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How To Dry Clean Clothes: Everything You Must Know

Button down laundries hanging outside under the sun.

Dry cleaners were already having enough trouble as more and more offices shifted to casual dress codes, abandoning the white dress shirts that begged for professional laundering and ironing and suits that had to be professionally cleaned. Once the COVID-19 lockdowns hit and we traded in even the occasional fancy sweater and dress pants for sweatshirts and underwear, the local cleaner was doomed. A recent Bloomberg News headline estimated as many as one in six dry cleaners closed or went bankrupt in the United States during the pandemic. It’s time to learn how to handle at least some of your basic cleaning needs at home.

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What Exactly Is Dry Cleaning?

Cropped man in a suit holding his dry cleaned clothes.

Even though it’s called “dry” cleaning, the simple fact is that the clothes you send to the cleaners are still getting wet, but with a chemical called perchloroethylene, not water. Perc is a chemical solvent that removes dirt, grease, and stains. It’s also what causes that somewhat industrial smell that’s in clothes when you first pick them up from the cleaner. As you might imagine, with a name like that, it’s associated with pollution and some health risks (more for the cleaner than for you), so more environmentally friendly chemicals have been pressed into service lately.

The real truth is that a lot of brands label their clothes “Dry clean only,” because it’s safer for them: It’s less likely that they’ll have customers returning delicate garments that have been treated like underwear or old socks and tossed into the washing machine and dryer. Sometimes it just pays to seek professional help.

Take It to the Cleaners

  • Tailored suits: Their carefully assembled interior construction require special treatment
  • Silks (other than washable silk): Shirts, pocket squares, scarves, etc.
  • Neckties: we’ll address these later, but if you’ve invested in a quality necktie, check out Tiecrafters to be safe
  • Linen: A lot of linen is fine to be washed at home, especially if you don’t mind wrinkles or are patient with an iron. Otherwise, let the pros handle it.
  • Leather and suede
  • Clothes with any kind of fancy embellishments like sequins, beading, or fringes
  • Delicate fabrics like rayon or odd fabric blends where the different fibers might have different reactions to water temperature or cleaning agents.
  • Anything with a bad, oil-based stain

Do Try This at Home

An old man hanging his laundries outside his house.

A lot of clothes can be cleaned with a little loving care at home. See if you can spot clean a stain as soon as possible to save yourself some trouble in the first place. Otherwise, you should be able to wash any clothes with simple construction (no padding, linings, or interlinings), natural fibers like wool or cotton, certain silks, and linens, and for sure most man-made fibers like polyester are usually safe bets. To be honest, most men’s clothes are made of pretty hardy stuff, so you usually don’t have to worry.

1. Spot-Check for Colorfastness

Cropped man checking his dirty clothes before putting it in the washer.

Whatever you’re cleaning, and whatever you’re cleaning with, find a spot somewhere where nobody will notice if something goes wrong, like on an inside, bottom hem. Make sure that a deep, dark color is colorfast (think about the first time you wash a pair of dark blue jeans). Wet a small spot with water or the product you’re considering using and dab a white cloth or a cotton swab on it to see if any color rubs off. If it does, take it to the pros.

2. Try a Home Dry Cleaning Kit

Woolite Dry Care Cleaner

Woolite Dry Care Cleaner can take up to 6 loads and 30 garments.

Great for spot-cleaning and deodorizing, a kit like this can help freshen up clothes without actually washing them. The claim here is that the cloths “lift away stains and odors while releasing wrinkles,” leaving dirt and lint in the dryer filter. It’s a great way to keep jeans fresh and clean without washing away any indigo dye. The product is also great for sweaters. Just be careful about certain stains (ballpoint ink stains, for instance, may become permanent when treated with these stain removers), and monitor the temperature: Make sure your dryer’s medium setting is cool enough that it won’t shrink wool, cashmere, etc.

3. Steam Cleaning

Rowenta DR8120 X-Cel Powerful Handheld Garment and Fabric Steamer

Rowenta DR8120 X-Cel Powerful Handheld Garment and Fabric Steamer.

Professional stylists at fashion photo shoots keep a team of assistants busy behind the scenes steaming wrinkles out of just about every garment that gets photographed. It’s also an easy way to give your gently worn clothes at home a quick spruce-up (think fall jackets that got crammed into a closet during the summer or a shirt that you only wore for a few hours). You can use an iron that has a steam setting, but they can be heavy and unwieldy, so invest in a good home steamer. Be careful, though! It’s easy to get a nasty burn if the steam or hot water drops hit your skin. Stretching a clean sock over the mouth is an old stylist’s trick to diffuse the steam and make the process a little safer. The steam is hot enough to kill bacteria that cause odors, and garments come out looking camera-ready.

4. Hand (or Delicate Machine) Washing

The Laundress New York Wool & Cashmere Shampoo

The Laundress Wool & Cashmere Shampoo in cedar scent to wash and preserve your laundries.

Check out the complete range of The Laundress products for your home wardrobe care needs, including Denim Wash, Sport Detergent for your gym clothes, and a Travel Pack that is perfect for any trip where you want to look your best. The Wool & Cashmere Shampoo, though, is designed to care of sweaters, wool woven shirts, lightweight merino polo shirts, and other delicates without sending them (or your wallet) to the cleaners. It also leaves your clothes with a fresh cedar scent.

  1. Add a capful of cleaner to a sink or basin of cold water (again, after spot-checking)
  2. Be sure there’s enough to cover and soak the sweater through and through: a winter cable sweater or knit jacket will take up more room than a merino t-shirt
  3. Turn the garment inside out and immerse in the water/soap solution
  4. Swirl it gently, just enough to work the solution through the fibers
  5. Let it soak for ten minutes
  6. After the soak, dump out the soapy water and rinse with cold water until all the soap (and dirt) is washed away.
  7. Carefully press (don’t wring) the garment to get out most of the water.
  8. Lay the garment flat on a towel and gently roll the towel up, pressing gently to remove more moisture
  9. Lay the garment on another dry towel on a flat (waterproof) surface, i.e., not your mother-in-law’s antique dining table. A plastic folding table or even the top of your washing machine should be great.
  10. Reshape the sweater: Spread the arms out straight, make sure the collar is resting properly, button buttons, zip zippers, etc.
  11. Allow it to dry for 12 hours or so until it feels thoroughly dry, then flip over to the other side, and give it another 12 hours.
  12. You may also opt to use your washing machine’s gentle cycle. If so, most manufacturers recommend placing the inside-out garment into a zippered mesh bag to help protect it from abrasion and stretching.

Read more: How to Clean Your Home Fast

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