The good news is, however, that many items that have a “dry-clean only” tag on them can actually be washed at home, said Minnesota-based textile and laundry expert Patric Richardson.
Clothing manufacturers are required to put care labels on garments per U.S. regulations, and many use “dry-clean only” tags to inform customers of best care practices and as a way to prevent any washing mishaps. Canadian regulations state garments need material labels, too.
“I actually teach laundry camp and one of my tips is when those tags say ‘dry-clean only,’ just cut them out and then they don’t say that anymore,” Richardson joked. (Cutting out your tag is not advisable if you want a dry cleaner to clean your garment in the future as it details best care practices.)
How to wash dry clean items at home
Richardson, who is also the author of upcoming book Laundry Love, said how you wash your garment at home will depend on its fabric.
A cotton shirt, for example, often does not need to be dry cleaned and can easily be hand-washed. Likewise, natural materials like silk, linen and wool can also be washed at home with a bit of care, as can polyester. Some items should be left to professionals, especially suits, leather or suede garments.
“You need to start out hand-washing so you kind of know what your clothes are going to do,” he said. “And then you can get a little more brave.”
Instead of detergent, Richardson suggests using a bit of soap and warm water — not boiling hot. People often overestimate how much soap they need, he said, when in reality a little bit goes a long way.
Use your kitchen sink as it’s likely larger than your bathroom sink, Richardson said, and gently hand-wash and rinse the garment in the warm water. You can lay items to dry on a rack or flat surface.
After a few hand washes, you will start to learn how garments react and if dyes bleed. Some fabrics, like cotton and linen, can be safely washed in the machine — but test them first.
“You will see quickly that you can put it in the machine,” Richardson said.
“The only reason I say hand-wash it the first time is linen, for example, has this tendency to sort of stretch when you wear it. So you may think that your shirt is very oversized… but that’s because you’ve stretched it into that shape. Machine washing will take it back to its original shape.”
It’s important to note, however, that you should not start home washing fancy or expensive garments on your first attempt. Some items, like down-filled coats and pleated skirts, may also require professional dry cleaning care.
Instead, start with less risky garments, then you can graduate onto other items.
“When you first wash a sweater that you’ve always felt you had to dry clean, you feel like a superhero,” Richardson said.
“Like all of a sudden you’ve just unlocked this magical power that you didn’t know you had.”
The right tools go a long way
If you’re going to put an item in the washing machine, like a silk tie or cashmere sweater, use a mesh laundry bag. These bags not only protect the garment from rubbing or snagging on other items, like bra clasps, they also reduce its movement in the machine.
(Richardson has a video on his site on how to machine wash a cashmere sweater in a laundry bag.)
Pressing is a huge part of cleaning, Richardson said, so you’ll want to invest in a good steamer or iron.
“If you’re going to start doing sport coats and dresses, you need a steamer or an iron,” he said. “You want to get that beautiful finished press, and, that’s something the dry cleaner does very well.”
When it comes to stains, Richardson said lipstick and barbecue sauce are notoriously hard to get out.
While most people go to soap and a fabric brush to scrub the substance off, he instead said it’s a good idea to use a spray mix of half vinegar and half water and wipe the stain out.
“That removes a lot of the oil, then you can go after the colour with the brush,” he said.
While there’s nothing Richardson won’t clean himself, if you’re not confident with your own home laundering skills, wait until you can visit a dry cleaner for important items, like expensive suits and winter coats. There are also items that require pro techniques, like sequined and beaded garments.
Lastly, certain fabrics are more prone to washing accidents than others, and it’s never a good feeling to ruin your favourite blouse.
“If you’ve never really done laundry besides washing your sheets and towels, I don’t think you should start with your tuxedo or wedding dress,” Richardson said.