The Real Goods About Cleaning Clothes

hand washing a knit scarf

A new mantra has permeated the web of late; not sure if it was instigated by Stella McCartney, but she is quoted by The Telegraph as saying “Don’t wash clothes, just brush the dirt off…”. I respect Stella McCartney for her environmental stance and her high quality, sustainable fashions. She’s not just talking the talk but walking the talk. Although her quote has some truth to it, it’s mostly false. This philosophy only works with certain fibers and fabrications, like wool suiting. Like any product we own, maintenance is key. Cleaning clothes prevents damage to fabrics, and keeps us presentable and healthy. It’s not the washing per se, but it’s what we’re washing that’s affecting the environment.

What are we washing?

In addition to the usual suspects in the wash, like cotton, bamboo, wool, rayon, and silk; a large proportion of clothing in the laundry is synthetics. Synthetics account for over 65% of global production, and polyester alone is found in 60% of the garments on retail shelves. The prevalence of polyester, polyester blends, and other synthetics and their subsequent release of “microfibers” and “microplastics” greatly impact the environment. Every time a synthetic is laundered, it releases a surprisingly high amount of these microfibers into the water. However, caring for synthetics is a catch 22. On the one hand they must be washed more frequently. It is difficult to remove soil from synthetics, because they absorb very little water; the fabric can’t be thoroughly wetted to assist in soil removal. As a result of more frequent cleaning, we’re adding even more microfibers to the water system. 

Why do we clean clothes?

The word “dirt” or “soil” is really a mixture of a variety of substances:

  • solid, particulate matter such as dust, clay, lint
  • oily and fatty substances like body oils, food, cooking oil
  • soluble substances like salts, sugars, starches
  • coloring matter such as mustard, fruit juice, coffee, ink, lipstick

When dirt is left on clothing for extended periods of time, fabrics can be damaged, not to mention unpleasant odours, and soil will set into the fibers making its removal difficult. Regular washing maintains your clothes, and keeps them looking like new for longer. 

To address McCartney’s quote, a fine wool suit can certainly be spot cleaned. If the type of dirt is solid, like mud you can let it dry and then brush it off. One of the amazing properties of wool is that it actually repels dirt. My first line of defence to prevent stains from setting into fabric is spot cleaning with a little water and a dash of soap. Spot cleaning works best with natural fibers like wool, cotton, and silk. This approach may or may not work with synthetics because of their propensity to hold dirt and oily stains.

Another reason to keep clothes clean is “bugs love dirt”; they will destroy your clothes. Dirty wool can attract moths, and wet cotton attracts mildew and silverfish, particularly when stored this way. These are rare occurrences, but can happen. I was placing my bag and jacket in my locker one day at work, when an unkept, young fellow removed his jacket and a cloud of dust (who knows what kind of dirt was in that cloud) was released. I was mortified to think that no one had taught him the finer details of cleaning his clothes.

How often should you wash?

Make sure to read care labels. To deter customer complaints, manufacturers tend to be overly cautious with care label information, and often indicate that an item must be drycleaned when it could be washed. Most knit sweaters, including cashmere can be hand washed safely. 

If your garment isn’t that dirty, and you have a small accident, try spot cleaning; the sooner the better before a stain sets in. If it’s dry dirt, brushing off will work. Blotting with a little water and a dash of soap can be tried on stains. For optimal freshness, hang up clothes at the end of the day to air them out, before placing them back into the closet. Don’t store items that are really dirty; clean before putting away.

We should all hand wash more, which would alleviate the amount of microfibers entering the water. Limit dryer times, and hang clothes or lay flat to dry. Synthetics don’t need dryer time.

Place delicate fabrics, items that may snag, and synthetics in a laundry bag before putting in the washing machine. Turn most clothing inside out before washing.

Now that we’ve determined that clothing needs to be washed, let’s look at how often you really need to clean. How often to clean is not an exact science. The following list is just a guideline, and common sense applies. You have to take into account hot weather, accidental spills, and odours that tell you it’s time to wash. Wearing any item a little longer, will likely be fine.

Washable Fabrics

  • Whites or silk fabrics – after every wear
  • Underwear and socks – after every wear
  • Bras – hand wash after 3 to 4 wears
  • Pajamas/nightgowns – after 3 to 4 wears
  • T-shirts, tanks, camosiles – after every wear
  • Hosiery – after every wear. Tights last longer when hand washed.
  • Leggings – after 1 to 3 wears
  • Shapewear – after 1 to 3 wears. Hand washing is better for these items. Fabrics with spandex or Lycra should not be put in the dryer, as the dryer breaks down elastic fibers.
  • Swimsuits – after every wear
  • Dress pants and skirts – after 5 to 7 wears
  • Jackets and blazers – check cuffs and collars for noticeable dirt. These items may only require cleaning once or twice per season.
  • Tops and dresses – pay attention to obvious dirt around necklines, cuffs and underarms. Tops probably need cleaning more often than dresses, after 1 to 3 wears.
  • Sweatshirts – after 6 to 7 wears
  • Jeans – after 4 to 5 wears. Turn inside out and use cold water.
  • Down parkas/jackets/vests – 1 to 2 times per season
  • Shorts and khakis – after 2 to 3 wears
  • Sweaters – knits worn close to the body should be cleaned more often, after 2 to 5 wears. Wool knits can be left longer. I wash bulky, wool knits once or twice a season.
  • Hats/gloves/scarves – 3 to 5 times per season

Drycleaning

Drycleaning is necessary for some items in your closet. I would limit the use of traditional drycleaners. There are eco-friendly drycleaners that don’t use the classic chemical solvents. I know some people like to take shirts to be laundered and pressed at the drycleaners, but their washing methods are harsh to fabrics.

What needs drycleaning:
  • Wool coats/jackets – once a season unless very dirty. Spot clean as needed.
  • Leather and suede – once per season. Leather is easily wiped, but the lining is usually what gets the dirtiest.
  • Wool suits/pants/skirts – once per season

The prevalence of polyester and other synthetics in our clothing adds sustainability challenges, not only in the manufacture of them but in how we clean them. Regular cleaning is essential to maintaining our clothing, and to keep our clothes looking like new for longer, regardless of what the fabrics are composed of. We can do our part to make sure that cleaning is done responsibly. The industry needs to become more responsible, not just the consumer trying to deal with the mess left behind.