Help me play by no laundry rules but my own...
September 24, 2007 5:57 PM   Subscribe

Laundry Filter: often when shopping for clothes the dealbreaker is something about the washing instructions such as dryclean only, hand wash, lay flat to dry, etc. But I know that sometimes these recommendations can be ignored. The question is, how do I know when?

Ideally I like to be able to wash clothes and dry them in the dryer without a huge production. For a sweater for example, taking it to the drycleaner is out of the question. I will lay it to dry if it is a wool sweater, but I was just looking at a cotton sweater that said lay to dry and I didn't buy it because I figured I could just look for a similar sweater that didnt have that requirement. But if I knew what I could expect to happen if I bend the laundry rules in certain situations I may not have to spend so long trying to find a dang sweater!
posted by dino terror to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (9 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Care recommendations were developed to simplify consumer issues with garment care. Once you're not paying attention to them, you're essentially running your own care and use tests, on a one-by-one basis, without specific knowledge of dyes used, or even of much more than basic fibers used. And that may not lead to good results.

Rayon, for example, comes in many, many forms in garments. Texturized, treated rayon fiber behaves very differently than simple soft spun rayon. You can wash and machine dry texturized rayon, but you can watch soft spun rayon dissolve permanently in warm wash water in about 10 minutes. So, you'd want to get out your microscope and check any rayon fibers in a garment, before just deciding to ignore the dry clean instruction.

Even good old "natural" fibers like cotton and wool vary tremendously in how they will hold up in different cleaning, simply because of the length of the fibers in a particular grade of yarn from which the fabric is made. Long staple cotton, tightly woven, and mercerized, can be washed and bleached to your hearts content, without much effect on overall life or appearance. Put short fibered cotton threads, that are spun for knitting, not weaving, and therefore unmercerized, through the same wash process, and the garments from which they are made will come apart in your hand in 4 or 5 washings.

So, if you don't play by the care label instructions, you're kind of doomed to making it up on your own, as you go. Cold water, as much as possible, I guess. Shape and block knits by hand, and blot dry and air dry, as much as possible. Avoid purchasing garments with rayon, acetate, and silk fibers, altogether. Avoid polyester/wool blend fabrics in garments you won't want to dry clean. Pay attention to "permanent press," "water resistant," and "soil release" markings, as these properties are typically conferred by coatings applied to the garment fibers that can be easily damaged or completely removed by incorrect cleaning methods.

Lotsa luck, otherwise, brave dino...
posted by paulsc at 6:36 PM on September 24, 2007

One strategy is to only buy cheap/secondhand clothes. Then, if you ruin it on the first wash, you're not out much.

Lots of factors are involved in what happens to garments when you wash them, not just fiber content but also weave structure, dyes, finishes, buttons, etc. Not all of these are noted on the label. This makes the whole thing harder. There's a certain amount of trial and error involved, and you have to decide what risks you're willing to take on a case-by-case basis. That said, a surprising number of things can be washed on a delicate setting and dried on low heat without hurting them.

Wool sweaters will usually felt and shrink with exposure to heat and water. Sometimes they can be machine washed and dried in low heat, but to be on the safe side, it's usually a good idea to lay them flat.

Cotton sweaters will also usually shrink in heat and water, and laying flat is a good idea, especially for fine or loosely-knit garments, but many of them will be fine in low heat.

I often handwash silk garments, but they usually change texture slightly after I do. It's worth it to me not to deal with dry cleaning them.

Woven items will not usually shrink much. Woven wools can still felt, though.

Dyes are another risk. You don't want your red shirt bleeding all over everything else in the load. Anything you're suspicious of, handwash separately first and check how much the dye bleeds into the water. Sometimes all the excess dye bleeds out of a garment after a few washes, and other garments will stain their companions forever.

Unusual buttons might not be able to withstand high heat, so be careful of them.

Unfortunately, because of all the variables, it's hard to know for certain how a garment will respond to washing. But you can make a semi-educated evaluation of what damage is likely versus how much you're willing to risk it for a particular garment.

On preview, what paulsc said.
posted by doift at 6:55 PM on September 24, 2007

Most knits that say "lay flat to dry" do so because hanging to dry will stretch them out, and tumble drying will cause them to pill, or distort the knit (this happens even with some cotton knit t-shirts). Knits are designed to stretch by the way the fabric is created, but they can easly stretch out of shape by being tossed around in a dryer. Cotton knits that are woven of pre-shrunk threads may be washable without shrinking, but the clothing label is truly the best indicator of that. I might hand wash something that says "dry clean" if it's anything but rayon, but I don't mess around with drying things that say "lay flat to dry" in the dryer.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:24 PM on September 24, 2007

I am something of a laundry rebel, myself. This is what I have discovered:

Most things that claim to be dry-clean only will do fine if washed on cold and not dried in the machine. It seems to me that it's the dryer that does most of the damage, with hot water running a close second. And really, you want to minimize the number of times you launder a difficult garment to begin with.

In general, I find that garment labels operate on a kind of upsell philosophy: "This shirt will be fine in the worst case scenario of being treated this way", etc. So if it says "dry-clean only" (unless it's a structured garment like a suit jacket, of course, which has strange interlinings that will get all lumpy, ask me how I know) it will probably do fine if washed in cold water on the gentle cycle and laid flat to dry. If it says "hand-wash", I'll do the same. If it's a garment that won't stretch (ie, isn't a sweater) I might hang it up to drip-dry.

I would not be such a scofflaw with very expensive garments, or garments I was deeply attached to. But otherwise, I figure I'll give it a shot, what's the worst that can happen? (The worst that can happen is that you destroy the garment, obviously. So if that would be a disaster, don't do it.)

Things to be careful with: garments with sequins or tons of embroidery or other embellishment (if the base fabric is something that can be washed, I'd wash it very carefully by hand), wool sweaters (some will felt even in cold water), certain drapey rayon knits (which I no longer buy as they don't stand up to my rogue laundry methodology), open-weave fabrics. Silks.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 7:57 PM on September 24, 2007

I tend to follow thehmsbeagle's strategy, with the addition that I buy most of my clothes second-hand, and of course, run everything through the wash (on cold) before I wear it. I put almost everything right into the dryer too, omitting only a few things that seem like they might come to harm. I've ruined very few items of clothing over the years, and all of them before I had time to get attached to them.
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:39 PM on September 24, 2007

Just a word of caution about washing wool in the machine: the friction involved in machine washing may felt your wool sweaters if they are delicate. It's best not to rub wool fibres together at all when washing--hence, handwashing is recommended.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:30 AM on September 25, 2007

I have washed a number of things which are dry clean only, on a cold, gentle cycle, followed by air drying.

Funny how people ignore everything else `don't speed, it'll kill you` `don't smoke, you'll get cancer' but `dry clean only' is the one thing that seems to really get people's attention.

Anyway, I have a long coat that I used to dry clean every year or so. One year I thought `what if...?' and washed it. It was just fine, but I was ready to accept that it could have come out misshapen or blotchy. I guess in short, don't try it on anything you value.
posted by tomble at 3:40 AM on September 25, 2007

Thank you all for your good answers, I think I have a better picture now about laundry street smarts...
posted by dino terror at 7:27 AM on September 25, 2007

I wash nearly all my clothes (no matter what the label says) on gentle cold with liquid detergent, then hang or lay to dry. Only my cottons go into the dryer. If there are delicate embellishments, I only wash when I absolutely need to, and then I turn the garment inside-out and wash it in a lingerie bag.

The only items I will dry clean are formal wear (like a crepe dress), suit jackets, and winter coats. Oh, and suede/leather, but I don't think that needs to be mentioned!
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 7:37 AM on September 25, 2007

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