It's been about two weeks since the last dry cleaning business shuttered. Your winter’s-end sweater pile is gathering dust in the corner of your bedroom. A few silk shirts have been rescued from the laundry tote and hung back in the cupboard...you think that maybe you can squeeze some more wears out of them. The faux fur comforter, on the other hand, could really really use a professional clean right now. All seems lost, but really, it isn't.
I’ve spent the last year or so on a bit of a mission to live cleaner. I started by keeping reusable water bottles and coffee mugs at the ready in my bag. I then switched to buying fewer clothes and buying many second-hand; began composting; and started walking wherever I could, weather permitting.
I’ve also cut down, considerably, my dependence on dry cleaning.
For a couple of reasons. One, a weekly dry-cleaning schedule was becoming an incredible sinkhole for my money. And then, there’s the impact of it on the environment. As I have learnt, most dry cleaning is not even actually dry; the clothes get wet, and just not with water, but with perchloroethylene, or perc, and other chemicals that undesirably get into our waterways (and stick to our clothes).
And then, there’s all that plastic our dry-cleaned clothes return in.
I decided something needed to change, so I began washing more efficiently and switched to a more natural detergent (there’s a spectrum), but I could not, as much as I looked, find a credible “eco-friendly” dry-cleaner near me. That’s when it hit me: Perhaps dry cleaning could never really be eco-friendly, unless done at home.
The truth is, I haven’t been able to completely divorce dry cleaning. There are still some clothes I don’t trust myself to wash, and some stains no amount of DIY hacking could remove (blame some riotous weddings!). But I will say this: chances are you can home-clean more of your wardrobe than you think.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way, using much of what I already had at home and in the pantry. I've also added in some stellar tips from you, our community. Turns out you have been at it for far, far longer than I ever have, so thank you.
1. Spot clean that stain.
Often, I’d find myself sending clothes to the cleaners because of an annoying stain, but if you spot one and attack it immediately, chances are you won’t need to. While there are tips for specific stains, my general advice is to enlist your pantry! A paste of baking soda and water is a great way to pre-treat stains on clothes before you wash it off—especially with cotton and cotton mixes. With wool, try blotting the stain with club soda,using an absorbent cloth. You can also wet the stain with cold water, then dab rubbing alcohol, using a cotton ball, on the area.
2. Sweaters and mesh bags are a dream team
“The trick to washing things that you think are dry clean-only, like sweaters, is putting them in a mesh bag,” says laundry evangelist Patrick Richardson (yes, that’s a thing!) in this tutorial. Mesh bags are your savior, he explains, because they reduce abrasion. The other important thing is to wash them on an express cycle, so they’re not tumbling for as long. I hand-wash most of my sweaters with a very mild detergent, and then gently press the water out of it with my hands or against the sink (no wringing). I then roll my sweater in a dry towel to absorb excess water, a trick I learned here.
3. ...as are silks and mesh bags
Garments made of natural fibers like silk and linen can be washed by hand or in a cold express cycle (again, fold and slip them into a mesh bag: the less they dance about, the better). Before washing any deep colors, test for colorfastness by wetting a small, inconspicuous area of the item (I learned this lesson the hard way). If the color bleeds, it's probably best to take it to a dry cleaner.
4. The versatility of vinegar
You can also treat silk clothes by soaking them in a bucket full of diluted vinegar for 30 minutes to neutralize and eliminate odors (vinegar is also said to restore sheen, so yay!). Soak them in plain, cold water after, and let them air-dry.
5. Invest in a good quality steamer
Steaming your clothes saves energy and freshens clothes, extending time between dry cleaning. I put this off for a while, before finally jumping in, and buying one. As Jan Blare, a community member who washes all her wool sweaters at home, says: "A steamer will even remove small stains from wool." (A hairdryer, she adds, will also do the trick.)
6. Use up your cheap vodka
If something just doesn’t smell as fresh as it should, another reason why we tend to rush things to the cleaners, you can spray it with a bit of vodka—which has no scent when it dries—from a spray bottle. It’s a great trick for when you come back from a restaurant and your clothes are smelling of whatever it is that you just ate.
7. You can wash wool! Yes, you can!
In winter, coats can become a big dry-cleaning expense. This year I’m going to challenge that. I’m going to wash my puffer jackets and parkas on a delicate cycle, in cool to lukewarm water, and then air-dry them. Wool coats can be a bit more daunting, but I just found this step-by-step tutorial, and I plan to test it on a pea coat this weekend (wish me luck!).
8. Use your freezer
Okay, so this is a very specific tip. The other day a friend told me she sends her expensive jeans for dry cleaning. (She asked me not to judge her, so neither should you.) But I did have this trick for her: the jeans-in-the-freezer hack—a ballet dancer I know swears by it to snag extra wears for her sweaty leotards. The same trick can be used to “clean” jeans between uses. It’s simple science really: freezing temperatures kill bacteria that causes stale smells.
Finally, those plastic wrappers. Many months ago, I tried giving my cleaners a reusable garment bag for all my clothes to go into; but found out that all they did was take off the plastic wrapping before I picked them up, and then put them into my bag! In some cities, dry-cleaning bags can be recycled, via special collection centers, with other types of classified “film”, including bread bags. Just make sure you understand the guidelines set by your local recycling program.
If all else fails, there’s creative reuse. Carefully take the wrappers off your clothing (recycle any paper that’s attached), knot the hanger-end to seal the slit, and reuse these as trash bags for recyclables (thereby avoiding buying those as much). I’ve tried mine with glass recyclables, and they held up. And oh, don’t forget to return those hangers to your cleaners.
- "Puffer jackets with down can be washed with cold and thrown right in the dryer with a tennis ball. In fact, I have heard that the dryer can help fluff up the down after it gets wet. Just throw a tennis ball in the dryer with them."
- "I became an expert on body odor after becoming “Robe Mother” for an extremely large church choir that wore decades-old cassocks (the black under-part, think Westminster Abbey) made of ancient British wool, sweaty from many Sundays over the decades. I began washing them in cold water, on a gentle cycle. But before washing, I'd douse the problem areas of the smelliest ones with Tea Tree Oil, then wash (cold, gentle, line dry). The results were amazing and well worth a try on any beloved clothing with ancient body odor."
- "I wash all our family’s down comforters: a small amount of mild shampoo, a double rinse, then into the dryer with wool dryer balls, usually on low heat."
—Melissa Bradley Diskin
- "To clean (expensive) silk scarves, I use baby shampoo in a 50-50 ratio with water to spot clean, then submerge it in the same water, swirl it around, rinse three times, roll in a towel, square off and let it dry. Then, all it needs is a quick press with iron—perfect! And its lovely rolled hems are still intact, unlike from the dry cleaner."
- "...May I add that you wash a spot first. The only scarves that I have found that may bleed are red ones...but I do believe salt stops that, or vinegar in the water..."
—Ellyn Amron Austin
- "Inspired by this article, I put my faux fur blanket in the machine—delicate wash, cold water. No water damage at all. I allowed it to hang dry, and it was perfect. I did put it back in the dryer, on the de-wrinkle setting, just to see if I could make it a bit softer. Came out perfectly! I think just a refresh cycle, on low or no heat, would work the same." —Susan Halliday
Are you trying to cut back on dry cleaning? Tell us how in the comments!
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