Many "dry clean only" garments are hand-washable if you know the secrets. Others labelled "dry clean" might be able to be washed on the gentle or wool cycle of your machine when you take care to avoid some common pitfalls.
Here are a few things to consider as you decide to take matters into your own hands and wash your special clothing items in a machine.
What type of fibre is your garment made of?
Silk and silk blends, wool, rayon, acetate, cashmere, angora, lycra, nylon all require gentle care.
Yarns on knitted garments vary. If it's a hand knitted item, the yarn's label will have instructions. Superwash wool can be laundered by machine on the cold /gentle cycle or by hand however regular wool needs to be washed by hand only or you can face irreversible shrinkage.
Is it colourfast?
Check by dabbing a hidden piece of your fabric with moist cotton wool. If it is colourfast, you won't pick any colour up. Reds, oranges and purples often can turn other items pink. These should always be washed separately or with darks. Greens can sometimes turn yellow so keep the water temperature cool to protect the colour.
As a general rule, bright, dark and patterned silks should be taken to a professional dry cleaner although some silks and knits can be safely run through the gentlest cycle on the machine.
What kind of soap should I use?
Silk is a natural protein, similar to your hair, so it does best with very mild detergents, avoiding any that contain enzymes or brighteners that could damage the fibres. There are soaps for delicates and special wool and cashmere soaps that can be purchased as well.
What should I avoid?
Conditioners, bleaches, prolonged sunlight or heat from drying or ironing, alcohol and perfumes can damage the fragile fibres in your finer silks, woollens and specialty fabrics.
Make sure to wash with the least agitation possible, to avoid creating nubs and pulls. Use a very short spin cycle and only lukewarm or cold water. Avoid wringing. Just lay your item out to dry flat on a towel and hand smooth to avoid wrinkles.
Does my garment have any trim or lining?
Make sure not to machine wash delicates with any other items that feature zips, hooks, sequins, beads or trim that could snag or rub against your item's fibres. Skirts and trousers that are lined on the inside could easily shrink unevenly and should be handled separately and generally not be put into a machine.
Can I wash delicates with other things?
It's always wise to turn clothing inside out and to put lightweight or knitted items into a mesh bag or pillowcase for washing so they are not damaged by the washing machine's agitation.
How should I dry my delicates?
Generally it's best not to tempt fate by putting your delicates in a dryer as the heat can damage and shrink items. Wringing can break down natural fibres and leave wrinkles. However some can sustain a cold tumble setting for a few minutes to help shake out the initial wrinkles. The safest bet is to lay the item out on a towel to avoid stretching it and simply allow it to air dry.
If you must touch up with a low, cool iron, do so on the back after testing a corner of the fabric first.
Quality clothing made of natural fibres is often an investment. Do make sure to read the care labels in your new garments before you machine wash. They aren't only for the manufacturer's protection - they are also for yours!