shirts that look reasonably "smart casual".

Icebreaker merino is the bees knees, they carry street wear but you may need to remortgage your house to afford any of it.

If you can get yourself to town in a well touristed national park, there should be a million shops selling this kind of stuff for you to go and try on.
posted by emilyw at 3:22 AM on June 18, 2012

I'm on a similar constant quest, but one thing I've figured out is that clothes don't need to be super-quick-drying so long as they can be worn multiple times without being stinky. Often this is a tradeoff: people love Tilley travel socks because they dry in an hour or two, but as someone who doesn't suffer from smelly feet... well, I suddenly do when I'm wearing them.

On Day 1, wear item A
On Day 2, wear item A
On Day 3, wear item B and wash item A
On Day 4, wear item B while item A dries
On Day 5, wear item A...

IMHO this is better than aiming to only pack item A. You'll still be travelling lighter than almost everyone else, who packs items C, D, E, F...

Icebreaker merino wool is fairly quick drying but amazing at not getting stinky.
posted by oliverburkeman at 3:28 AM on June 18, 2012

Scandinavian countries are good places to look for this sort of clothing - people have a tendency to dress relatively casually to work and they have to cope with a crazy temperature range. Last year I bought something like this jacket in Helsinki's Stockmann department store, for example. It is waterproof, windproof, breathable, compressible so as to fit into carry on baggage, well made and smart enough to wear on a commute to work as well as out in the countryside.
posted by rongorongo at 3:38 AM on June 18, 2012

Try Travelsmith. Don't know about their men's clothes but they have some good women's things that would fit your specifications, and they do have a lot of men's stuff as well.
posted by mermayd at 3:40 AM on June 18, 2012

Synthetic materials usually dry quickly. Look for polyester blends.

Hand wash in hotel room. Hang. If still slightly damp in morning, iron the garment.

Wear undershirt to preserve shirts.
posted by Fairchild at 4:03 AM on June 18, 2012

Seconding Travelsmith.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:04 AM on June 18, 2012

Seconding, oops, thirding, Travelsmith. Maybe throw in The Territory Ahead, too--provided you like their aesthetic better than I do.

And, more broadly, look at clothes aimed at travelers and outdoors types. Ex Officio might be one company to check out, but resellers like Sierra Trading Post, Campmor and REI will have plenty of others.
posted by box at 4:39 AM on June 18, 2012

You might also look at the expensive, but generally well-made and practical, travel clothes at Scottevest. Some of the quick-dry products at Duluth Trading Co. might also be useful, even though they're not explicitly designed for travel.
posted by maxim0512 at 4:53 AM on June 18, 2012

Seconding Sierra Trading Post for good deals. REI obviously, as well as your local outdoors store. Not sure if you're a man or woman, but here's an example of what the men's shirts look like:

I've been pleased with Kuhl brand clothes for things that I will wear in town.
posted by SpicyMustard at 5:13 AM on June 18, 2012

I have a number of Columbia long sleeve collar shirts that are very quick drying, look decent, and are not too problematic in getting too smelly with repeated wearings. I can also vouch for Icebreaker products. Fantastic quality, but you pay for every bit of it.
posted by jamincan at 5:20 AM on June 18, 2012

I like the travel line from Norm Thompson. I randomly ended up with one of the dresses and it really is the most wrinkle proof thing I own.
posted by anaelith at 5:37 AM on June 18, 2012

ExOfficio makes quick drying clothing. I imagine most outdoor stores would carry them.
posted by backwards guitar at 6:54 AM on June 18, 2012

In a couple weeks of business travel, you won't need to wash Icebreaker, Smartwool, Ibex or other merino shirts unless you've spilled on them or run a marathon. If you do need to, they will dry over night and easily handwash with the shampoo in your hotel room. Wet the shirt, fill the basin with soapy cool water, agitate the shirt briefly, roll it in a towel to squeeze out excess moisture, drape over the tub.

The lighter weights of wool are perfectly fine in all weather (I biked to work this morning in 75 degree very humid weather in merino without getting sweaty) and the heavier weights for colder temperatures are not bulky at all. I have a very slim, packable hoodie from Icebreaker that I ski in without being cold. Merino packs really well--I can fit a week's worth of skirts, dresses, and shirts in a 22 inch carry-on bag with room for the rest of my (noncomputer) stuff. If it looks rumpled when you unpack it, hang it up and the wrinkles will fall out by morning. It's more expensive than some things, but it lasts forever and is easy to care for. I also find it looks more like "real" clothes than a lot of the technical fabrics you find in travel clothing, although I've had some success with Kuhl products in terms of longevity and presentability.

Nau (although their quality and styling are not as impressive as they used to be) and Outlier have good, packable, quick-drying (or good without washing for a week) normal-looking clothes. You can sometimes find Nau on sale in sporting good stores (like Moosejaw, Sierra Trading Post, and REI), but not Outlier.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:03 AM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've kind of gone off travel clothes. I never think they look right. And I find that my regular at-home business casual staples dry really fast - polyester trousers from Express, and cotton-poly blend button-downs are my work-day uniform, and they pack just fine and will dry overnight if I roll them in a towel to get the extra water out (you know to do that, right?). If you usually use a clothes drier, try hanging your clothes out and see how fast they dry on their own; you might be surprised.

I'd also say wear knit tops as much as you can, since in general, knits layer better than wovens. And layers are best for handwashing because then instead of one bulky item that takes forever to dry, you have three lightweight items that dry quickly. Also, I find knits don't wrinkle as badly, or at least the wrinkles are easier to shake out. Stuff from Icebreaker and Smartwool is great, but part of the appeal of Smartwool is that it's machine washable - if you're going to be handwashing anyway, you can get a lightweight wool or cashmere sweater from any number of places (including the thrift store). I also buy a lot of knits for layers from Marshalls/TJ Maxx - just avoid cotton and rayon since they take forever to dry.

A specific kind of layer: undershirts/tank tops/camisoles/vests. They let you go longer before washing the outer layer, and they pack down very small. I'll bring about as many camisoles/tank tops as I do pairs of underpants, and they don't take up much more room than underpants.

Skirts are also great. I'm not sure if you're a skirt wearer or would be willing to become a skirt wearer, and indeed you may be a man, in which case becoming a skirt wearer is problematic. But a skirt and a couple of pairs of tights if it's cold out 1) packs down way smaller than trousers and 2) doesn't get all... crotchy... the way trousers do, so you can wear it more days in a row. (The tights get crotchy but you can very easily rinse those out in the sink, wring them in the hand towel, and they'll be dry within hours.) I have a lightweight linen skirt (from H&M of all places) that I wear all summer and have taken on every summer trip that I've gone on in the last five years. It dries mysteriously quickly, I suppose because it is thin.

Oh, and: dark colors. Light colors start to look dingy faster.
posted by mskyle at 7:15 AM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't have any brands to recommend because all of my favorite travel clothing is not officially travel clothing. But here are some clothes packing tips anyway:

1. For cold weather koahiatamadl is absolutely right. Layers are the way to go. I can go to almost any weather with 1 undershirt + 1 long sleeve tee + 1 lightweight fleece (mine is a pullover from target) + 1 lightweight waterproof jacket That sounds like a lot, but it all rolls up small. If it's really cold, I'll add long underwear. Add scarf, hat and gloves as needed. Though if I'm traveling from a cold climate to a cold climate, I'll just wear a winter jacket.

2. I'm not sure if you're trying to get down to a normal carry on size or if you're trying to go super minimalist. I can get 6-7 outfits in a normal carry on, mostly by cutting down on things like the size of my shoes, going light on toiletries, etc. If you can do that, you can get away with more normal clothes.

3. If you are a girl, dresses, skirts, and tights are wonderful. Unless it's really cold, I only ever bring one pair of pants which I wear on the plane.
posted by oryelle at 9:04 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers.

I'm not sure if you're a skirt wearer or would be willing to become a skirt wearer, and indeed you may be a man, in which case becoming a skirt wearer is problematic.

I am indeed a man, but my wife will also be interested in these answers.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 10:26 AM on June 18, 2012

Any extra ideas along these lines from experienced travelers would be appreciated (what to do about the bulky clothes needed for cold whether, for instance)

I usually wear my biggest coat and boots on the flight so that I don't have to pack them in my luggage. If I have a hat, I wear it too.
posted by rhythm and booze at 2:28 PM on June 18, 2012

When I travel, I just do laundry. Your hotel may offer drop-off service or at least coin machines, or can recommend a nearby laundromat. I find I am not happy with the results of my sink-washing attempts when I need to look put together. (Backpacking expeditions, sure, but not a confereence.)
posted by elizeh at 8:11 PM on June 18, 2012

Sort of from left field, but I got this Silky Floral Jacket from Forever 21, and it looks amazing just pulled out of the washing machine. Dries on a hook wrinkle free. Says 100% polyester. I will definitely bring it along for travels.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 2:23 AM on June 19, 2012

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