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:
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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!