Natural Laundering Tips
How to Care for Your Clothes
I would not describe myself as a fussy launderer.
I own no artisanal detergents. I still use the dryer (even though I know that the environmental costs are not great). I often machine wash things that say “hand wash only.”
But, despite all that, I would say I’m also a responsible launderer. I own many garments – many of them relatively thin t-shirts – that have been in my wardrobe for three or four years, if not longer. My denim only leaves my closet when I gain weight. And my sweaters are all well-formed.
When you’re trying to shop more responsibly, it can be easy to forget that what happens while you own the garment can be more impactful, from a sustainability perspective, than all of the certifications written on the tag. And, especially if you’re shopping secondhand, knowing how to extend the life of a garment and care for it properly can make all the difference.
My Laundering Basics
- Quality matters. Whether I’m shopping from sustainable brands or secondhand, I generally try to buy natural fibers like wool, alpaca, and cotton in tighter weaves with strong seams. This ensures that the garment has a fighting chance through years of wear.
- Due to my sensitive skin, I use either an unscented detergent or a detergent scented with a non-irritating essential oil (like Trader Joe’s Lavender Detergent).
- I never use fabric softener, because this breaks down and weakens garment fibers over time.
- I split my laundry into two large loads: clothing and towels/underwear.
- Clothing is washed in cool water.
- Towels and underwear are washed in warm or hot water, because, in my experience, this does a better job of removing odors and irritants.
- New, highly saturated garments are hand washed the first time to ensure they don’t stain other garments.
- Larger loads are more energy efficient and use less water overall.
- Wool dryer balls don’t work exceptionally well at reducing static in my opinion, but they do help items dry more quickly, which saves on energy.
- I generally wash denim after 4-6 wears and sweaters only once or twice a season. This is more environmentally friendly, but also puts less stress on the fabric of each garment.
- A note on deodorant: deodorants containing aluminum and/or baking soda are much more likely to discolor and build up in clothing even after washing. Switching to gentler deodorant, if possible, will extend the life of your blouses and t-shirts.
Here are my tips for washing and storing garments, by fabric content and weave.
How I Launder and Store…
Wool and Acrylic (Sweaters)
- Soak with water and a small amount of scent-free detergent (any brand will do) for ten minutes.
- Gently rinse, then soak in water for another ten minutes.
- Gently ring out (You can use the spin cycle on your washing machine if you have one in-unit or lay the garment out on a dry towel, then slowly roll it up to remove excess water).
- Lay flat to dry on a drying rack.
- Tip: when washing synthetic fibers, a Guppy Bag can help keep microplastics from entering the water ways. I don’t currently own one, so I generally only wash my synthetic fiber clothing when I first get them (if they’re secondhand) and then once a season after that. I layer t-shirts under sweaters to prolong their wear.
- Fold loosely and store on shelves.
- Tip: De-pill sweaters once a season with a sweater stone.
Polyester, Rayon, Viscose, and other synthetics (Thrifted or Vintage)
- Follow the above instructions for hand washing.
- If the item smells strongly of detergents or moth balls, wash one or two more times.
- Some soft rayons can be washed in the washing machine.
- Hang dry and store on the appropriate type of hanger.
- Tip: repair small holes and replace buttons with a basic sewing kit. Some thrift store carry craft and sewing supplies, as well.
Cotton and Cotton Blends (T-shirts, Jeans, etc.)
- Wash on the cold setting in a laundry machine.
- Dry on regular or high heat.
- You can also hang dry cotton garments if you have the capacity to do so. You can extend the life of your denim a bit by hang drying or using a drying rack.
- I generally fold shirts and store them on hanging shelves in the closet. I hang jeans.
- Tip: avoid ironing by folding clothes while they’re still warm from the dryer.
- I always prefer cotton underwear because it’s more breathable and less likely to pull or pill over time.
- For panties, wash on a warm or hot setting and dry on medium or high heat.
- For bras, hand wash and hang or line dry.
- Store flat in a drawer.
A note on dry cleaning: I have never taken anything to the dry cleaner’s. That’s due to a combination of things: I try not to buy dry-clean only garments, I hand wash a lot of vintage items made with polyester or viscose even though they suggest dry cleaning, and I’m not that fussy about my outerwear being cleaned often.
If you’ve purchased a secondhand coat, it may not be a bad idea to take it to a “green” dry cleaner before you wear it the first time, but otherwise, see what you can do to spot clean, and always wear washable layers under dry-clean only items.
Getting acquainted with what constitutes a good quality garment – in terms of stitching, textile, weave, and fabric – is the number one way to make your clothes last longer. But just a little bit of attention to garment care and storage goes a long way.