The Super Obvious Reason Why Your Laundry Isn’t As Great As it Could Be

Super boring, but super effective.

September  7, 2016
Photo by Rocky Luten

Welcome to Spring Clean Your Life, your one-stop shop for gotta-try-those tips & bookmark-me inspiration to spruce up your kitchen and home this season—and well beyond.

If your current method of doing laundry is to shove everything in one load and call it a day, you aren’t even coming close to doing it right. To improve your laundry game instantly, you’d best get hip to the boring art of sorting!

Yes, it's totally boring, but sorting is the absolute linchpin of good laundry practices. Lack of proper sorting will eventually lead you to stained, trashed clothes. Not only do different types of fabric transfer dye differently (synthetic fibers are notorious for absorbing the excess color from heavily dyed natural fibers), delicate garments can get beefed by the seams, stitching, and buttons on heavier items like blue jeans and jackets.

I know all this because I happen to do laundry for a living. As a professional costume designer for films and television shows, I’ve encountered a lot of movie star sweat and grime. Film lights generate a ton of heat, so the clothes your favorite actors wear on set get grosser than you might think after a long day of shooting.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“However, I also separate bedding and bath towels from the kitchen laundry. Because who wants to find a public hair on a dish towel? One important thing I didn't see mentioned (maybe it's in the book) is that delicates (or any clothing that you care about) MUST be hung to dry. The dryer really takes a toll on nice fabrics and knits. ”
— bookjunky

There are six distinct categories you should be dividing your laundry into—and once you see the difference it makes in keeping your clothes in tip-top shape, you’ll never go back to just cramming everything in together and hoping for the best.

1. Whites

Whites means clothes that are 100% pure white only. No contrast stitching, no two-toned items. Whites are usually sturdy cotton things like T-shirts, socks, and pajamas. Keep those plain whites together so you can always add 1/3 to 1/4 cup of bleach (or bleach alternative) as a maintenance dose to help things stay bright without harming your other clothes! (No more than that though, or things start to yellow.) Wash whites in warm or hot water, as they are usually items worn closest to the body—and therefore get the dirtiest. (Dirtier clothes always call for warmer water to break down grime.)

Laundry Superstar Tip: Use a humble safety pin to keep your socks matched together in the wash.

2. Lights

Lights=very pale and pastel colored things. I consider medium butter yellow to be the demarcation line between lights and brights. Wash lights in warm water.

3. Brights

You can wash flaming reds, bright oranges, hot pinks, and deep purples together once you are sure they are colorfast (meaning their dyes won’t fade or transfer). Test for colorfastness by spraying an edge of your garment with water and blotting with a paper towel to see if any dye ends up on the paper towel. Wash brights in cool water to cut down on color fade.

4. Darks

Your darks load should include heavier stuff like blue jeans and sweatshirts—any shade of garment that can stand up to the possible dye transfer of a pair of blue jeans. Wash darks in cool, warm, or hot water, depending on the grime level. Cool water preserves a garment’s color, but if you’ve been outside in the dirt all day, you’ll want to use warm or hot water to get things clean again.

Laundry Superstar Tip: Wash those $200 jeans inside out to prevent fading. The friction of cloth rubbing on cloth in the washer increases wear—but when they are inside out, that wear occurs on the inside.

5. Delicates

Don’t mix anything delicate, silky, linen, or vintage (like underwear, bras, and slips) in with your regular wash. Even inexpensive polyester dresses can benefit from the extra care of the gentle cycle. Wash delicates in the coldest water possible, as it puts less stress on fibers—and when they take less of a beating, they don't pill or fray quite as easily.

Laundry Superstar Tip: Wash your delicates in a zip-top mesh bag. It keeps lace, fringe, bras and tights from getting trounced by the spin cycle.

6. Household Linens

If you've ever accidentally washed a bath towel with some of your clothes, you already know that they produce a special kind of lint that is almost impossible to remove. Wash towels, sheets, and kitchen rags by themselves in the hottest water you can, because food + grime + body fluids=yuck!

But What About….

T-shirts with a different colored body and sleeves always stress me out too. I wash them by themselves with a plain white rag at first to see how they behave. If you see no color transfer, you’re free to go ahead and always pop it in with whatever load matches the lightest color on the garment.

As you sort, check all pockets for lipsticks and other random objects that could ruin your clothes. It’s also a good time to claim any money left behind! (I once found $900 cash in an actor’s jeans while sorting his laundry.) Button all buttons and snap all snaps to prevent them from breaking and getting twisted in the wash. Take the time to pretreat stains with an easy-to-use stain bar like this one from The Laundress.

At home, I like to pre-sort my clothes as they get dirty so I always know when I have enough for a load, but a half-dozen laundry baskets takes up way too much room—so I’ve repurposed an old bamboo dresser in my hallway to serve as a laundry sorter.

Rainbow of pre-sorted laundry Photo by Alison Freer

I also keep one of these cute, functional square carry baskets in the kitchen for rags and another in the bathroom for towels. (That way it’s easy to see when one is full and pop a load in.)

And just like that, consider your laundry game forever changed. You’re welcome.

Alison Freer is the author of How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer's Secrets for Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing.

More from Food52

What laundry questions do you have for a laundry pro? Ask away in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Lisa
  • Suzy Shedd
    Suzy Shedd
  • bookjunky
  • JJ
  • SusieQue2222
I am a costume designer from Texas living and working in Hollywood, California. I'm also the author of 'How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer's Secrets for Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing'. This means that I shop A LOT and probably dressed one of your favorite celebs up like a carrot.


Lisa December 10, 2017
All true and great for people who have their own laundry facility at home, BUT not feasible for someone who lives in the city and is forced to rely on the laudromat to get laundry done. Highly unlikely someone would use 5-6 washers plus it would cost a fortune at, say, $5 per machine in NYC.
Suzy S. September 21, 2017
I'm so very thankful that I will never spend enough money on clothes to make this ridiculous level of work necessary. I run a VERY occasional load of delicates -- otherwise, everything goes in one load on the cool cycle. AND the clothes don't fall apart AND the stains don't transfer.
bookjunky September 9, 2016
I pretty much do this, although the medium colors generally get thrown in with the dark load. However, I also separate bedding and bath towels from the kitchen laundry. Because who wants to find a public hair on a dish towel?
One important thing I didn't see mentioned (maybe it's in the book) is that delicates (or any clothing that you care about) MUST be hung to dry. The dryer really takes a toll on nice fabrics and knits.
Alison F. September 12, 2016
I agree about the sub-categorization of kitchen laundry and bedding but can you imagine the uproar if I suggested SEVEN separate loads?! And oh yes -- delicates are all drip-dry all the time. Thanks for reading!
JJ September 7, 2016
That old dresser laundry sorter is a great idea and I only had been sorting into darks, whites and towels & linens so the extra categories are quite helpful!
SusieQue2222 September 7, 2016
Loved reading you at xojane - funny to find you on a "food" site!
Alison F. September 7, 2016
Hey, hello! Nice to run across you here!!
Greenstuff September 7, 2016
You might have titled this article "The super obvious reason why your Laundry will NEVER be as great as it could be." Sorting into six (or more) piles is a necessity for a costume department, an impossibility for a small family. (But good advice in theory.)
Jennifer G. September 14, 2016
Seriously...try being single. Ain't nobody got time for all that. It would raise my electricity bill with all those minute loads.
Joseph V. September 7, 2016
This is great! Did you keep that $900??
Alison F. September 7, 2016
I wish! When I called to let him know, he said "Oh yeah, I kinda wondered where that went..." Stars, they are in fact NOT just like us!