Coming clean: 5 laundry secrets you need to know.

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Here’s how I used to do laundry: pile all my clothes into the washing machine, dump in some soap and hope for the best.

This system served me well throughout my late teens, but as I began to accumulate more sophisticated pieces (silk blouses, vintage dresses, handmade garments), I started to run into problems. My silks were shrinking, the collars of my vintage dresses were flipping inside out and the sturdy seams on my handmade garments were coming loose.

But my wakeup call didn’t happen until I carelessly dumped a vintage wool jacket I had inherited from my mother into the dryer and as you can imagine, It felted and shrunk to a size perfect for a large doll. As I mourned the loss of my wool jacket, I realized that if I wanted my clothes to last, I would need to become more intentional with how I took care of them.

Additionally, when you extend the life of a garment by just nine additional months, you can reduce carbon, water and waste footprints by around 20-30% per each garment. (WRAP UK)

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1. Hand Wash / Air Dry Basics

Hand-washing and air-drying your clothing is hands down the best way to keep them in good shape. It’s gentler on your clothes than any other method, and all you need is a sink and a small rack.

  1. Fill up a sink or basin with cool/cold water.
  2. As your sink fills up, add a tablespoon or so of fabric detergent. I recommend using a detergent that is free of optical brighteners, chlorine, phosphates and artificial fragrance. If you’re washing silk or wool, make sure you avoid detergents with protease, which will break down the protein fibers of those materials.

  3. Once the sink is filled up, add your garment and thoroughly swish it around. Depending on how dirty it is, you can leave it in the sink for up to 30 minutes, swishing it around every so often.

  4. Drain the sink, and refill it with cool/cold water. If the item you're washing is delicate, make sure you aren't shooting water directly on the garment as you're filling up.

  5. Swish the garment around, and drain the sink again. Feel free to rinse again if your item is extra dirty or still soapy.

  6. Gently squeeze your garment. You want to remove as much water as you can at this point without wringing or twisting. The item should still be dripping wet, but not waterlogged.

  7. Lay your garment flat on a towel. Roll the towel and the garment up into a roll, gently squeezing as you go.

  8. Unroll the towel and lay them out to dry. Items, like sweaters, where maintaining a certain shape is important should be dried flat on a towel, while less-delicate items can be hung on a clothesline or rack.

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2. Machine Wash / Machine Dry Basics

Even though washing by hand is the best way to care for your clothes, it’s hard to resist the ease and time-saving qualities of the washing machine. The key to successfully washing and drying your clothes in a machine is to know what should and shouldn’t be washed by machine and to know how to properly use your machine.

First, let’s go over what you can wash with a machine: socks, everyday undergarments, jeans (turned inside out), t-shirts, casual cotton button-ups, athletic apparel etc.

Side Note: There is a lot of debate and opinions on how to wash denim (or if you even should). You will find that there are several loyal camps: The never-washers, the once-a-monthers, the wash-when-they're-visibly-dirtiers and the list goes on. I'm personally in the, “wear 5-10ish times then machine wash inside-out and line dry” camp.

What you (probably) shouldn’t wash with a machine: wool sweaters (even the slightest agitation from the machine can cause them to felt!), bras and nice lingerie, pieces with nice embroidery, lace or beading, any nice silk blouses/dresses, lined skirts and dresses, vintage pieces that don’t have a fiber content tag and anything handmade.

  1. Use cold water! This is not only better for the environment, but it's better for your clothes.

  2. For anything slightly fragile, use the delicates function and put your garment in a mesh delicates bag before dropping it in the machine.

  3. Don't over or under-stuff your machine, and use appropriate soap.

  4. Dry your clothing on the lowest heat setting available in your dryer. The higher the heat you use, the worse of a beating you're giving your clothes. Low to no heat is ideal. (Again, I would argue that machine-drying does the most damage to clothing not to mention the negative environmental impact, so if you can, choose to air dry). Also, never put wool or silk in the dryer, unless the tag explicitly says you can.

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3. How Often Should You Wash?

A lot of clothing falls apart sooner than it should due to overwashing. I’m of course not saying you should stop washing your clothes, but most people wash their clothes more often than they need to.

How often you should be washing your clothes depends on the type of clothing as well as how vigorous your day-to-day lifestyle is (in addition to your personal cleanliness preferences, of course!).

My recommendation: Wash your clothes when they feel, smell or look gross. This may be after one wear if you're super active, or it may be after five wears if you lead a pretty sedentary lifestyle.

4. Clothing Touchups and Maintenance

Sometimes you might have a garment that didn’t get overly dirty after a wear or two, but could use a quick touch-up before it’s worn again. A great way to freshen up the garment without throwing it in the wash is to spray the questionable areas with a fabric spray. Many detergent manufacturers sell this sort of thing, but you can also make your own germ-killing fabric spray using a few household ingredients:

  • 2 ounces distilled water
  • 2 ounces vodka (any kind will do)
  • 10 drops of the essential oils of your choice (optional)
  • Shake the mixture up in a 4-ounce spray bottle and spray away!

Side Note: I’ve used this concoction on cotton, silk, linen and wool with no problem, but if you feel hesitant, try a spot-test in an inconspicuous location before going to town.

Another way to freshen up a garment in between washes is to iron or freeze it. Irons produce a lot of heat, and heat kills germs as does the extremely cold temp of the freezer. A quick steam of a garment will not only de-wrinkle your garment but also freshen it up. And if you choose to freeze your garment, simply put it in a freezer-safe bag or container and leave it in overnight. Once thawed, it’ll be noticeably fresher.

5. To Dry Clean or Not To Dry Clean

Dry cleaning is, of course, always an option, but it’s one I don’t recommend due to its not-so-earth-friendly credentials.

According to the EPA, most dry cleaners use a chemical known as perchloroethylene (also known as perc) which is an air pollutant and a likely carcinogen.

There are “green” dry cleaners out there that can professionally clean your clothes without the chemicals, so if you can, look for a place that touts their eco-credentials, terms themselves as a “wet cleaner” or explicitly mentions that they don’t use perc. Unfortunately, most of these eco-focused cleaners are only found in bigger cities. So, for those who don’t live close to one, I have a secret for you—

Most “Dry Clean Only” garments are actually hand-washable!

I can’t guarantee this is true for everything, but I wash all my “Dry Clean Only” silks and sweaters by hand (with extra care) with no issue.

You will notice that most “Dry Clean Only” garments that you can’t hand wash, such as wool winter coats, rarely need to be washed if at all. Most stains on the outside and sweat buildup on the inside of coats and jackets can be spot cleaned.

There you have it!

Now that you are equipped with the basics of proper garment care, all you need is a little bit of patience to extend the life of everything in your closet. Here’s to a future full of fewer shrunken sweaters, loose seams and hole-filled shirts!


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Emily DeLong is a self-professed textile nerd and sewing obsessive. She is the founder and designer of Margu, a sustainable womenswear label based out of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Follow her journey @margudesign