Cleaning

I Gave Up Dry Cleaning for a Year—Here’s What I Learned

It was both easier (and more challenging) than I thought.

December 18, 2019
Photo by Ty Mecham

I’ve spent this year 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.

Nothing personal against the lovely dry-cleaning lady who calls out “Hi bedsheet” cheerily as I walk past her store (that’s a story for another day), but in January this year, I decided that I’d like to see her a whole lot less. 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 (there were some riotous summer farm 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:

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.

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 cold season, 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.

Are you trying to cut back on dry cleaning? Tell us how in the comments!

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Arati Menon

Written by: Arati Menon

Arati grew up hanging off the petticoat-tails of three generations of Indian matriarchs who used food to speak their language of love—and she finds herself instinctually following suit. Her life has taken her all across the world, but she carries with her a menagerie of inherited home and kitchen objects that serve as her anchor, no matter the living situation. She's an impassioned ambassador for life in Brooklyn, and a fierce critic of the vast amounts of cream cheese on a New York bagel.

46 Comments

AJ January 14, 2020
Does anyone have a suggestion for a faux fur blanket? I purchased it from Anthropologie a few years ago, but it is taking on all the food smells from my small apartment. I have thought many times of tossing it in the wash, on a delicate cold cycle, but I am not sure about drying it, and whether or not the faux fur would get water damaged. I also wonder if a steamer would work in this situation? Any thoughts? Thank you!
 
2tattered January 14, 2020
Is there a care tag? Do you know fabric content? If it’s 100% polyester I would try handwashing. I think a steamer would flatten the ‘fur’. If you’re brave, try washing in machine on delicate with a tiny bit of detergent. No dryer - hang to dry, then maybe put in dryer with no heat to fluff it up. Or maybe just shake, shake, shake it!
 
AJ January 14, 2020
The care tag says to dry clean. It lists the materials as acrylic and polyester.
 
Susan H. January 15, 2020
Yes!! Inspired by this article, I put my Restoration Hardware faux fur blanket in the machine - delicate wash, cold water. No water damage. I allowed it to hang dry, and it was perfect. I put it in the dryer just to see if I could make it a bit softer - on the de-wrinkle setting - which allows some steam into the dryer (have no idea how). I think just a refresh cycle, on low or no heat, would work the same. (Also damp wool yarn balls would work perfectly) Came out perfectly!!!
 
AJ January 16, 2020
Thanks - I may be trying this out over the weekend!
 
Heidi January 20, 2020
I have washed my king size faux fur blanket in the washing machine, cold water, gentle cycle. It has the faux suede on the back. Drying it was the biggest problem since the gentle cycle doesn’t spin very fast so there was a lot of water left in it. I put it in the dryer on gentle heat. Many times. Taking it out and re-fluffing it to get all of the blanket exposed to the air. It still looked the same and felt the same, but it was a lot of effort.
 
Susan W. January 11, 2020
I have too many wool sweaters. I wash all of them, by hand, with cold water. I use the bathtub because sweaters are longer and heavier than they used to be. I would never, ever send a sweater to the dry cleaners. During high school and college -- long ago in the 1960s -- nearly every garment sent to the dry cleaners was ruined. My white glee club blazer came back covered with black fibers that I swear came from a dog. My first pants suit, white pants with a peach tunic, came back with brown pants and a shrunken tunic. A striped valour dress with a do not wash tag came back stiff as board.

When I became a home sewer in my 30s, I learned that only garments made of more than one fiber, say a wool jacket with a silk, acetate, viscose or nylon lining and then a bit of goat hair interfacing should be dry cleaned. However, most silk is better off hand washed. After all, the Yellow Emperor never saw a dry cleaner but wore some of the world's first silk.

I've had three Irish cardigans in the years between 17 and 70. I've always washed mine. They stayed nice and white while the sweaters that were sent to the cleaners by other women turned yellow.
 
Linda H. January 10, 2020
Thanks to all for wonderful suggestions. If anyone has ideas on keeping moths out of sweater drawers, i would really appreciate your thoughts. I did notice that The Laundress has a Cedar Spray that they say is helpful.
 
Author Comment
Arati M. January 10, 2020
So, growing up, we had moth balls falling out of every drawer and every closet. Now that I know better, I follow this instead: Make a sachet of dried lavender (you can also dry fresh lavender yourself) + rice or buy one readymade and hang it with a ribbon or place the sachets in drawers. The recommendation is that you change these out every season, as lavender's scent fades over time. But yes, I've heard that Cedar works well, as well!
 
Linda H. January 10, 2020
Thank you. I have read that but it is certainly wonderful to have experience shared. Avoiding moth balls for the same reason as you suggested. Nasty things!!
 
2tattered January 9, 2020
I have a 40 year old silk Hermes scarf from my mom that has some spots on it. Tag says dry clean only. Should I try spot cleaning at home?
 
2tattered January 9, 2020
Should add the scarf has hummingbirds all over it, great sentimental value and I adore it.
 
Ellyn A. January 10, 2020
I hate to advise people because it could go wrong. But having lived in France for a long time, I learned how the French clean their expensive H scarves and anything silk, they wash them ( dry cleaning in Paris is at least twice what we pay in the US)........ I have been washing mine for years in cold water with a baby shampoo ( which I also use on my cashmere sweaters) and a bit of vinegar, or salt to keep it fresher... And then I press them with a warm iron using a pressing cloth ( not necessary but I use it ) and stay away from the rolled edges so they are always rolled and not flattened. Dry cleaners flatten them... I love my Hermes scarves.
 
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Arati M. January 10, 2020
I 100% agree with Ellen. I think that’s the best way to hand wash a silk scarf. I would also suggest that you try washing a spot first, just to feel more confident about it before you go all in (my Hermes scarf has never bled color, but just in case) I also suggest (as have many others below) that you get rid of the excess water after washing by drying the scarf on a towel (either flat between two, or rolled) first. And then dry normally (I would use a hanger, myself) and iron out. Good luck! I love my Hermes scarves and understand the trepidation.
 
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Arati M. January 10, 2020
Apologies, Ellyn A. (auto-correct!).
 
Ellyn A. January 10, 2020
ha ha... no apologies necessary... EVERYONE does it, including my family ...autocorrect spells Ellen, always! may I add that if you wash the spot first,,, immediately put the whole scarf in water so there are no water stains.. But the only scarves that I have found that may bleed are red ones... red can bleed, but I do believe salt stops that... or vinegar in the water... I also would hang it up to dry, and use towels only with my cashmere sweater to blot some water... but u certainly can with a scarf... personally I am l too lazy, I just hang it up, it drys fast... As I said, the French wash rather than dry clean and I learned that over there... Good luck...
 
2tattered January 10, 2020
Thank you!
 
Susan W. January 11, 2020
Colored silk can be washed. I would not expose wet white or pale colored silk to sunshine but would dry it outdoors, rolled in a towel. Silk underwear can be washed in cold water in the machine and machine dried.
 
2tattered January 11, 2020
Used baby shampoo 50/50 with water to spot clean then submerged in same water, swirled, rinsed three times, rolled in towel, squared off and let dry. Just needed a quick press with iron - perfect! And lovely rolled hems still intact, unlike from dry cleaner. Thanks for all advice!
 
Carkies January 9, 2020
The Laundress cashmere shampoo is epic. I wash all my delicates on hand wash cycle and the Laundress Cashmere Shampoo. People ask me where I get my cashmere because it’s so soft. Dry cleaning ruins cashmere in my opinion. I don’t work for them—just a sweater lover and a mom!
 
Susan H. January 9, 2020
Great article. How about a down comforter? This one comes with pretty emphatic instructions to dry clean only, but I imagine that it must be the same as a down jacket?
 
Linda H. January 9, 2020
I have 3 down comforters that have been washed quite a few times. Woolite, delicate setting in an HE washing machine. Dry with tennis balls. They are just fine.
 
Frances F. January 9, 2020
I've used the dryer sheets sold for dry cleaning garments in your home dryer. 20 minutes on medium...I washed a down comforter and down pillows (seperate washes). And a silk blouse. Everything came out clean, fluffy and smelling fresh. The blouse had a few wrinkles. I sprayed it with a fine mist of water and hung it on the shower rack. The wrinkles disappeared.
 
Frances F. January 9, 2020
They are available in the supermarket. I've used 2 brands and both worked fine. My son asked me if I'd bought new pillows.
 
Ellyn A. January 10, 2020
I also wash my down comforters also in baby shampoo, and make sure they go thru two rinse cycles to make sure all soap is out. ... If you think about it, the duck lives in water. And if dry cleaned all those chemicals are in it after cleaning... I dry it on very mild or just air at end with tennis balls. I use lots of tennis balls... and the trick it to TOTALLY make sure it is dry.. go over each inch ( really doesn't take long.).. you do not want any moisture left, so drying takes time. lots of time... Do not use high heat...
 
Melissa B. January 10, 2020
I wash our family’s down comforters and down jackets— small amount of mild shampoo, double rinse, then into the dryer with wool dryer balls, usually on low heat.
 
John L. January 9, 2020
How would you wash a "dry clean-only" queen-size wool blanket (Pendleton)? BY THE WAY, I made your Shrewsbury Biscuits with toasted caraway seeds and my wife and our two guests for "afternoon tea" agreed they were the best, best, best.
 
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Arati M. January 9, 2020
Hi John. I think a wool blanket could be washed on a very short delicate cycle, in cold water, and using only a wool-safe detergent (some readers below have suggestions on these). Also, so excited you tried the Shrewsbury!! I want to try swapping out the lemon with orange zest when I make it next.
 
Mary L. January 9, 2020
Unless you need to spot your blanket - they do wonderfully just being hung on the line in fresh air for a few hours. Does wonders! Also you could put the blanket in the dryer, on air only, with a scented towel.
 
Linda H. January 9, 2020
i have successfully washed many wool blankets. In my case i took them to the laundromat for the front loading washers on a delicate setting. They were almost dry when i took them out due to the high spin.
 
Kelli A. January 9, 2020
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 through a tennis ball in the dryer with them. I have been doing this for years without issue.
 
SusanRubinsky January 9, 2020
I can't recall the last time I took something to the dry cleaner. It's been at least 10 years, maybe more. I hand wash or wash in the delicate cycle almost all of my clothes that have "Dry Clean Only" labels -- my grandmother and mother did this so I grew up doing it too. I've been using the mesh bags for years. I don't even understand why people use the dry cleaner, except for good suits. Even then, the pants (or skirts) can be done at home and the jackets maybe once a year (with spot cleaning in between).
 
jpriddy January 3, 2020
I have dry cleaned two items in forty years: two Pendleton wool coats, cleaned once each. I have washed a silk sweater labeled "dry clean only" for twenty years. Cold water, hang to dry. If I cannot wash it, I won't keep it. Simple. Silk chiffon and crepe usually do not hand wash so unless I am willing to experiment with hand washing, I don't buy. I might dry clean a cost. Everything else has to be washable, even if the label says not to.
 
Alex S. January 3, 2020
I spoke to a Vendor once and asked why a simple cotton garment said Dry Clean Only? She said they were afraid American consumers would throw them in with towels or sheets. I didn’t say, but she assumed we Americans were, how to say? Idiots and don’t know how to take care of our clothes. No, I don’t dry clean many things. Maybe a pleated or beaded silk evening dress, if I have one left ;)
 
Robin M. January 4, 2020
Sometimes the item has that warning because it was not preshrunk before the fabric was cut and the garment was fabricated. So, if you washed it, it might shrink or the dye might run. I’ve seen it on less expensive clothes as well as pricier ones...
 
MichiRoCo January 1, 2020
This article sends me back to the times I saw my mother hand wash items that were labeled dry clean only. So many good memories. To her the label was merely a suggestion - or a challenge! She was a pro at taking out stains and making garments look like they had just come from the cleaners. But she stayed away from leather and suede. She knew better!
The only tip I can add is that a salad spinner can be used to remove excess water from delicates. We had a rather large one just for this purpose. I have even successfully wrung out sweaters using it myself. Thicker items took a few "spins" but it worked beautifully.
 
jpriddy January 3, 2020
My mother rolled things up tightly in a cotton towel before hanging to dry—still works for me.
 
J December 30, 2019
Great article with the author’s tried-and-true tips!

I have two more suggestions: first, if it’s possible given your lifestyle, change the way you shop for clothes. Whenever possible, repeat the mantra: “It’s gotta be washable.”

Second, my skin is really sensitive and, at least 20 years ago, I realized I could no longer use regular deodorant, even those that were “delicate.” The SECRET was Tea Tree Oil. I came to use one that Whole Foods carried: Desert Essence Australian Tea Tree Oil. It’s expensive, but you only need to dab underarms with a tiny amount with a cotton pad. It’s amazing! Not just for sensitive skin, but what it does to body odor: it kills it. I’m sure other brands would work just as well. Today I’m retired so no longer need to wear my wool jackets frequently, and so I haven’t used a dry cleaner for at least 7 years. It’s hard for me to quantify, but I’m guessing my wool jackets worn with a shirt or blouse underneath may be worn 10-15 times before dry-cleaning is needed if tea tree oil is my only deodorant. Before TTO, it was more like 5.

I fortified this belief when I became an expert on body odor after becoming “Robe Mother” for an extremely large church choir that wore decades-old delicate cassocks (the black under-part, think Westminster Abbey) made of ancient British wool (yes, the wool was much cooler in the summer than the polyester ones we bought much later). These “could not be washed.” Garment body odor happens when old sweat stains become refreshed with new sweat. And the sweat in these old garments had been refreshed for hundreds of sweaty Sundays. Once every few years the church would spend a small fortune (80+ garments) on dry cleaning. Still, so many stank! I experimented and discovered that they could, indeed, be washed. However, mere washing, unless at boiling temps (which is how gyms wash communal clothing), will not undo ancient body odor: that’s why your husband’s favorite college softball shirt still stinks. And I had to wash in cold water, gentle. Before washing, I would douse the underarm areas of the smelliest ones with TTO, then wash (cold, gentle, line dry). The results were amazing and well worth a try on any beloved clothing with ancient body odor.
 
Author Comment
Arati M. December 30, 2019
Thank you for your very thoughtful note, and rec. I must add tea tree oil to my body care and washing regimen. I always knew of its anti-inflammatory properties, but hadn't realized it was such a great weapon against odor-causing bacteria. Also, I absolutely agree that our whole approach to consumption must move towards buying far more thoughtfully, and consciously. Have a very happy new year!
 
Libbyrager January 9, 2020
This is a cool tip. Did you use a spray bottle to douse the garments with Tea tree oil? Was it diluted at all?
 
Jan B. December 19, 2019
Rest of cashmere washing- into spin cycle on washing machine for only a couple of minutes,Then flat dry on a towel- it will dry overnight and the soap makes it soft and fluffy like new The soap's name-Euculan- you can get it on Amazon and a bottle lasts me a year and I must wash at least 100 sweaters a year!
 
Jan B. December 19, 2019
I haven't had to dryclean in at least 10 years mainly because I have a good steamer, and I use a wonderful soap for wool sweaters that you don't have to rinse out and it makes sweaters mothproof- especially necessary because moths love to chomp on Cashmere!
All care takes a bit of time but well worth it- no more time than to drop off or pick up at the drycleaners.
For silks, try Presidents Choice for delicate fabrics,- if you have a spot that you want to get rid of, Wash the area immediately but YOU MUST DRY IT IMMEDIATELY with your hairdryer so you don't get a water stain- I wash my silk scarves and immediately dry them with my hairdryer- then steam iron them.
A lot of the time, you can remove stains from wool with your steamer.
Again, the hairdryer is a great help.
Washing cashmere is so simple with the soap that I use.
Lukewarm water in the sink with 1/2 cap of soap.Gently work it in leave for 10 min then squeeze out the water roll in a towel then into the spin on the dryer for a couple of minutesp
 
Robin M. January 3, 2020
What is the name of the wonderful soap you mention using for wool? You say President’s Choice for silk (which is very good to know!), but I’m assuming that’s not it! Thank you!
 
Carmen January 4, 2020
I have been using Eucalan to hand wash silk, wool and cashmere for more than 10 years. It’s available at better fabric stores and online. After soaking garments, I place them in the washing machine and use the spin cycle to remove excess water then lay flat to shape and dry. No shrinkage.
 
Samina January 9, 2020
There are several good options - Soak Wool Wash, Eucalan, & Kookaburra Wool Wash are all great. They're available on line, Also, many yarn shops will carry at least one of them.
 
Jan B. December 19, 2019
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