Martha Stewart: Try hand-washing fabrics that are ‘dry-clean only’

  • By Martha Stewart
  • Wednesday, October 7, 2009 12:31pm
  • Life

The cost of carting clothes to the dry cleaner adds up. First, there’s the actual price. Then there’s the time it takes to trek there and back.

Next comes the environmental issue: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies perchloroethylene, the standard solvent, as a hazardous air pollutant and a possible to probable carcinogen. Plus, its odor tends to build up on clothes over time.

Should you find a “green” dry cleaner, which may be even more out of the way? While some clothing will always need professional attention, many pieces will do just as well with home laundering, despite their “dry-clean only” label.

Read on to learn which clothes — and what stains — you can take care of yourself without much effort or expense, in the comfort of your laundry room.

Clothing manufacturers are required to recommend at least one cleaning method on their products’ care labels. When a tag says “dry-clean only,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that the item can’t be hand-washed, especially if it’s made of natural fibers.

But professional dry cleaning can reduce the risk of returns by consumers who mishandle these clothes at home. Manufacturers, therefore, tend to take a conservative approach. Reading a garment’s care label — not only for the method of cleaning, but also for the fabric content — is key to determining whether you can wash an item at home.

Garments that are simply constructed, unlined and made of natural fibers (cotton, silk and linen) or of the synthetic workhorse polyester can probably be washed by hand or in cold water in a machine. Slipping them into a mesh bag helps reduce wear.

Before washing reds and other deep colors, test for colorfastness by wetting an inconspicuous area of the item with several drops of water and pressing with a white cloth or a cotton swab. If the color bleeds, take the garment to a dry cleaner.

Suits, pleated skirts, and clothing made from delicate synthetics, such as rayon, or fabric blends, including silk and wool, should be left to the pros; all tend to lose their shape in water.

Leather or suede items and those with metal embellishments, beading or sequins require special care, too. Heavily soiled garments, especially those with difficult oil-based stains, should be taken to a dry cleaner, who may be able to remove them with special solvents.

Another option is home dry-cleaning kits. Available in the laundry aisle at supermarkets and drugstores, these kits are designed for spot-cleaning and deodorizing items at home.

Used with a standard dryer, they cost less than having the work done by professionals (about $20 for a kit that can clean as many as 40 items). Although they can lift odors and some stains, you’ll still have to do any pressing or starching (to minimize wrinkles, remove garments a few minutes before the cycle ends and hang them up to dry).

Experts at the Dry-cleaning &Laundry Institute, in Laurel, Md., say the leading kits on the market successfully eliminate odors and wrinkles and work well on water-based stains, such as wine and milk.

The verdict: They’re a good choice for knits and sweaters, and as a supplement to dry cleaning. But the kits do not get rid of oil-based and other stubborn stains very well. In fact, ballpoint-pen ink stains may be set when treated with water-based stain-removal solutions.

Of course, the best protection for your clothes is not getting them dirty in the first place. Get in the habit of applying deodorant, hair products, scented sprays and perfumes several minutes before getting dressed to reduce your clothes’ exposure to the chemicals. This practice can also prevent stains (no more errant dabs of lotion or toothpaste sullying an outfit before you even leave home).

But the occasional stain is inevitable. When spots and spatter marks occur, address them immediately. Water-based stains, such as a splash of coffee or a dribble of mustard, require swift action.

If left untended, the spot may oxidize and become nearly impossible to eliminate. If you’re on the go and must delay laundering, a stain-remover pen is generally a good emergency remedy.

For oil-based stains, such as lipstick, head to the dry cleaner as soon as you can. Be sure to point out any marks before the items are cleaned, steamed or pressed.

Even if your ensemble makes it through the day with nary a smudge, once home, hang your clothing in a well-ventilated spot for an hour or two to clear out any perspiration, odors or smoke that the fabrics have absorbed.

Address questions to Ask Martha, care of Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 601 W. 26th St., 9th floor, New York, NY 10001. Send e-mail to:

Please include your name, address and daytime telephone number. For more information, visit

&Copy; 2009 Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc.

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