Laundry isn’t complicated at all. If you want, you can throw anything you want in the washing machine, add a bit of detergent, run it on cold with little or no post-spin, and your clothes will come out clean. Then you can throw it in the tumble dryer on lowest heat and they’ll come out pretty much dry. It’s not that hard.
However, if you want your clothes to last a long time without fraying or falling apart, you need to take a few extra precautions. Certain items can be machine washed just fine, while more delicate pieces need a little more care via hand washing and air drying. Here’s what you need to know if you want even your cheap clothes to last many seasons.
Note: Always read the label on your clothes before washing and drying! When in doubt, trust the label over anything you read on the internet—even this article!
Normal Wash or Dry Clean?
Most articles of clothing are robust enough to be washed in water with laundry detergent, although depending on how delicate an individual item is, you may need to hand wash instead of tossing it in a washing machine.
But there are articles of clothing—particular outerwear of various kinds—that can shrink or get damaged when immersed in water, or are made of certain materials that can’t withstand the chemicals in household laundry detergents. These need to be taken to a dry cleaner, who then uses a special sanitation process that involves non-water liquid solvents.
Dry cleaning isn’t cheap and the solvents are harsh on clothing, so you should only dry clean items that specifically say “DRY CLEAN ONLY” on the label.
Separating Your Laundry Into Loads
To maximize time efficiency and cut down on water waste and energy costs, you should always take a few minutes to separate your dirty laundry into loads.
First, separate your laundry based on how the items need to be washed. Put all the delicates together. Put all the cold wash items together and all the warm wash items together. Not sure which is which? I’ll explain all of that below. Just keep this in mind for now.
Then, separate into whites and colors. Clothes that have been previously washed likely won’t bleed colors, but newly bought clothes may. Regardless, separating all your whites is a preventive measure in case one of your clothing articles does bleed a little. Yep, it really is possible for white shirts to accidentally turn pink!
How to Wash Underwear, Socks, Undershirts
Boxers, briefs, panties, bras, socks, undershirts—these absorb the worst of the human body and collect all kinds of bacteria over the course of wear. These are the only items that need the warm wash setting on a washing machine. These are also the only items (with the exception of bras and panties) that should go in a tumble dryer on low.
Bras should be clasped closed and, if available, put inside a mesh lingerie bag before washing. The bag prevents the straps from tangling or getting snagged. However, for utmost longevity, consider washing by hand. Afterwards, squeeze out extra moisture with a towel and air dry alongside washed panties.
How to Wash T-Shirts, Blouses, Button-Ups
All of these can be thrown in a machine’s cold wash. The only exception is silk blouses, which should be washed by hand. Most shirts can be tumble dried on low, but the heat and tumbling action is rough on fabric—lint is broken fabric threads!—so prefer to air dry if you have the time and the space.
Before washing a shirt, always flip it inside out to help preserve colors and patterns. For blouses and button-up shirts, undo all of the buttons to reduce strain on the buttons and minimize tension creases while the shirts are being spun. After washing, redo the buttons and straighten out the shirts with collars and cuffs popped, then hang them on hangers and allow to air dry.
You’ll also want to iron them when they’re done drying.
How to Wash Sweaters
Is it a wool sweater? Then it should probably be dry cleaned. Is it a knit sweater? Then it should be hand washed in cold water. Is it a cotton sweater? Then it can probably be machine washed on cold.
Always flat dry, never hang dry or tumble dry. Unlike shirts, sweaters are heavy—especially when they’re damp with water—and will stretch when hanged due to the downward pull of gravity. You may also get “shoulder nipples” where the hanger points cause tension on the sweater. Lay them flat so they dry without any stretching. Never wring out a sweater.
How to Wash Chinos and Denim Jeans
If you don’t want your dark jeans to fade, they should be flipped inside-out and washed by hand in cold water. If you don’t care about how much they fade, or if they’re already quite faded and worn, you can flip them inside-out and machine wash on cold. Either way, be sure to zip up and button the waist before you wash.
Chinos and slacks are less finicky than jeans, and can be machine washed on cold. Be sure to flip them inside-out, zip up the fly, and button the waist before you throw it in.
Always hang dry chinos and jeans! They’re robust enough that they won’t stretch, but they will get damaged if you run them through a tumble dryer. At best, the zipper will get warped due to heat even on the lowest setting. At worst, the whole thing will shrink or lose its fit. And like shirts, pants should be ironed after drying!
How to Wash Suits and Outerwear
For suits, dry clean only. Some outerwear can be machine washed on cold, but I tend to take them to the dry cleaners anyway, especially big pieces like parkas and wool pieces like peacoats.
Once you know how to wash your entire wardrobe, you need to know how often each item needs to be washed. In actuality, most people wash their clothes way too often and end up wearing out their clothes faster than necessary. See our guide on how often clothing should be washed.