When my mother taught me what to look for when shopping for new clothes, one of the first things she mentioned was looking at the tag to make sure the garment wasn’t “dry-clean only.” This was typically followed by “no matter how much it’s marked down, it actually costs more when you add in dry cleaning costs.”
But occasionally, a dry-clean-only gift or thrift store find would make its way into the house, and we’d have to figure out how to wash it ourselves. And of course, you always need to wear it at the last minute, when it’s too late to take it to the cleaners. Or perhaps you’re living through a pandemic and aren’t supposed to leave the house, but want to make your laundry pile disappear and don’t want to wait until you can go out again. Either way, there are times when you’re going to need to dry clean something at home. Here’s how to do it.
What does ‘dry-clean only’ actually mean?
Sure, the label on your blouse might say “dry-clean only,” but is there any wiggle room? According to Gwen Whiting, cofounder of The Laundress, there is. “The instructions found on care tags aren’t necessarily the best way to clean an item but are instead a way for manufacturers to avoid getting blamed for irreparable damage when instructions aren’t followed,” she told Glamour. “When manufacturers default to dry-cleaning care instructions, it’s to push the responsibility to the dry cleaners rather than themselves.”
Along the same lines, Steve Boorstein, a former dry cleaner and founder of ClothingDoctor.com says when a tag reads “dry-clean only,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that the item can’t be hand-washed, especially if it’s made of natural fibres. The “dry-clean only” label is there to reduce the risk of people incorrectly washing the garment at home.
It also depends on the type of garment and fabric. For example, items of clothing that are simply constructed, unlined and made of natural fibres (cotton, silk, and linen) or polyester can probably be washed by hand or in cold water in a machine, according to MarthaStewart.com. On the other hand, you’re going to want to skip suits, pleated skirts and clothing made from delicate synthetics, such as rayon, or fabric blends, including silk and wool, as well as leather or suede items and those with metal embellishments, beading or sequins.
One way to launder dry-clean-only garments at home is to hand wash them. You can do this in your bathroom or kitchen sink, or in a separate basin. This is something we covered in detail a few weeks ago, but for reference, here’s what you need to do:
Get yourself a bucket, a sink with the stopper in or a tub with the plug in. You’re going to fill that receptacle with water at the temperature at which you’d like to wash your clothes.
Use a gentle soap or laundry powers (not detergent). Dish soap or hair shampoo are good options.
Use your hands or a wooden spoon or something similar to act as an agitator. Get in there and start churning, squishing and squeezing until everything gets really soapy.
Rinse the items, one at a time, in clean water from the nearest receptacle.
Hang the clean clothes out to dry on a drying rack, your shower curtain rod, over the backs of chairs, or anywhere else you have the space.
Using the washing machine
If you really want to use the washing machine, it’s possible to safely wash some dry-clean only garments in there. One major caveat, though: the machine has to have an “express” setting in order for this to work. If it does, here are Apartment Therapy’s instructions for using your washing machine for dry-clean-only:
1. If the piece is stained, apply stain remover to the affected area while it’s dry.
2. Place your soiled garment in a mesh bag.
3. Use a gentle laundry soap, adding your soap to the detergent dispenser or directly to the drum of your washing machine as directed.
4. Run your washing machine’s express cycle, which agitates your clothes for less time overall.
5. Hang the garment or lay flat to dry.
6. Use a steamer to remove wrinkles if necessary.
At-home dry cleaning kits
For the past several years, at-home dry cleaning kits have become available in most supermarkets. If you happen to have one or are able to get one, that’s also an option. Basically, these kits work by first spot-treating any stains on the garment, and then “cleaning” it by putting a damp pad with the cleaning solution from the kit in your dryer, where the heat steams it. While these kits are good at freshening up your clothes, they’re not the best at getting rid of oil-based stains (including ones from body oils).
Really, it depends on what you’re looking to get out of the cleaning process. And if it’s something like a family heirloom or something else that absolutely under no circumstances can be ruined, you may be better off just taking it to a professional dry cleaner when you have that option again.