Dry Clean Only? An Eco Expert Tells Us When It's Safe to Ignore Labels

dry cleaners

“Can you do a diatribe on dry-clean-only labels?” asked my editor friend, Tam, citing the numerous times she threw caution to the wind and hand washed a garment despite the dry-clean-only instructions.

Yes, Tam, we can do that. We at EcoSalon are here to please the frugal green crowd looking for ways to avoid high cleaning costs, as well as the toxic detergents regularly used by conventional cleaning companies.

For some answers, I turned to Karl Huie of Eco Dry Cleaners in the San Francisco Bay Area which goes by the motto: “We are not business people capitalizing on the green movement, we are an established dry cleaner changing an industry.” Huie won the 2009 Francine Levien Activist award, which recognized him for taking a leadership role in promoting the health of the community.

Huie’s parents first opened a cleaners in 1969 which he and other family members converted into an eco company in 2007 with stores in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of the city and across the Bay in Sausalito, Calif. (Marin’s first and only certified green cleaners). The Pacific Heights Cleaners is seen as a demonstration site for a statewide program.

They are what’s considered a wet cleaners, which means they use a water-based solution made of natural soaps and conditioners; and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Cleaning, which uses compressed liquid CO2 with detergents.

In other words, they really know how to handle wet clothes, which according to Huie, is the criteria for cleaning your own garments without professional help.

Luanne: Which fabrics are safest for DIY cleaning at home?

Karl: I think polyester and nylon are probably the safest, including recycled polyester from PET bottles, because the plastic in it will hold everything together. Bamboo is an organic product that cleans very nicely and is easily accessible if handled correctly, but you have to be careful not to put too much agitation to the rayon because that will cause it to break or get fuzzy.

Luanne: What about cotton fabrics? You would think you could clean those yourself.

Karl: The risk is shrinkage. That can happen with leather, too, when people try to clean it themselves. The other day a customer brought in a leather jacket they shrunk wanting to know if I could stretch it back out. I also get customers bringing in cotton clothes with stains they tried to remove. They bring them in still wet in plastic bags. You have to have some experience with material and know how to handle it when it is wet.

Luanne: I’m always surprised when I hear friends wash their own sweaters. I’m always afraid the texture will get ruined.

Karl: Generally, silks and cashmeres are not easy to handle. It doesn’t so much have to do with getting them wet but the pH balance of the water and the detergent you use. The wrong balance can alter and shrink the wool and strip off oils  that can cause the texture to change.

Luanne: I never go near any garments with hand beading or special stones but people question why they can’t be hand washed with care. What’s the best thing to do if you aren’t sure?

Karl: Any time not sure how to handle something it is best go get advice from a pro. If you are a regular customer of mine I’m happy to tell you how to take care of it. All the time people bring in items for me to fix after the damage is done.

For some great tips on hand washing or dealing with stains, such as salad dressing spills or chocolate messes, you can go to Karl’s blog, Your Green Dry Cleaner. On the site is a section about cleaning items yourself.

Karl advises:

“Just because something is washable doesn’t mean that’s the best way to handle it. If you’ve got good quality jeans, sweaters, linens, bedding, etc. you want to protect them. Dry cleaning your fine things extends their longevity, keeps color from fading and prevents shrinkage. Plus you get a professional’s skills in stain removal. Talk to your dry cleaner to determine the best way to protect and preserve all your fine things.”

Image: sfllaw

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23 thoughts on “Dry Clean Only? An Eco Expert Tells Us When It's Safe to Ignore Labels

  1. Hi EB

    You have a great knowledge of the material. It is easy to shrink wool, what you realize that most people don’t is that you need to control the pH level of the water, the agitation, and heat. You have mention all three in your comment, I commend you for your understanding of how to handle this material. Most people do not have and are not will to commit that much time to wash wool. When I explain the process to my customers they look at me like I’m crazy, can’t I just put it in the washing machine, add some Tide and press the button.

    Pacific Heights Cleaners

  2. You can achieve the same result by adding baking soda to the wash to soften the water. After you have hung it to dry just tumbling the garment in the dryer for about 20 minutes without heat. No toxic dryer sheet necessary.

    Pacific Heights Cleaner

  3. Almost all garments are washable if done correctly. The key is understanding the material, color and the process to use on it.
    A small amount of heat from the dry with minimal agitation will not cause much shrinkage but over drying will. As far a the Maytag dryer, most nicer dryer come with a drying rack that sits in the middle of the dry, this allow the cloth to dry with heat without any agitation.

    Pacific Heights Cleaners

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  10. I hand wash a lot of my sweaters, wool and cashmere items too. For me the key is not to stretch anything out, and dry flat even if it takes longer to dry. Everything else, jackets, coats, suits, delicate, vintage clothes etc goes to the cleaners. I dont always want to dress casually (including coats) so a lot of my clothes are “dry clean only”.

  11. speaking to the elephant in the room, perhaps the most natural thing to do is simply avoid clothes that need to be dry cleaned? even my LL Bean winter coat is washable and every bit as warm as wool, and lighter, and thanks to my careful washing, stain free.

    it does help to do a bit of machine drying to keep clothing soft (even green cleaners use equipment).

    it would help to petition Maytag’s new owners to bring back the dryer that had sweater and hanging racks on its top, so that they could be safely and quickly air dried. since they never advertised its benefits, it didn’t sell and they stopped making it…

  12. Thanks for the reply, Luanne. We have hard water here, too, and when I let cotton clothing line-dry, they definitely stiffen. I’ve been known to throw them in the dryer with a dryer sheet for a few minutes at the end to counter that. Not the most environmentally friendly thing to do, but it works.


  13. Or if you really want to be frugal, and you trust your instincts, you can dry clean your clothes at home naturally..just do the research.

  14. I go out of my way to find “green” dry cleaners even though I have a dirty one right across from my house, but lately I’m doubtful that the one I’ve been going to is even green. There’s a poster in the window that says PERC-free, but is there a certification body who verifies that a dry cleaner is really green and not greenwashed? Natural (for the giveaway :).

  15. Luanne, I don’t mean to laugh at your mum, but that’s friggin hilarious!

  16. That sounds good, Caitlin. I have many friends who wash their own sweaters. Your mom taught you well. My mom wears everything once and then it goes to the cleaners. Her walk-in closet, the size of my living room, is lined with garments in plastic sheaths, including about 500 Faconable blouses which she wears once and then dry cleans. But then, again, she has never washed her own hair. She has been having it done at salons since she was about 15. It’s very wooly, like many sweaters.

  17. I always wash my sweaters myself. It’s how my mother taught me to do it and it’s never occurred to me to take it to a dry cleaner. I’m pretty sure the labels say ‘hand wash only’ rather than ‘dry clean only’ anyway.

    You need to wash in luke warm water with a gentle detergent. Then lay it flat on a towel with the arms folded in. Fold in the corners of the towel and then roll it up – this lets you squeeze out water, without destroying the shape of the sweater. Repeat with a second towel. Then lay it out flat to dry.

  18. Dear EB: I think he doesn’t advise against washing wool for people who know how to “handle the fabric wet.” So many of us aren’t so good with wool. I know from experience, my husband’s sweaters have shrunk so much from the drying process, they are now my daughter’s sweaters. The drying can be tricky, too, but it sounds like you have a very good process and a good understanding of how to wash those garments. Thanks so much for sharing it with us. I will it using your suggestions.

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  20. Why on earth does he advise against washing wool? It’s easy, and better for both the environment and the fabric. Wool is fairly hard to shrink: doing so requires changes in temperature (rapid switches between hot and cold water) and agitation (rubbing, scrubbing, and wringing).

    I’ve washed wool blazers and slacks with my front-loading washer’s wool cycle and they came out fine, but it’s probably safer to stick to sweaters and similar garments.

    If you don’t have a washer that will handle wool garments, use the same temperature water for the wash and the rinse (the simple solution is to use cold, but warm or hot will work too), a wool-wash cleaner (not a standard, highly alkaline laundry detergent), and minimal agitation. Squeeze the garment dry (or run it through a gentle spin cycle in your washer), roll it in a towel to remove more moisture, lay it out to the correct shape, and dry flat or on a sweater rack.

  21. thanks, Simple Living. The only concern with most cottons is the shrinking, or if it is a special combed cotton, the texture. Line drying usually makes garments more stiff, especially if you have hard water, as I do in San Francisco. The best advice is to wash in cold water and dry for a short time before hang drying. You can also go to Huie’s site for hand washing tips. I use baby shampoo, myself.

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  23. Thanks for the useful post.

    Could you clarify his advice on cotton? It sounds like he’s suggesting that people dry-clean anything that’s cotton, which seems potentially expensive. Would line-drying those items instead of using a dryer make a difference? I expect things to shrink a little, but I didn’t think I needed to pay for dry cleaning.


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