Do you want to know how to avoid dry-cleaning and make your clothes last longer? Unlike most New Yorkers, I rarely dry-clean my clothes. I avoid dry cleaning to save money, to preserve my garments, and to avoid the toxic chemicals, namely perchloroethylene, used in the dry cleaning process. (Read more about why the EPA is concerned about dry cleaning here.) The exceptions to my no dry-cleaning policy are a few items like party dresses with complicated construction and my husband's suits. I thought I'd share some of my tips for how to avoid the dry cleaner and some alternatives to dry cleaning that you can try at home.
Don't buy dry-clean only clothes.
This is the simplest way to avoid the dry cleaner: Don't bring anything into your home that requires professional cleaning. This advice is easy to follow for most garments, though it is nearly impossible to find things like blazers, suits and winter coats that can be washed at home.
Ignore the label.
Many manufacturers label clothing items as dry-clean only that can actually be washed. Manufacturers err on the side of dry-cleaning to avoid unhappy consumers who might wash something incorrectly and ruin a garment.
Instead, look at the fiber content and garment construction.
Take a look at the materials that make up your garment. Wool, cotton, linen, silk and many synthetic fibers can all be washed -- either in a machine or by hand. The trick is knowing the best way to care for each fiber. This "Can I Be Washed?" chart is a very handy guide to what fibers can and cannot be laundered. In terms of construction, anything with padding, boning, pleating or elaborate detail is going to be challenging to wash (again, avoid buying these items in the future).
Learn how to hand-wash.
Sweaters can be easily hand-washed at home. The key is to use lukewarm water, gentle agitation, a neutral soap (I like The Laundress's Wool and Cashmere Wash), a place to and some patience. Here's a great video in which Martha Stewart shows you how to wash and block a sweater.
Wear garments multiple times.
Not everything needs to be washed every time you wear it -- really! Laundry has become so easy today that people throw even the most minimally soiled garments into the wash. If you've only worn something once, it may have another wear (or ten!) in it. If you wear a layer under a wool or cashmere sweater, you can probably get at least a dozen wears out of it, if you don't spill on it. Dark jeans can be word until they show dirt or have lost their shape altogether.
Refresh your garments between uses.
To extend the time between washings or dry cleaning, do a little maintenance between wearings of a garment. If I have wrinkled a skirt, blazer or pants, but not really gotten it dirty, I will lightly mist the piece with water from a spray bottle and hang it in a place where it can fully dry. I find the water gently refreshes the fabric and loosens the wrinkles; you can also purchase various "refresher" sprays, but I would check with the Environmental Working Group's ratings for fabric and upholstery deodorizers before purchasing anything (Febreeze products, for example, contain hormone disrupters and carcinogens). I'm also curious about DIY options, but have never tried them myself.
A little steam goes a long way towards reviving a garment. I've had a My Little Steamer for more than a decade and I can't recommend it highly enough. It is almost as powerful as a professional steamer and is so easy to use. After you've refreshed a garment with a little water and some airing, a steaming will make it look truly fresh again. I imagine the steam also has some sanitizing properties. One tip: After you steam a garment, let it rest for 20-30 minutes, so that the moisture evaporates. If you put on a freshly steamed garment, it may just wrinkle back up if it's still damp.
If you get a small stain on a garment, you may not need to wash the whole thing. Instead, dab the dirty spot with a barely damp cloth to remove any visible dirt. I'm also a big fan of Simply Spotless's fabric cleaner, which can be applied directly to a stain and does not need to be rinsed out.
Gentle wash and air-dry shirts.
Almost anything made of linen or cotton, or a blend in which linen or cotton is more than 50% of the fiber content can be machine-washed in warm water. For anything delicately constructed, use the "hand washable" or "delicates" cycle. For regular old button-down shirts and other sturdier garments, use the "permanent press," which is a bit more gentle than the regular cycle. Then, air dry the garment to save it the abuse of the dryer. I dry all my shirts on a regular hanger buttoned up. I find that oxford cloth shirts come out looking almost wrinkle-free using this method, but thinner weaves may need a pressing or a steaming after they have dried.
Cold wash and line-dry jeans.
I doubt you'd dry-clean your jeans, but here's how to make that dark wash last longer. Wash your denim turned inside out (zippered and buttoned) in cold water. Turn them right-side out, give them a hearty shake and dry them on a rack or a clothesline.
Air-dry all your delicates.
We refer to bras and panties as "delicates," but the truth is that most of these garments are pretty sturdy because of their elastic content. I find it's okay to wash them in warm water. Be sure to hook all your bra clasps to avoid snagging. Experts recommend placing them in a mesh bag to wash, but I have yet to invest in one (I find that tangling isn't too much of an issue if you don't overload your washer). Always air-dry bras and panties to make them last longer.
For more tips on how to make your clothes last longer, check out Martha's advice.