The Monthly Mend: The Myth of Dry Cleaning

This I Wear | Dry Cleaning Myths

Dry cleaning may be one of the biggest mysteries in life. You drop it off to someone whose business name changes every couple months, your clothing disappears to an unknown location for a few days, and then it comes back with a big price tag. It is perhaps just as much as mystery that once you are an adult, suddenly everything in your closet “needs” to be dry-cleaned.

I never used to question the reasoning behind those itchy care labels inside the garment. Then I found out that the biggest environmental impact of our clothing’s lifecycle is once we’ve taken our clothes home from the store and started caring for them (Water! Chemicals! Energy!). I also learned that it’s actually the law that clothing manufacturers include these, which set off my “bullshit” radar. Does “dry clean only” really mean just that? Or are clothing manufacturers just protecting themselves? Considering the cost, the scary chemicals, and now these new facts, it seems like there is an opportunity for something better here for our clothing, our health, and, yes, the environment.

The Past

Care labels didn’t exist until 1971 when they became mandated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in order to protect consumers and took on their current form in 1984 after said consumers reported that the labels were believed to be “incomplete, inaccurate, and inconsistent.” The rule is that the care label must include at least one (and therefore, usually only one) method of recommended care, as well as warn against any method that might damage the garment. If a customer follows the recommended method and the garment is damaged, then the manufacturer or brand is held responsible. Obviously, if you make clothing, it is in your best interest to put the absolute safest method of care so you don’t have customers requesting replacements for their damaged clothing or reporting you to the FTC. (source)

And because of these rules, a lot of garments that can be washed by hand at home or in cold water on your washer’s gentlest cycle are marked “dry clean only.” In fact, the laundry mavens behind The Laundress suggest “90% of items labeled “Dry Clean Only” are actually washable.” (source)

These labels also come with their own language. I never knew that the above symbol of a circle and cross meant “no dry cleaning”, but perhaps that’s because this symbol never actually appears on a label. Instead of silly symbols, I’d like to advocate that we just get to know our clothes a little more intimately and perhaps even get a little handsy.

The Future

If you’ve been dry cleaning everything, consider what your future dry cleaning-less life will include: money savings as you wash more things at home and less at the dry cleaner, longer clothing life since you’ll be sparing your clothes from all of those toxic chemicals, healthier life for you, laundry workers and everyone else on earth as we decrease these chemicals in our homes and environment, and hopefully some energy savings as you opt for more hand washing and air drying to keep your clothes looking new.

This is a win-win situation for all as long as you take some time to choose the right method for the garment.

Here’s a few tips I’ve picked up a long the way:
1. Don’t over-wash clothing. More washing = more wear. If a garment isn’t truly dirty, refresh it instead of washing it. Air out the garment or hang up in the bathroom during your steamy shower and that will likely be all you need to keep it fresh for a few more wears.
2. If a garment truly needs to be cleaned, read the fiber content label to decide whether it can be cleaned for at home. This chart from the experts at the Laundress details the temperature and treatment for some of the trickiest fabrics. They recommend their own specially formulated detergents but doing a little research can likely reveal some cheaper options. For example, Dr. Bronner’s is apparently a great detergent for silks.
3. Learn how to handwash. I wouldn’t start handwashing with your absolute favorite silk shirt, but start with something simple like a sweater. Here’s a great how-to from Martha herself.
4. Skip the dryer. Dryers and their hot air can be particularly abrasive on fabric and fade colors. The safest method of drying is always air-drying. For my wool sweaters that I used to dry clean, I now wash them with a gentle detergent on the “woolens” cycle in cold water and lay flat to dry to help them retain their shape.
5. Get the professional look without the chemicals. If you’ve been dry cleaning everything for the perfect finished look, consider having them washed with the rest of your clothes but professionally starched and ironed for the crispy dress shirt look or using an at-home steamer to get those wrinkles out of delicate garments (or use the steam function on your iron). I’ve heard this steamer is amazing.

Finally, there are some garments that are still too intimidating for me to wash at home, such as the fancy party dress and the fully lined winter wool coat. For these big or particularly delicate items, there are alternative to dry cleaning like liquid CO2 cleaning and wet cleaning available at “green” dry cleaners. Just make sure to ask them what “green” or “organic” means when it comes to the nitty gritty of what they’re going to do to your clothes.

This list of tips is just a start! I hope you’ll share your own tips and tricks for avoiding the dry cleaner in the comments below!

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5 comments

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  2. Sarah

    Oh my gosh. I am sooooooo glad you wrote this piece!!!! It never occurred to me that one could “not follow directions” and machine wash a “dry clean only” garment! Ha ha. But on the bright side, because I HATE dry cleaning so much, when I do have on of these pieces I wear it hundreds of times before I actually wash it – so it does cut down on my washing at least. Though I was noticing one of my dry clean sweaters is starting to get a bit of a funky smell, so I think i may have to break down and give it a wash. I may just have to check and see if I can do it myself though! Thank so much!!! You’ve totally just turned my world upside down and inspired me to become a laundry daredevil that doesn’t always follow directions ;)

  3. Molly

    I am SO happy to read this. I hate dry cleaning, and I do quite a bit of it with my suits for work. The more I can do at home, the better!

    • Rebecca

      So glad to hear that, Molly! You should watch the video that the Laundress did on how to wash a wool coat – would be a helpful reference point for your suits depending on fabric, but also just proves that nothing really needs the dry cleaning chemical dip!

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