Basics of Laundry and Fabric Care

Laundry and fabric care are a part of housekeeping that we tend to overlook until a problem pops up. We usually don’t worry about clothing stains or wrinkles until it’s too late. The best time to consider how to wash your silk blouse isn’t after you’ve ruined it.

Today’s post will cover the basics of laundry and fabric care, including an overview of laundry care products and instructions for washing and drying fabrics, as well as suggestions for de-wrinkling and storing your clothes.

First, an introduction to the marvelous machines that make it easy for us to wear multiple changes of clothes every day: the washer and dryer.

Your Washer and Dryer

Depending on the model, your washing machine might be more complicated to operate than your car. Seriously. So, while I can provide some general information about washers, your particular machine may have different features or guidelines for use. Happily, there’s a YouTube video for everything, so if in doubt…

To begin, washing machines are either front loaders or top loaders, which means dirty laundry goes into the top of the machine or into the front of the machine, depending on where the door is placed. Front-load washing machines tend to be more efficient than top loaders. Top loaders are generally less expensive and their run cycle is shorter.

High efficiency washers are a variation on traditional machines. HEs use less water and clean clothes via a different process than traditional washers. They don’t have a high agitator in the center of the tub like traditional washing machines, so, theoretically, they should be less likely to damage your clothing. HEs also spin out more moisture from clothing, so articles require less drying time.

High efficiency washing machines have received bad press because of issues relating to mold and odors, as well as complaints about clothes not getting clean. If you are in the market for a new washer, do some research first.

Expect a different user experience from a HE than with a traditional washing machine. Some machines have a cleaning cycle that should be run once a month or so. HE machines also require HE laundry soap.

Most newer washing machines have quite a wide variety of features and options for run cycles, speeds, adjustments for how dirty the clothes are, and whether you want fries with that. So it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with your particular machine in order to get the most out of it.

Dryers, on the other hand, tend to be a little more straightforward. Damp clothes are tumbled around in a warm environment until they are dry. They are not difficult to operate, although you should have an idea of what settings to use on which fabrics.

A clothes dryer is not nearly as important as a washer, since items can always be air dried. Washing clothes without a washing machine is much more difficult.

Laundry Care Products

Washing laundry calls for some kind of laundry detergent. Basic laundry detergent comes in the form of liquid, powder, or single-use pods. Which of these to use is a matter of personal choice.

Generally, powder detergents are cheaper and the packaging tends to be easier on the environment. The drawback is that powders sometimes don’t fully dissolve and can leave trace evidence of this on laundry.

Liquid costs more than powder, as a rule, and usually comes in plastic bottles, which are not enviro-friendly. Liquids are easier to use than powder, but the convenience comes at a cost.

Single-use pods eliminate the need to measure out your detergent, but are usually the least cost-effective option.

Laundry detergents comes in all different scents, concentrations, sizes, and combinations. Personal preference with regard to scents will be a major consideration when deciding which to use.

Another important factor to consider is how dirty your laundry actually is. We tend to wash textiles more frequently than they need to be washed. Most of the time, it’s not necessary to use a super-strong laundry detergent because clothes simply aren’t especially dirty. My advice: break out the big guns when you need to, otherwise don’t waste your money.

If you have sensitivity to soap, use one of the many additive-free varieties of laundry detergent.

It’s also best to use a mild detergent on delicate fabrics because strong detergents can break down the fibers in your sweet little nighties or your spandex swimwear.

The fight against grime on dirty laundry extends beyond laundry detergents. There are also stain fighters, chlorine and non-chlorine bleach, fabric softeners including dryer sheets, plus color boosters and other additives.

Chlorine bleach is good to use when washing things like smelly gym socks or anything (white) that you want to disinfect and deodorize.

Oxygen bleach, or color-safe bleach, is safe to use on most colored textiles and also has disinfecting properties. If in doubt, test a small area of the item with the color-safe bleach by applying and letting it sit for a few minutes, then rinsing the area.

Laundry boosters are things people add into the wash load to help their laundry detergent do a better job. These include washing soda, vinegar, baking soda, and dish detergent. Boosters are completely optional and usually not necessary.

Again, most of the time we tend to over-wash clothing. Don’t add to the madness by using too much laundry detergent or a stronger soap than is necessary. Soap residue on clothing will actually attract more dirt.

Washing and Drying Clothes: The Process

Washing clothes is a process. Clothes should be sorted, pretreated for stains, washed using the correct settings, and dried using the correct drying method for the correct period of time. Following the right procedures ensures that your clothes will be clean, undamaged, and wrinkle-free.

What you don’t want to do when washing laundry is jam all your clothes into the washing machine mixed together, regardless of weight or color, until the machine is stuffed like a turkey. This is a great way to ensure that your clothes don’t get clean, possibly get ruined, and your machine gets subjected to wear and tear beyond what it’s designed for.

Sorting Laundry

The process of washing clothes begins with sorting. Group clothing and other textiles by weight and color: darks, whites, lights, delicates. You can get away with washing medium-weight articles with heavier articles, to a point.

Lightweight items should be washed in a delicates bag, which is a mesh bag that zips closed. Washing delicates in the same load as heavier items can be done, if you use a delicates bag and there’s nothing in the load that will snag on anything else.

Delicates are things like underwear, nightgowns, lightweight sweaters or tops, anything with lace or sequins, silk, cashmere, and tights. Make sure to check care tags – some things like silk or cashmere should be dry cleaned or hand washed. If in doubt, hand wash, or take the chance of ruining the item.

There’s a learning curve to sorting laundry correctly. You want to create large enough loads to fill, but not overfill, the washer. Generally, shoot for filling the washer with loosely packed clothes so that it’s no more than 3/4 full. Running a load that’s too small is a waste of energy, so try to strike a balance between a full load and an overstuffed load.

Keep white/light and dark items separate so that colors don’t bleed onto your whites or lights and discolor them. A red top in a load of white towels will absolutely turn the towels pink.

If you’re not bleaching your whites, it’s ok to combine them with lights to create a full load. If using chlorine bleach, don’t wash anything that isn’t white in the load. Doing so will cause colors to bleed so that your whites turn gray or blue or purple, and your colored items will take on a mottled appearance.

It’s best to wash really heavy items like jeans in a load by themselves. You might get away with washing jeans with towels or heavy sweatshirts, but another practical thing to consider is how much weight your washing machine can handle. Almost all machines go off balance easily if they’re loaded up with heavy things.

Off Balance Loads

If you have no idea what I mean by “off balance”, you’ll get the idea the first time you hear sounds coming from your laundry room that make you think there’s an elephant in there dancing on a set of extremely large drums.

When a heavy load of laundry shifts so that more items are on one side of the washer basin than the other during the spin cycle, the machine may start to dance around. If the washer isn’t perfectly level, this happens more easily, but it can happen even if the machine is level and your laundry was loaded into the machine to perfection. Over time you will get a feel for the limitations of your washing machine. It’s a deeply personal relationship.

Sheets can be washed with other similar color and weight items, just be careful to load the washer loosely. Sheets have the tendency to wrap themselves into knots if they’re packed in too tightly. Sometimes they do it anyway, even if they’re loaded correctly. This would also fall under the category entitled: things you will learn to hate about your washing machine.

Don’t load up a machine with items that are completely different weights, like, for instance, your comforter and a half load of shirts. This will also cause your machine to go off balance.

Heavyweight Items

On a related note, be sure that your machine can handle heavy items before trying to wash, say, a comforter or pillow. Check the user manual to be sure. You can actually ruin your washing machine by loading items that are too heavy into a machine that isn’t up to the task.

HE machines might shut off mid-spin if they’re loaded with items that are too heavy, which is one of the drawbacks of some of these machines. It’s good to have an idea what you can and can’t wash in your particular machine so you aren’t stuck with a sopping wet comforter that’s only half washed.

These types of special needs items can be taken to a laundromat that has larger machines to accommodate oversize, heavyweight items. Many laundromats have attendants in-house who can wash your items for you (at a cost) if you don’t care to hang around and do it yourself.

Pre-Treating

Anything greasy like soiled tablecloths, napkins, pot-holders, or kitchen towels should be pre-treated with stain remover and washed in hot water to break down the grease. Likewise, greasy work clothes should be washed separately in hot water. It’s probably not a good idea to combine the greasy work clothes in the same load as the cloth napkins.

While you are sorting the laundry, zip zippers and check pockets for change and tissues and pens. If you’ve ever washed a tissue or a cell phone, you’ll understand why this step is important. Also keep an eye out for stains that need to be pre-treated.

Any drawstring ties should be tied together. This step prevents the strings from getting tangled with other items or the ends from getting lost inside the garment. To keep dark items from fading, turn them inside out.

Once you’ve gotten your laundry sorted, pre-treated, and otherwise prepared for the big dive into the pool, it’s time to load your washing machine. Again, don’t over-fill the machine. Your laundry needs to have room to move around somewhat, not be packed in so tightly that is doesn’t get cleaned.

Adding Soap

Ideally, your machine will have dispensers for adding soap, fabric softener, and bleach. If not, here’s how it’s done. Load your laundry into the machine, add water, then add detergent. You can usually get away with adding the detergent right onto the clothes, too, but don’t tell anyone I said so. Any other additives go in the washer at this time, too.

If, for some reason, there’s no bleach dispenser, wait for the water to fill the tub before adding bleach. Don’t pour the bleach directly onto your laundry.

Fabric softener gets added to the final rinse cycle, so if there’s no dispenser, you need to catch the wash load at the point that the water is draining into the machine for the final rinse and add softener then.

It would be unusual for your washing machine not to have bleach and fabric softener dispensers. It’s also not always necessary to use either bleach or fabric softeners, although many people like to use either or both.

You’ll also need to figure out what temperature water to use, how much water to use, and what settings to use on your laundry adventure.

There will be lots of variations at this stage, depending on differences in washers. Some machines automatically select certain settings, some have more than others. Some machines have options for every fabric type under the sun as well as how dirty the laundry is.

Some machines have steam cycles to help remove stains or to freshen up wrinkled clothes. There may be a pre-wash cycle for help with stains. Generally, dirtier clothes and heavier fabrics will need a longer wash cycles than lightweight items or things that aren’t especially dirty.

Some general rules of thumb:

  • Use the permanent press cycle for synthetic fabrics.
  • Use the heavy-duty cycle for towels, jeans, and other heavyweight fabrics.
  • Use the whites cycles for whites – this will release bleach from the bleach dispenser at the right time.
  • Use the delicates cycle for delicates, and wash in cold water.
  • Cold water is best for darks that don’t have any greasy soiling or sweat stains, otherwise use warm or hot.
  • Use warm or hot water for towels, again depending on how dirty they are.
  • If you’re washing dirty socks and underwear, go ahead and use hot water.
  • Pay attention to fabric care tags.
  • Don’t use hot water or the hot dryer setting on wool unless you are trying to shrink it.
  • Silk and linen require special care, be sure to check labels.
  • Anything with sequins, beads, or lace should be handled with extreme care and is probably best hand-washed.
  • Cotton fabrics are subject to shrinkage, so use the coolest water for washing that will clean the item, and consider air drying.

Pay attention to the washing machine, the load may need to be re-distributed if the machine goes off balance.

Doing laundry is a lot like making a sandwich. You can make a plain old sandwich with white bread, and it’ll be OK. But a really good sandwich requires really good bread. That’s how laundry is, too.

Pre-treating, sorting, setting up your machine properly are all the things that, if you do them right, lay the foundation for an excellent laundry outcome. That’s your bottom piece of bread.

In the middle, the laundry gets washed. Ho-hum. Go make a sandwich while you wait for the machine to do it’s thing. Slather on a little mustard, if you wish.

Then comes the other piece of bread: the drying process. If done well, your laundry will be wonderfully soft and wrinkle-free. If not, your laundry can end up a wrinkled mess, looking and smelling less-than-fresh.

Drying

Laundry can either be air-dried or machine-dried. Most folks use a clothes dryer for the majority of their drying needs, however some items shouldn’t go into a dryer, such as delicate fabrics like silk or things that are lacy or beaded, wool, bras and pantyhose, bathing suits, and anything with rubber backing such as bathroom rugs.

A drying rack can be used for things that need to air dry, or drape them over a shower curtain rod, or hang things on clothes hangers and hang them up somewhere. Get creative.

Most items can safely go into your dryer, just be sure to select the proper heat setting. Many machines tell you which setting to use for what. Generally, the permanent press cycle is a safe bet for most fabrics. Delicates should probably air dry, however they can be dried on a low (warm) setting. Cotton shrinks when exposed to heat.

It’s good practice to remove items as they dry to prevent excess wear and tear and wrinkling. Keep an eye on sheets, which may need to be adjusted or untangled partway through the drying process.

If you’re fastidious about removing your laundry immediately from the dryer when it’s dry, you will have wrinkle-free, fresh laundry to fold, hang up, and wear.

An alternative to using an electric clothes dryer is a clothesline. It uses no electricity, causes less wear on your clothing, and leaves laundry smelling fresh. It’s also better for the environment.

Some neighborhoods do not allow clotheslines, so check first. Citizens in some areas are lobbying for the right to hang their laundry outside to dry in so-called “Right To Dry” movements.

Hand Washing

Very flimsy or delicate items can be hand washed. It’s not difficult or time-consuming. Simply fill your sink or a basin with some cool water, add laundry and a little mild laundry detergent, and swish the laundry around for a minute or two until the water is sudsy. Allow the laundry to soak in the water for a few minutes, then swish it around for a couple of minutes more and rinse in cool water until all the soap is gone.

Don’t wring or twist the items. Place on a towel to absorb excess moisture, then either hang or lay flat to dry. Knit items like sweaters should lay flat, everything else can be hung up.

Ironing and Steaming

Ironing isn’t a big part of our laundry routine these days. Wrinkle-free fabrics make it unnecessary to iron most articles. Should you find yourself challenged with having to iron something but aren’t sure how, it’s pretty simple.

First, check the iron’s water level, then pre-heat it to the appropriate setting. Delicate fabrics are ironed at cooler settings, heavyweight fabrics get hotter settings. Irons have indicators as to which temperature to use on what fabric.

When your iron is warm, lay the wrinkled garment out flat on an ironing board or a couple of towels and pass the iron back and forth over the wrinkled area until it’s no longer wrinkled. Adjust the fabric and repeat the process until the entire garment has been de-wrinkled.

steamer

An alternative to ironing is steaming. A clothes steamer is easier to use than an iron. Just put in some water, turn it on, wait for the steam to start materializing, pass the steamer head over the wrinkles and watch them disappear. Presto!

Storing Clean Laundry to Minimize Wrinkles

Avoiding most wrinkles is easy if you keep an eye on your laundry as it dries. Retrieving items from the dryer at the point just prior to their being completely dry and still warm, and then immediately hanging up or folding them, ensures they will have little to no wrinkles.

If air-drying laundry, easily de-wrinkle it by tossing it into the dryer for five minutes while it’s still slightly damp.

Properly storing your clean laundry ensures that it remains wrinkle-free. Hang items like shirts and dresses and skirts, preferably while they’re still very slightly damp. Fold knits neatly. Don’t overstuff drawers.

Fold sheets and towels and stack in neat piles so they don’t topple over and become transformed into a wrinkled mess.

Keeping textiles in excellent condition takes a little bit of know-how. By taking the time to follow the correct processes from pre-treating straight through to removing items from the dryer at precisely the right time, your laundry will always come out looking and smelling its best.

Want more house cleaning tips and ideas? Check out my book Clean Like A Pro: Tips and Techniques for Cleaning Your Home Like a Seasoned Professional, available on Amazon.

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