Natural Laundering Tips to Help Your Clothes Last Longer

laundry basket on wood floor - Natural Laundering Tips

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).
  • 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.

Cotton (Underwear)

  • 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.

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Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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