How much should we follow clothes labels that tell us to ‘dry clean only’? Are manufacturers putting dry cleaning labels on their garments instead of properly testing how they should be washed?
A couple of suits, a couple of coats and a tuxedo. And maybe the odd waistcoat. That’s all I own that I would ever take to the dry cleaners.
But a quick look through my wardrobe shows that if I followed the care label on everything to the letter, I’d be significantly poorer and my local dry cleaner would be laughing all the way to the bank. But does dry clean only actually mean dry clean only? What would happen if we were to ignore the labels and throw everything into the washing machine?
Dry cleaning vs washing machine
We tested this as part of a recent investigation into the dry cleaning industry. We sent 48 identical stained jackets to be cleaned at dry cleaners around the country and bought a 49th to wash in a washing machine.
The care label was very clear – it read: ‘Do not wash, professional dry clean’, but we were intrigued to find out what would happen if we did wash it. So we took the clean, new jacket and washed it three times on a cool wash.
The results were pretty terrible, as the pictures on the left show – the ‘best’ showing the best colour of all the jackets we dry cleaned and the ‘worst’ showing the jacket that went through the machine.
The finish was rough, the colour had dramatically faded and worst of all the jacket had shrunk in length by more than 4cm. So after a few machine washes our new jacket was ruined, looked dreadful and wouldn’t fit even if you still wanted to wear it.
So should we always follow the label?
Laundry and dry cleaning experts tell us that a third of the dry cleaning problems they see are caused by incorrect labelling and that many dry clean only items can be washed at home very easily and successfully. But the problem is knowing which ones.
Problems with clothes which should have been labelled ‘dry clean only’ will only ever emerge after we wash, and then possibly shrink and ruin them. And without testing, we’ll never really know with any confidence whether we’d get away with washing dry clean only clothes in the washing machine.
As consumers the only thing we can do is to follow the label. Manufacturers have to insert a fibre content label telling us what our clothes are made of and almost all garments will have a care label of one kind or another, even if it just says ‘dry clean only’. Care labels aren’t mandatory in the UK, but if a garment carries one it needs to be right and should give the dry cleaner enough information about how to treat and clean the clothes.
What do you do? Do lower wash temperatures in washing machines give you the confidence you need to stick your posh frock in the wash? Or do you follow the label to the letter?