Reader Mail: How seriously do you have to take the “dry clean only” warning?

dry-clean-only-labelToday’s reader mail has to do with something near and dear to our hearts…

It drives me crazy when everything is labeled ‘dry clean only’. For wool and fine fabrics, ok. But synthetic tops labeled d.c.o.? Please. Am I correct in thinking this is butt-covering on the part of the manufacturer, and it’s safe to hand-wash these, and lay them flat to dry? This is what I usually do, and haven’t ruined anything yet, but they are huge pain to iron. This is why I hugely favor thin sweaters under jackets.

Agreed. When purchasing a piece of clothing, we often factor dry cleaning into the mix — that $50 dress at Filene’s starts to look a lot less reasonable when you think of the dry cleaning costs associated with it. First, there is a difference between “dry clean” and “dry clean only” tags — the ones that say “dry clean” CAN be washed in Woolite or by hand; it’s the “dry clean only” tag you’re supposed to pay attention to at your own risk.  So what should you risk?  Personally, we’ve always followed the dry cleaning instructions for our suits, jackets, and nice dresses — as well as for any other piece of clothing that we seriously love.  For everything else (which is most stuff), we have a “first year” policy:  for the first year we own a piece of clothing, we follow the instructions on the tag.  After that, we give it a whirl with Woolite.  Thus far, this policy has only netted us one shrunken going-out top (made of a synthetic material like polyester), but lots and lots of clean cashmere an wool sweaters, and even some trousers that have come out just as nice with Woolite.


We’ve experimented with Dryel, as well as hand washing, but mostly without success — Dryel didn’t seem to get the clothes as clean (although, let’s face it, sometimes a suit passes the point of no return and just won’t smell clean), and hand washing just was a huge, drippy mess and made us feel like the clothes were being pulled farther out of shape by either a) being rolled in a towel to dry them, or b) being hung up while still so wet.  Readers, what has your experience been?

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Dmitriy Sudzerovskiy.


  1. I’ve found that my $20 fabric steamer from Rite-Aid has saved me lots on dry cleaning bills. You can use it on all sorts of fabrics, and doesn’t set in stains/smells like regular irons do. Highly recommended for anyone who cares about their clothes!

    • I have a fabric steamer, but it is too hot for a few of the skirts that I have. The tags say dry clean only, but they aren’t dirty, just wrinkled from shipping. One is double-serge cotton J Crew Factory Pencil Skirt, which I think is a 100% cotton blend (it’s a wrinkle and stretch-prone fabric, with some weight and texture to it) but it’s too delicate to steam. The other is a J Crew Pencil Skirt that’s 97% cotton, 3% spandex, with an acetate lining. The tag on this one says dry clean only also, and I am not sure I can steam it either.

      Any advice?

  2. Delta Sierra :

    I once bought 3 seriously nice silk sweaters at 80% off. Got to wear each one once, setting them aside to be hand-washed-laid-flat-to-dry all at once. My husband, who never, but never, does the laundry decided for some reason to do the laundry that day. Scooped up everything in sight and dumped it all in the washer at boiling hot temp., then into the dryer also at hottest temp. The sweaters all shrank, of course. You could maybe have got them on a teddy bear. This was nearly ten years ago and life goes on and I love him dearly but deep down inside I still haven’t really forgiven him about the sweaters. Good silk sweaters are The Best Wardrobe Basic Ever, they (hand) wash like rags, over and over, the only reason you ever get rid of them is that you’re just sick of them, or the color is all gone.

  3. I ignore “dry clean only” wash instructions with reckless abandon, unless it’s something especially expensive or especially loved. I wash on gentle with regular old detergent and lay flat to dry.

    I’ve never, ever, had it backfire on me, which is probably why I continue to do so without a second thought.

    I also try to get quite a few wearings out of the few dry-clean-worthy items that I own.

    In addition to the extra money, I find it to be a huge hassle to drop off/pick up dry cleaning. I take public transit to work, so the service where they will pick up/drop off at the office is no help to me (I don’t want to drag that pile of laundry with me on the bus)!

    • First Year Lawyer :

      I agree – washing machine on the cold cycle usually works just fine and laying out to dry. I’m a disaster at hand washing and hate spending so much on dry cleaning. I haven’t ruined anything yet (knock on wood) and I do take my favorite clothes or anything intricate/delicate to the dry cleaner after a few wears.

  4. I have a steamer too and it’s good at getting the wrinkles out of dry clean only clothing (still stuck with dry cleaning if you want to actually clean the clothes though).

    I usually don’t buy “dry clean only” unless it’s a very good investment item that can be mixed and matched for years to come…for both work and play. If you’re getting a lot of use out of an item it’s worth the dry cleaning $.

  5. I’ve heard that Woolite is not actually good for wool. But I am a knitter, so I feel comfortable washing most woolens (be careful of pants with linings of another fabric, though). I use Eucalan or similar wool wash, fill the washer with tepid water, let the items sit, then skip straight to the spin cycle and then air dry. The key is avoiding hot or cold water or agitation. I’ve used this technique for both store bought merino sweaters and handknits.

  6. I’m hugely guilty of washing dry-clean-only items that cost under $100 (and sometimes even throwing them in the dryer!). The stuff doesn’t look great afterwards, but I’ve never had something ruined.

    I’ll agree with Lauren though that steamers can be a great alternative to an iron. I have a conair steamer that cost about $50 a couple years ago and it is magical! :-)

  7. I put nearly all my play clothes (cotton tops and tees — many of which say dry clean only) as well as silk/cotton blends that feel “sturdy” (e.g., my Ann Taylor short sleeve sweaters that are my under suit staple) in the washing machine on a cold gentle cycle with Woolite; air dry. They seem to last at least as long as dry cleaning them, and even if they don’t — spending several dollars to dry clean a sweater that I paid $35 for seems ridiculous — a new sweater is quickly paid for on what I save.

    On the other extreme, for a few very expensive cashmere pieces that I’ve bought over the years, I hand wash. Good cashmere quickly loses its soft deliciousness at the dry cleaner and gets a completely different texture. A designer friend once told me NEVER to dry clean any piece of clothing I loved — to air it out, brush it, do whatever is necessary, but to stay away from those harsh chemicals. It’s not practical advice — but I do notice that dry cleaning does seem to change the finish and color of clothes, especially over time, and for a few sweaters, I can manage the handwashing routine.

  8. I am generally a huge believer in “dry clean” = wash on gentle, lay flat to dry, but I somehow managed to to shrink a cute merino cardigan this way recently… sadly, it is not in a cute way, either. Very surprising b/c other merino sweaters I have are just fine despite their “dry clean” labels.

  9. Great question! I tend to be in the same camp with Elaine – the chances of my heeding the label are in inverse proportion to how much I spent on the item or how much I love it. If it was too expensive to risk it (around $100 and up), I dry clean. If it was cheap to buy but an absolute fave (usually something unique and irreplacable), I dry clean. If it was inexpensive and easily replacable, in the wash it goes. I would rather spend the money to buy a new item in a year or too than spend it on dry cleaning.

  10. I use Dryel for my suits. I agree with C that it’s not the best thing on the planet, but it gets the job done fairly well. Unless the piece is majorly stinky, the sheets can handle most mild to moderate odors. Just use the Dryel sheets and bag, let the pieces air out a little, then steam iron them. I like to use it between dry cleanings to stretch the number of wears I can get between dry cleanings.

  11. I’ve used Dryel all the time for suits. I generally only wash my suits a couple of times a year and I’ve had no trouble. I swear by that stuff. The key is making sure you use the lowest/gentlest dryer setting and promptly remove and hang the clothes.

  12. suits and most silk tops i dry clean because my dry cleaning lady yelled at me when i tried to hand wash a silk top I had spilled something on (needless to say, I wasn’t successful, which is why it then went to the dry cleaners to try to salvage); anything wool gets hand washed and lay flat to dry. I also agree with the steamer suggestion–great if the suits are wrinkled but not actually dirty. And when I’m washing, I wash most of my clothes on gentle cycle anyway, regardless of what the tag says.

  13. I’ve been told by dry cleaners not to use them (dry cleaners) until I need them. I’m with Sasha Fierce, Dryel is amazing as long as you read & follow the instructions. And their spot remover is magnificent – it’s better than anything else I’ve used. And YES they get the heel marks out of my white suit pants (if I go to the parking lot in flats instead of heels, etc.) I go to the dry cleaners when I need a good, strong pressed seam again. Silk sweaters, suits, cashmere, etc. all go in the Dryel bag. And my clothes come out feeling soft, warm, beautiful, smelling great and looking the same high quality that they did when I bought them!

  14. Delta Sierra :

    Sometimes if I have several things that could use freshened up and de-wrinkled, but don’t actually need to be cleaned, I hang them on good contoured hangers in the bathroom and fill the tub with hot water, shut the door, let it get all steamy. Repeat once or twice if needed. I love linen jackets and pants, and this works great with them. This process also gets the floor and other surfaces in the bathroom damp, so I wash them at the end. Makes me sound like a goodie-two-shoes Little Miss Cleanhouse, but trust me, not.

  15. I was all my cashmere at home, but specific knits – silk blends with nylon, etc. I am nervous about, which gets me since this particular piece was only $50 on sale.

    I have shrunk a wool spandex jersey skirt which was in turn altered to be a mini, which is the root of my nervousness.

    I usually avoid DC only items. In a way it symbolizes poor quality to me – either the fabric is synthetic or has been so treated that it can not be washed at home. But yes, there are exceptions, e.g. lined garments.

  16. I successfully hand wash lots of clothes marked dry clean only provided that the item doesn’t need ironing or it can be ironed: silk knit tops, linen/silk blend dress & skirt, rayon dresses. Must use cold water. Alot of clothes marked dry clean only are not colour fast fabrics.

    Recently I bought a deeply discounted silk blend knit dress which had a skirt with a million tiny accordian pleats – but I’m returning it. Instructions are – no ironing.

    I had a blah result hand washing a bias cut woven-silk skirt. I understand that silk fibres themselves don’t shrink but that the weave can tighten.

  17. Getting the garments wet isn’t the problem; it’s the fact that different materials dry at different rates. This means one should DC items that are lined, because the lining and the wool outside will dry differently and ruin the garment.

    I myself wash everything else in the machine, on the delicate cycle with baby shampoo in a mesh bag. Lay flat to dry. Never had a problem yet.

  18. Cheap vodka in a spritz bottle. You can add a few drops of scent if you like, but if you don’t, you spray it on the smelly bits and when it evaporates, it takes the smell with it. If you put some fragrance in it, it will leave a trace of that. I have used it on silk scarves (they start to smell like my neck) with no ill effects, as well as everything else. It leaves no smell. Cheaper and better than Febreze or Dryel.

    I have a frontloading washing machine, and on super-gentle, I wash tri-acetate suits–pretty much anything in it–and the worst I have had to deal with is trying to press the shoulders of a wool jacket that wrinkled a bit drying. I took it to a cleaners for a press. Wool can always be pressed flat again if it “shrinks”–it’s just like flat-ironing your hair. Acetate linings are the riskiest–can wrinkle up. Polyester can always be washed. Cashmere can actually be washed in a regular top loading washing machine, as can merino wool sweaters. Just reshape them when you’re done. The only caveat I have is that sometimes silk sweaters lose dye unevenly this way, so I prefer rayon blends.

  19. I’m also very annoyed with dry clean only. I have the luxury of making my own things so I prewash everything (including leather) before I cut into it. If it doesn’t withstand a pre-wash, I don’t want it.

    Dry cleaning annoys me because in certain respects, I feel the manufacturer (who selected the fabric) has abrogated their responsibility for fabric integrity onto the consumer. The problem with pricey garments is usually dye fixatives, colors -usually in prints (!)- can bleed or fade if not dry cleaned (most common in silks, Korean silks are better than Italian). In high end suits, the problem can be canvas used for structural integrity, these are often made of goat hair and can shrink. Wigan in hems and sleeves is sometimes made stiff with starch which can wash away leaving a limp garment. It’s hard to find good wigan.

    Altho acetate is a natural fiber (albeit man-made), avoid acetate linings, polyester is a better choice. Like any natural fiber (it’s made of cotton lintner or wood pulp) it can shrink like crazy. You won’t know till you wash it. I avoid it because performance is not predictable.

    I’m a fuddy-duddy and leery of using specialized products for cleaning. For sweaters made of protein fibers (silk, wool etc), I prefer to use shampoo (avoid no-tears baby shampoo; not so gentle after all). You can clean many grain leathers by hand wiping them with hand lotion. Nubuck is an exception because it’s not a true grain leather. It’s a suede that’s had the pile worn away or compressed. You can touch up worn spots on leather coats with matching shoe polish (the buffing kind).

  20. not to sound like a commercial, but i love love love the line of products from The Laundress. Once I found their cashmere + wool shampoo, I never drycleaned another sweater. I use the same product for silk sweaters … and I’ve gone whole-hog and purchased the sportwear detergent – it works – and the whites detergent – also works, best with some of their bleach alternative.

    AND I love the fact that it’s a small, female-concepted, designed, owned, and operated business by two gals from my alma mater. But I’m not playing favorites … :)


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