Tip #1: Read the Labels

The little mess of words and symbols tells you pretty much what you can and can’t do. There are some subtleties worth unpacking — “Dry Clean Only” means just that, for example, while clothes that are simply tagged “Dry Clean” can generally be hand-washed as well.

But in general, if the tag expressly forbids something, don’t do it — a big “X” through the little laundry machine graphic means keep it out of anything with a spin cycle, regardless of temperature. “Air dry only” means letting the garment sit in the air, not tumbling it on the “cool” setting, and so forth.

Follow the directions — especially the ones that tell you what not to do — and you’ll already have made delicate garment care a dozen times easier.


Tip #2: Learn to Hand Wash

Some delicate fabrics do just fine on the “delicate” cycle in the washer. Most, however, do best when they’re hand-washed.

Good hand washing is a simple but important skill. The basic principle goes like this:

  • You fill a large basin, tub, or sink with lukewarm water
  • You stir in a mild detergent (not a “detergent soap” — use plain detergent, otherwise some garments will get soap stains)
  • You gently submerge your garments and then swish them slowly from side to side for about five minutes.

Don’t scrub while you’re doing this, even at stains, and don’t cram too much in at once. There should be plenty of water sluicing around and through the fabric. Change the water every few loads, especially if you’re treating badly soiled clothes. You don’t want to be washing your last couple loads in dirty water.

Tip #3: Treat Stains Immediately

Never let a stain sit. Quick pre-treatment can make the difference between a short, effective hand-wash later and a permanent stain.

As soon as possible, wet stains with plain water. Organic stains made from animal protiens (blood, fat, etc.) can “cook” to permanence if you use hot water, so keep it lukewarm or cold for those. Inorganic stains like dirt and synthetic oils can be treated with warm or hot water.

Dab the water onto the stained cloth from behind the stain, and set it face down on a paper towel or other neutral, absorbent cloth — that way the staining substance is leeching naturally off the surface of your garment, rather than soaking deeper into it.

Tip #4: Soaking Never Hurts

If you’ve got something that’s stained, rather than just dirty, soaking it never hurts.

By “soaking” we mean immersing the whole item in water and letting it sit for a while. A couple of hours to a whole day in room-temperature water will give whatever is staining the cloth plenty of time to weaken and break apart, making later treatments quicker and easier.

Be sure the whole garment is submerged. Some delicate fabrics will swell when wet, and you want the fibers to change size evenly, so that they don’t warp out of place. As long as the whole garment is wet and then dried at the same rate, you should be fine.

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