Experts share tips on how to take care of your favorite garments – plus what “dry clean only” really means.

By Caroline Shannon-Karasik and Priya Rao
Updated Apr 10, 2020 @ 4:45 pm
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Sure, you might have a penchant for cashmere and pleated dresses... but that hefty dry cleaning bill that comes with them? Not so much. Turns out though, you can dry clean clothes at home if you can't get to the cleaners — or just want to save some money.

“Depending on the fabric, some clothes labeled ‘dry clean only’ can actually be washed at home, whether you put it in the washing machine or hand wash it,” says Cindy Conroy, a fashion stylist and television personality. “All you need to do is practice some care.”

Ahead, Conroy and another clothing expert weigh in on your top dry cleaning questions, including which items you can treat at home, how to get out unsightly sweat stains, and what “dry clean only” really means anyway.

VIDEO: 7 Common Laundry Mistakes You’re Probably Making

What Does ‘Dry Clean Only’ Mean?

As you probably already know, the “dry clean only” label helps determine whether a garment could be harmed by hand- or machine-washing — and certain fabrics are more prone to damage than others. "Delicate and sensitive fabrics like silk, wool, cashmere, and some synthetic blends require dry cleaning to ensure the color will be stable and the feel, body, and texture will stay intact," says Karen Jean-Aimee, the client relations manager at top Manhattan dry cleaner Madame Paulette. Following the label will prevent shrinkage, fading, cropping and color-bleeding.

But it’s important to keep in mind that some clothing manufacturers opt for the “dry clean only” label as a means of precaution, Conroy says. That way, they don’t run the risk of people tossing everything in the wash and accidentally ruining certain items. While it’s important to regard labels, Conroy says there are some instances where you can wash some “dry clean only” items at home. “You just have to be careful with how you launder items and care for delicate or tricky fabrics,” she says.

So, When Can You Hand Wash Clothes?

While gently cleaning some delicate garments, such as lingerie, in the sink usually won't cause harm, make sure to always choose soaps designed for the purpose. And Jean-Aimee says you should watch out for treated water, which can react with certain fabrics. "Hand-washing is only comparable [to dry cleaning] when you know exactly what to do and what to use," she says. If not, "it’s best to leave it up to the professionals."

Curious about how to hand wash clothing? Prep your tub or sink by giving it a wipe down, then fill it with cold water to place your color-sorted clothes in, Conroy says. Using a laundry bar (like The Laundress Wash & Stain Bar), you can start by gently scrubbing the bar against any areas that you typically sweat in (armpits, collars, etc.). “Then, return it to the soapy mix and tackle another piece,” Conroy says. “When you’re finished, rinse everything in cold water so it’s free of soap.”

What About Drying ‘Dry Clean Only’ Clothes?

“Please, pretty please, don’t put your clothes in the dryer,” Conroy says. “I know it’s the easiest thing to do and seems like the logical next step, but it’s a big no-no!”

Instead, Conroy recommends hanging your items somewhere in your home, whether you use hangers that dangle from your shower rod or invest in a drying rack.

A bonus to skipping the dryer? In addition to keeping your "dry clean only" clothing in tip-top shape, you’ll also save on electricity. “Air drying is free and with the heat on, in just a few hours your clothes will be back in action,” Conroy says.

It’s important, however, that you don’t let your clothes dry completely. Once your items are damp to the touch (“not sopping wet,” Conroy says), they are ready to be steamed. If you don’t have a steamer, then you can use the steam function on your iron (or order a cheap one online, like this $13 AICOK steamer).

“But you’ll only get that professional dry cleaned look with a steamer,” Conroy explains.

To steam, Conroy says you simply place one item on a hanger or hook, while letting the steamer warm up. Once it’s spouting puffs of steam, you can “go to town” Conroy says, running the steamer up, down, and across the garment. “Make sure you aren’t too close to the fabric, but close enough that the steam is dissolving the creases,” Conroy says. “Turn the garment around and repeat on the other side.”

How to Clean Beaded or Embellished Items

Decorative adornments are notoriously fussy, so Conroy says you have to be “extra, extra careful” with these garments. Jean-Aimee agrees, adding that you’ll want to first test a small area on these clothing items to see if they can handle an at-home cleaning.

“There is a good percentage of these embellishments and beading that cannot withstand it and, therefore, require a special cleaning by hand,” she says, adding that often you will find these items are best left in expert hands.

However, if you accidentally splash wine on an embellished sweater while at dinner or drop oil salad dressing on your favorite sequined skirt, then you might want to try spot cleaning, Conroy says. Turn the items inside out to avoid damaging beading, sequins, and other embellishments, and with soapy water on the palm of your hand, gently dab (do not rub) the stained area. “Then take a soft, damp cloth and wipe it off,” she says.

“And remember, because embellished pieces are so fragile, you don’t have to wash them after every wear,” Conroy explains. “If your item has no stain or you didn’t really sweat while wearing it, save yourself the hassle and forgo washing. Simply air it out overnight before placing it back in your closet.”

How to Clean Pleated Skirts

Leave this one to the experts. Because most pleats are heat-set by the manufacturer, any cleaning process might make them disappear for good. Specialty cleaners, however, can re-set them using a special process.

"We have a re-pleated knife, accordion, and box pleats on items we have received," says Jean-Aimee. "They are very difficult, but we can restore the structure of the pleat back to its original formation."

How to Clean Cashmere and Wool

These items feel ultra-lux and cozy because they are made from natural fibers that require special care, “to keep their softness, texture, and feel,” Jean-Aimee says, who recommends saving these items for the dry cleaner.

But if you do decide to give it a go at home, then Conroy says you’ll want to invest in a wool and cashmere shampoo or use a laundry bar to treat these items.

“Hand wash and spot clean where needed before hanging flat to air dry on a rack,” she says. “When the item is three-quarters of the way dried, transfer it to a coated metal or plastic hanger that won’t pierce the fabric and cause it to dry into a stiff-awkward form (like hanger indents in the sleeves).”

One thing you should always avoid with these items? An iron, Jean-Aimee says. “They need to be steamed and blocked properly to the original size."

How to Clean Denim

While throwing jeans in the washer on a gentle cycle is a perfectly acceptable option (turn them inside out to help prevent surface fading), if you prefer, denim can be dry cleaned.

"It will actually preserve the dye applied to keep the denim dark, as opposed to normal washing, which will fade darker color denim and make it lighter."

At home, Conroy says turning your clothes inside out is an option to protect them from fading, or even rubbing or snagging on other items in the wash. She recommends washing special care items, like dark denim, with a gentle — yet effective — detergent, like Woolite Gentle Cycle with Color Renew.

How to Get Out Sweat Stains

There's a reason your dry-cleaned clothes sometimes come back with the same stains you sent them in with: Sweat marks and any other liquid-based spots require pre-treatment using special spotting agents.

"The dry cleaning process only removes greasy, oily types of stains, not necessarily water-based stains, and so it is important that these types of stains are eradicated before the cleaning process,” Jean-Aimee says, adding that you should point them out to your cleaner, so they can be spot treated before dry cleaning. “If you dry clean them and do not remove the stain, then there is a good chance that they will soak into the fabric."

At home, Conroy says you’ll want to try vinegar, which can help wipe out bacteria trapped in the fibers of clothing, which leads to discoloration and/or odor.

“Soaking an item in half a cup of vinegar and cold water for 30 minutes preps it,” she says. “Gently rub the area with your fingers to break up the fibers. If it needs more of a nudge, turn it inside out and apply a small amount of vinegar directly to the inner part of the stain.”

Conroy says she also favors a DIY stain remover made from baking soda and water. Combine four tablespoons of baking soda and a quarter cup of warm water to make a paste. Then, apply the paste to a stain and let it sit for one to two hours before washing.

Stubborn stains can also benefit from a mix of one part dish soap with two parts hydrogen peroxide, Conroy says. “Agitate the stain with your fingers and let it sit for one hour, then wash,” she says. (Note: Hydrogen peroxide can irritate hands or even cause burns when used in high concentrations, so you should wear gloves for this treatment method.)