I’ve always thought my best friend’s method of hand-washing clothes was an ingenious feat of multitasking: She brings them in the shower with her, squeezes some suds through the fabric, and lays the clothes out to dry when she’s done. Yet despite the beautiful simplicity of this method, I never imitated it. For years, I’ve avoided hand-washing completely. I just toss my bras and delicate tops in the washing machine’s gentle cycle, and I avoid buying super-lightweight or daintily embellished items altogether.
Because, to be frank, the “hand-wash only” tag irks me deeply. I’ve long harbored a suspicion that it’s nothing more than a manufacturer’s sneaky way of dodging responsibility for expensive clothing that might fall apart in the washing machine.
While that’s kind of true, hand-washing is ultimately the best practice for caring for the types of fabrics being used today, according to Sean Cormier, assistant chair of textile development and marketing at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. For decades, Cormier has specialized in textile quality assurance, spending 18 years as the director of quality at Liz Claiborne.
“It does seem like manufacturers are trying to use just one or two labels, and not really go through the effort of seeing what is the absolute best care code for that product.”
In an effort to keep costs low, Cormier told me, more manufacturers are producing lightweight clothing that’s more susceptible to pilling. They may also use less expensive dye, which tends to bleed or run more.
“If you’re a manufacturer of products, you don’t want unhappy customers,” he said. “So if you’re making drapes, you don’t want them to fade. If you’re making apparel, you don’t want your clothes to shrink. And if you’re making products that pill, nobody’s going to buy them again.” Cormier called the risk of pilling, in particular, a “really a bad problem” for manufacturers.
“It does seem like manufacturers are trying to use just one or two labels, and not really go through the effort of seeing what is the absolute best care code for that product,” Cormier said.
While you, like me, may be tempted to toss everything in the washing machine, the reality is that it’s harsh on clothes. The agitation can damage or stretch some fabrics’ delicate fibers. This is especially true of front-loading washers, according to Cormier.
“With front loaders, the clothing actually tumbles during the washing process,” he said. “The top-loaders are a little bit more gentle because they only swish side to side.” (Take note, city dwellers: Those laundromat washing machines aren’t doing your clothes any favors.)
“Hand-washing is ultimately the safest way to avoid snags and tears ... especially for delicate fabrics such as cashmere, silk, and lace,” said Gwen Whiting co-founder of the fabric-care company The Laundress.
Cashmere, silk, lace and embroidered garments should always be hand-washed, she said. (That’s right—though many silk garments are tagged “dry clean,” they’re usually safe to wash at home. Just test for colorfastness first). Ditto for anything with embellishments, like beads, tassels or sequins.
Despite my extreme reluctance, it turns out that there’s little actual labor involved in hand-washing. Just follow these basic steps from Lindsey Boyd, Whiting’s co-founder of The Laundress:
Fill a clean sink or basin with water—hot for cottons or durable synthetics; cold for the delicate textiles mentioned above.
Add a little bit of detergent (Cormier recommends a low-alkaline version), swish it around and put your garment in. There’s no need to squeeze the water through your clothing, which could damage it.
Let it sit for ten minutes, then run it under the faucet to rinse out any leftover detergent.
Press the garment against the side of the sink or basin to release excess water. Don’t twist or wring it, which could cause it to lose its shape.
Then lay flat to dry.
And, hallelujah! If you’re really in a time crunch, Boyd said you can get away with putting delicates in the washing machine. Just be sure to put them in a mesh bag and wash on the delicate cycle with low spin. Cormier recommends washing clothes inside out, to reduce abrasion.
At the end of the day, though my best friend’s method isn’t technically “correct,” it capitalizes on the best aspect of hand-washing: no hard labor. I suspect the life expectancy of my bras is about to double — and that’s great news for my wallet.