How to Launder Tricky Items

How to clean delicate clothes
The lovely Bekster popped this request into a comment:

I’d be interested to see some tips for how to launder trickier wardrobe items. What might make it easier to keep clothes looking nice and fresh at home, and when is it time just to take something to the cleaners?

I hate dry cleaning. I mean, doesn’t everyone? Talk about an expensive hassle that ruins the environment. BAH! So I’ve got a few tricks in my bag to help me avoid Martinizing my garments as long as possible.

  1. Hand-washing: Check your tags, people. And if you’re willing to risk it, remember this – most natural fibers do not need to be dry cleaned. They may last longer and look better dry cleaned, but strictly speaking? Not necessary. Silk, linen, wool, cotton, and rayon can all be hand washed in very cold water and a mild detergent, then line-dried or laid flat to dry.*
  2. The Toothbrush Method: If you’re like me, your garments really only get stinky in the pits. Add a drop of detergent to a cup of cold water, then try a little scrubbing with an old toothbrush. It’ll take out old crusted-on deodorant and alleviate pit-stink.
  3. Febreze: I find this product to have limited use, but it can do in a pinch. For sweaters and blazers that only have a little bit of odor, I turn them inside-out, hang them up, spritz a few times, and let the Febreeze sink in for several hours.
  4. Dryel: Again, this stuff is not foolproof and truly works best on sweaters. But since most of my potential dry cleaning IS sweaters, I do invest in a box every few months.
  5. Layering: In winter, I put a short-sleeved cotton tee under my sleeveless dresses. Then I layer my blazer or cardi on top and no one even knows that tee is there. BUT! When I strip down at night? The tee goes in the wash, and the dress goes back in the closet, smell-free. Some creative layering with washables can save you loads in cleaning costs.

As for cleanliness guidelines, those are super personal. As you have probably gathered, I consider something dirty when it smells bad and am a big believer in The Sniff Test. Of course, stained or soiled garments are dirty, too, but that goes without saying.

I generally only launder something if it is smelly, super-rumpled, or has been worn several times without being cleaned. Kasmira did a great post on clothes and cleanliness, and I pretty much follow her guidelines. But, again, to each her own. Some are really ooked out by germs and or have other cleanliness concerns. But my impression is that laundering something over and over wears it out faster than wearing it “dirty,” so I’m inclined to launder as a last resort.

*DISCLAIMER! Just reemphasizing that this is “at your own risk.” In theory, natural fibers should be just fine. But I really only recommend shirking garment care instructions on old, thrifted, or unimportant garments. Things do go awry, and I don’t want you cursing my name if they do …

Image courtesy Will Hastings

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details. Sustainable options are either used, handmade, made in the U.S., artisan made in non-sweatshop conditions, or made using sustainable/fair trade practices.

Originally posted 2010-01-12 06:42:00.

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47 Responses to “How to Launder Tricky Items”

  1. Anonymous

    Great tips!

    One thing I wouldn't wash is anything lined or very tailored, like a jacket. My grandmother did with a wash called Euclan, but I'd be terrified I'd ruin the garment.

    One thing I've heard is that Woolite is bad for washables and that one should use things like Forever New. Has anyone else heard this? Apparently Woolite is too harsh, though compared to dry cleaning I would doubt it is.



  2. La Historiadora de Moda

    I do tend to wear things like dresses, skirts, and jeans 3-6 times before I'll launder them unless it's a really stinky day for some reason or I have some sort of mishap and get splashed by muddy water or spill coffee on myself. I wash shirts and tights more often – every wear or every other wear. I am also a fan of Febreeze, and I have in the past used some of the home dry cleaning kits, like Dryel.

  3. Couture Allure Vintage Fashion

    Your tip about wearing a tee is a good one, and it works! There are also nifty little things called dress shields. You can buy disposable ones with adhesive backings, or you can buy shields that you pin into your garment and then remove to wash between wearings.

  4. Anne

    Love this blog! Haha, the sniff test. Too funny.

    I do the wrinkle test. I'll put on a pair of pants and stand a certain distance away from the mirror. If I can see the wrinkles from there, off they come.

    If not, then I'm out the door. 🙂

  5. All Women Stalker

    Oh great tips! I am a big believer of The Sniff Test, too. Unfortunately, living in a tropical country requires one-time use of garments.

  6. K.Line

    I'm a layer-er for sure. And I have used Dryel – on sweaters – but it kind of freaked me out (even though it worked). Hate Febreze – the smell is nauseating to me.

  7. Christina Lee

    fantastic tips– I do pretty much the same as you! My hubby has to launder his shirts and jeans after every time he wears them and it drives me BATTY!! 😀

  8. Sal

    Christine: Ooooh, really? My gosh, they promote themselves as THE product for washing delicates! I'll have to look into Forever New, too.

  9. spacegeek

    The dress shields–

    Work great and help with this problem. I've bought these items repeatedly.

  10. Rebecca

    I think your approach is very common "sensical! ("I've heard that about Woolite, too….maybe instigated by a competitor????) Mostly I just use cold water with a detergent that is compatible with cold water wash and things come out fine.

  11. overcaffeinated

    Since I WAH, my wardrobe is pretty casual. Most of my "dry clean only" garments are sweaters. I hate paying for dry cleaning unless absolutely necessary, so I put most of my sweaters in the washing machine. I wait until it needs a wash (stinky or dirty) and turn them inside out in the washing machine on the hand wash cycle with a teeny bit of regular detergent. Then I lay flat to dry. So far, I haven't had any problems and my sweaters still look great.

  12. TexNYQueen

    I recently bought Refresh'n Dryer Towel as a natural option to Dryel. I like it because it works and it's resuable. Also, a believer in the Sniff Test.

  13. Emm

    Like you I go by smell or visible dirt to decide when to wash an item, and find, unsurprisingly, shirts get washed the most. I love the base layer tee trick and have use this in cooler weather.

    I avoid the dry cleaner and am an intrepid hand washer and will wash almost anything (and I mean hand wash, not delicate cycle on the machine). I've had no problems with wool and silk, and somewhere I picked up the trick of using baby shampoo to wash. Gets things clean and works, so I've stuck with that. I learned the hard way to test a tiny bit of colored fabric first to make sure it doesn't run.

    Mainly, I try not to buy anything that truly needs dry cleaning. It just occurred to me that I went to the cleaners only once in 2009. My husband, however, wears suits to work and he's on a first name basis with the employees at the local cleaners. So I guess our impact on the environment is a draw.

  14. angie

    Carrying a "Tide- to- go" stick in your handbag helps, especially when you're wearing white jeans.

  15. WendyB

    I'm way too scared to disobey a dry cleaning tag. But I don't clean things that often 😉

  16. Linda

    I confess to being a rather infrequent launderer and even more infrequent dry-cleaner. Not a very sweaty gal unless it's hot and humid.

    One day last winter my downstairs neighbor called me and played the "bumbling bachelor" card to ask whether I thought it would work to wash a sweater in shampoo, since he'd be damned if he was going back out in the snow for Woolite. I endorsed this invention and he called back to say it worked great. So give it a try!

  17. Sheila

    I actually use watered down shampoo (the stuff that's always left in the bottom of the bottle that you can't get out) to wash my hose and cashmere/silk/wool items. My thinking is that these are natural fibres (i.e. like hair) and so weak shampoo won't hurt them. It works beautifully and doesn't leave any coating on the fabrics.

  18. Trinity

    As a knitter and someone with sensitive skin, I am a big fan of Kookaburra wash for handwashing.
    The Delicate version includes tea tree oil and lavender, which are both natural moth repellents. Bonus!

  19. Kaija

    Great tips…thank you! I also believe in the Sniff Test and that wearing a piece of clothing multiple times before cleaning is practical and easier on your clothes and resources. I also use the washable undergarment trick (tank tops, etc.) and that helps immensely. I also find that when I live in a place without a washer/dryer, I am much more picky about deeming something "dirty" because it increases the trips to the laundromat, but when I have easy access to laundry services, I get lazy and wash more often.

  20. LPC

    Sal, The Queen of Cashmere advised me that Woolite leaches color, particularly from cashmere, and to throw mine away…

  21. Eliza

    I dry clean twice a year, and hand wash certain things in between. I also take problems to my grandmother occaisionally. She collects and works with antique linens,so she can get impossible stains out useing very gentle methods.
    My brother likes breaking in unwashed jeans, so he does all sorts of things like wearing them in the bath and turning them inside out to preserve the indigo dye.

  22. rb

    I have also heard that Woolite is too harsh. I use Palmolive for true handwashing (in the sink or in a bowl) and my regular detergent (whatever is dye-free fragrance-free and on sale) for anything hardy enough to go in the machine, even on delicate cycle.

    I almost always wear a knit shirt under whatever I have on, so I only spot clean my outer layers and throw the knit shirt in the laundry. On the bottom half I'm wearing tights or spanx, depending on the season, so skirts stay clean enough too. I am sure it helps that I am not much of a perspirer.

    I probably only visit the dry cleaner 4 to 6 times a year, and almost everything I wear to work other than underlayers is dry clean only.

  23. Patti

    I agree with Sheila and Linda – shampoo is perfect for wool! Last year, I bought a wool sweater for my dog, and the saleswoman recommended machine-washing it and MY sweaters, too, with mild shampoo instead of detergent. It leaves even delicate cashmere sweaters super soft and smelling wonderful. (My skin reacts to Woolite, especially the new dark version).

  24. What Would a Nerd Wear

    ohh these are definitely good tips. i am all about washing things in the sink and laying them flat to dry–going to the dry cleaners is too big a hassle!!
    and i'm probably way more lax than most people about cleaning outer garments–winter sweaters i very rarely wash (except the machine washable ones) and jeans i wear probably ten times before i wash them (eek! my secret is out!)

  25. futurelint

    Here's my little tip – When I find something at a thrift store that is dry clean only and smells musty or old but is clean, I hang it in the sun outside. UV rays kill bacteria! An hour or two is good, you don't want the sun to bleach the colors too!

  26. Anonymous

    Dryel works great for pleated skirts, at least for me — a trip around the dryer and using a press cloth to re-form pleats has saved me a lot of money. I try not to wash things too often, but I do find that I like to clean skirts/pants after 2 or 3 wearings. Even with a good press, they seem to get limp.

    I preserve a lot of the things I wash in the machine by a cold water wash and then hanging to dry. I think the dryer really destroys certain kinds of fabric, particularly cottons. I have not had any problems with Woolite but I rarely handwash anyway.

    If you are stinky, check your deodorant brand. Some of them exacerbate the smell, which can be caused by a chemical reaction between the perfume and your sweat.

  27. Juno

    Euclan or SOAK are really great for hand washables, particularly woolens and I find them to smell a lot better than woolite. And instead of Fabreeze (which I HATE the scent of) I fill a spray bottle with 50 cheap ass vodka and 50 water and spritz (not soak) sweaters, coats, the inside of shoes, anything that is hard to wash and gets a bit smelly ( I stayed overnight at a smoker's house recently and this got the stink out of my sweater, coat, scarf). Hanging things out doors in a protected area is great too – a week can make a huge difference.

    I also hang dry everything I can, the dryer is NOT the friend of clothing longevity.

  28. Kasmira

    I love the idea of wearing a washable tee under your workwear to absorb any body odor!

    Airing clothes works wonders. Even the scent of cat pee (don't ask) will eventually fade if you hang the garment in an area with good air circulation.

    I didn't mention this in my blog, but soaking my body in a chlorinated pool three times a week does an incredible job at keeping my body (and thus my clothing) stink-free. I'm totally sterile.

  29. Anonymous

    I am lucky in that I do not smell ever….I don't wear deoderant. Isn't that weird? But seriously…I don't have body odor – I've even asked my BF to smell me and he never can 🙂 hehe!So needless to say I rarely wash my clothes…I have a pair of jeans I've never washed and I wear them once per month. 😛

  30. lisa

    I think it's a judgement call on a lot of my things. Expensive garments that say "dry clean only," tailored wool coats and jackets, and dresses always get drycleaned because I'm too scared to ruin them. However, I bought a drapey cardigan from Anthropologie made of a rayon-spandex blend that said dry clean only and decided to soak it in a sink of cold water with Soak wash instead. It worked like a charm. All of my wool sweaters get handwashed in cold water too.

  31. A-C


    I went and got a bra fitting and bought 3 *very* expensive bras last September. I asked the bra fitter how to wash the bras and she told me that Woolite kills the lycra in bras. So if you have expensive bras you don't want to kill by accident, stick to hand washing those with another detergent and laying flat to dry.

    Now that the public announcement is over, I do the same thing. I'll wear it until it looks icky or smells or is actually dirty. Because I hate doing laundry, it works out great. An alternative to Febreze is the Downy wrinkle-release. That smells softer than febreze and has the added bonus of eliminating wrinkles.

  32. Natalie

    I've been trying to convince my husband for years that he doesn't need to wash his sweaters after every use! He ALWAYS wears a t-shirt underneath them, so unless he spills something down the front, or sweats through them, there's no need to wash them. I know they'd last a lot longer and look better if he'd listen to me. (And sometimes, when he isn't looking I dig them out of the laundry hamper and put them right back in his drawer!) He also thinks I'm crazy for wearing jeans more than once.

  33. Jess/Daytime Night Owl

    I hardly ever wash anything. I'm a sniff tester too. I recently spent a day during my Christmas break to wash a few things that I can't remember the last time I washed them. LOL But, I also do not sweat a lot so I don't wear deodorant as a general rule.

    My mom worked at a dry cleaners for a while and they truly wash a lot of the things that come in just as you or I would. I try to avoid the dry cleaners as much as possible.

    As someone with sensitive skin and a sensitive schnoz, I can't use Febreze or many things with any kind of scent. No perfume at all. I am a big proponent of airing clothes out. Just letting them hang and get a little sunshine. Works wonders.

  34. pretty face

    The layering trick is my favourite.

    But honestly, my 'delicates' go on the hand wash machine setting and all come out alive.

  35. issa

    haha great timing.. i have a pair of linen shorts.. that are waiting in the hamper.. until i feel like dropping them off at the drycleaners.. but really. .they were from forever 21.. who drycleans items from there..

  36. ebinbaby

    I have 2 tricks I use:
    First is that I don't wear regular scented or unscented antiperspirant or deodorant as they make my clothes incredibly stanky. I realized it wasn't all me it was mostly the chemical smell that they left on my clothes that lingered and was offensive. Instead I use a crystal deodorant stone which has completely eliminated the stank. Note** The spray or roll-on of the same product does not work – just the crystal.
    My second trick I learned working at Benetton in London. I wash my sweaters in the washing machine on delicate with gentle soap (any kind, if I don't have any sometimes even shampoo or Tide – gasp!) and then when everything is done I squirt about 1/2 cup of cheap hair conditioner and run the cycle again on rinse/spin. Gorgeous soft sweaters every time!

  37. Sonja

    Fabulous tips! I rarely ever take anything to the dry cleaners and try to take care of stuff on my own. I totally do the tee thing too.

    I recently started airing out clothes after I've worn them, before putting them back in the closet, because I read it helps keep clothes fresher and not need to be washed so soon.

    Thanks for reminding me about Dryel. I have a box in the laundry room that I keep forgetting about. Will finally give it a try on one of my sweaters.

  38. valerie

    i am with you on the "smell test". i dry clean my coats one time a year, dresses only if they stink or have crazy deodorants stains on them. honestly, i find that even the clothes fit better when they're unwashed. although, one of my favorite things in the world is a fresh smelling tee.

  39. SandyB

    Hi Sal and everyone. This is my first post, but I have for a while enjoyed reading the blog and comments. Such great tips I've found here! The first anonymous mentioned a product called Forever New, and I noticed no one else seemed to have heard of it. I purchased Forever New from a specialty bra shop when I got my first really nice bras last year. The ladies there recommended it over Woolite, I think because of the spandex, as one commenter mentioned. It works well and takes only a very tiny bit in the hand wash. Beware, it does have an odd scent (I think) which lasts a while.

  40. fleur_delicious

    I use Ecover for my delicates; I think of it as "green Woolite" and Whole Foods carries it (convenient!).

    One thing I will say, Sal, as I am a big hand-washer (I do one or two sinkloads a week – sometimes more!), is that I have noticed that sheer silk crepes/chiffons DO tend to shrink when you wash. If there's a zipper built into the construction, that part won't shrink – which can lead to some wonky-shaped blouses, trust me!

    Other than that, I've had no trouble with hand-washing over the years. I stick to sweaters and T's mostly (I'm tall, so for my nice T's, I handwash them for the first few years that I own them – it seems to keep them from shrinking up on me if and when they ever do meet a washing machine), and haven't really ever had any problems. I also own a good quality travel steamer, so that after clothes are dry I can give them a quick steam to take any stiffness out before folding or hanging and putting away.

  41. The Raisin Girl

    I never dry clean. This is mostly due to the lack of money in my wallet, but also due to my anxiety at not having my clothes in my house.

    Most things I'd worry about ruining in the wash just get washed together. I never wash knit things with garments that have zippers, bra-type clasps, or pointy buttons. I use gentle cycle and often cold water just in case. And many times I hang dry.

    Of course, I'm a college student and I generally worship at the feet of convenience retail like Walmart and Target, so I don't own many things that need much care. The few things that do, I don't wear often enough to worry much about what repetitive washing might do to them.

  42. nifer

    Unless it is an absolutely necessary, formal item that I won't wear often, I steer clear of buying items with a "dry clean only" tag. I have found myself more and more admiring something and then shoving it right back on the rack when I see those three dreaded words.

    Lately, I've also tried to stay away from "lay flat to dry." It's just an extra hassle I don't need to pull things out before I throw a load in the dryer.

    Call it lazy, call it practical. 🙂

  43. Anonymous

    My washer has a "hand wash" cycle. I've been throwing my cashmere sweaters in there with some Woolite for two winters now, and they look fine. I lay them flat on towels to dry.
    Does anyone have an opinion on those mesh sweather dryers? It seems like my sweaters would dry faster on the mesh than on a towel, but I'm not sure I want to spend $15-20 just to save a few hours of drying time.

  44. Hanako66

    this is such an awesome post!

    i spend a fortune on dry cleaning and have had no clue on ways to do it at home!


    I really wonder why it took me so long to get it .I used to wear things once and then wash them.I spent so much time and effort to end up with something unawearable(is there such a word).It doesn't make sense.