Dry Cleaning vs Hand Washing

Do you know how to care for that new blouse, that favorite scarf, or that expensive jacket? Step one should always be consulting the care label, but sometimes the label doesn’t give you the whole picture. Should you be dry cleaning or hand washing these items?

What is Dry Cleaning?

This process is called “dry cleaning” because the item being laundered never comes into contact with water. It does, however, become wet—but with a cleaning solvent. The solvent is then extracted back out of the garment in a process that is gentler than a romp through the washer and dryer. Cleaning this way is less likely to result in running colors, shrinkage, or stretching.

Dry cleaners can also be worth their weight in gold because the truth is, they’re just better at getting stains out of clothing than us mere mortals. If my fabric is hardy and I know the source of a stain, I will work on it myself, based on what I know works. But if the stain is a mystery, and the fabric is delicate, forget about it. To the cleaner’s it goes.

hand washing

Hand Washing, the Right Way

Clearly, this process is a little more transparent, since we’ve all done it at one point or another. The best way to hand-wash is to dissolve a little gentle detergent in some cold water, then add the garment and gently agitate and work the sudsy water through it. Let soak for about 10 minutes, then rinse and use gentle squeezes to remove the water (no wringing out). Lay the garment on a clean towel and roll it up to extract the water, then lay knits on a fresh dry towel or drying rack, or hang wovens up to dry.

laundry care label

Dry Clean Only

Lots of times, you’ll see a “dry-clean only” label on a garment or item, but this is not necessarily the whole story. Manufacturers are required to provide only a single care instruction, and they often tend to choose the most conservative—indeed, taking stuff to the dry cleaners is the least likely to damage any item. But there are items labeled as such that can still be successfully hand-washed. That being said, proceed with caution!

Never Hand Wash…

Skip hand-washing acetate, triacetate, and rayon, which can shrink and lose their shape when immersed in water. Ditto with garments constructed with several different layers, like a wool jacket with a lining and interfacing. These items can shrink at different rates, leaving a structured item looking saggy and no longer crisp. Leather or suede: Just don’t. And anything that’s difficult to iron, like skirts with lots of pleats, should go straight to the dry cleaner.

The Final Consideration

Remember, there is some risk involved in ignoring a “dry-clean only” care label. That risk is inflicting damage to the item, often irreversible. So consider whether you’re willing to take that risk. With home textiles, I find it’s not worth it. If the label doesn’t state that I can wash it, then I just take it to the cleaners. With clothing, I find that the state of an item will help me weigh whether or not to give it a try. A brand-new item that I paid a lot of money for, and that would kill me to destroy, will always go to the cleaners. Alternatively, if I have an item that I’ve already gotten many years of wear out of, and it’s showing signs of age, I might try and do it myself.

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  1. It’s good to know that it’s called dry cleaning because the item doesn’t come into contact with water. My brother needs to get some dry cleaning done. I’ll share this information with him so that he knows more about the process.

  2. I once took a pretty, new, flowy shirt with lots of ruffling and pleats to the cleaners because the care label read “dry clean only”…when I got it back it was like a smoothed out parachute:(. They had ironed out every single pleat and ruffle!

  3. Its true that dry clean is better then hand clean because some stains can’t removed by hand washing but in dry clean we can clean over clothes easily and they all start looking like new and also hand cleaning makes clothes very dull in color but this not happen in dry clean.


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