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When should we follow ‘dry clean only’ labels?

Dry cleaning label

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?

John Symons says:
14 November 2011

My wife always washes “dry clean only” as “delicates” in our excellent Miele machine, now using protective washing bags, and seems to get away with it. I always look at care labels and would tend not to buy anything dry clean only. Dry cleaning certainly costs a mint


Had followed this interesting subject in US chat forums…. consensus of opinion
seems to be it’s OK to wash garments recommended as ‘dry clean only’ but
a little hesitant to try out myself as to my better suits.

Sammshine says:
14 November 2011

I studied Textiles at university (quite some time ago now!) and it was a known fact that many retailers put ‘dry clean only’ on their labels to avoid the expensive fabric testing process. Checking the content of the fabric & using my common sense has always saved on large dry cleaning bills. If all else fails hand wash gently in a special handwash detergent in cool/cold water. Hang to dry on a good hanger (or woollens lie flat on rack over bath) out of direct sunlight


I just buy cotton clothes or polyester. I never have a problem washing these and all my clothes at 60C and this temperature helps keeps the washing machine cleaner inside. I don’t buy wool or any garment that needs special care.

My suit is safe for the washing machine, but I’ve kept the detailed washing instructions, which say to only wash the suit and the trousers with no other clothes and which programme to use etc.

Whatever you buy, check the label carefully. Be careful with things like coats, curtains, cushion covers etc. – as “dry clean only” for an expensive jacket means it! After damaging a jacket that was “dry clean only”, that was one lesson I learnt!


I don’t buy much tat claims to be dry clean only, but without exception everything I do own that says dry clean goes through my 28 year old Hoover Automatic and nothing (yet!!) has been spoiled nor even come out detectably different from how it went in.

This applies not just to clothes but also three piece suite covers, curtains and decorative table linen.

The only things I do take to the dry cleaners are the bay window curtains which are so huge that they simply won’t fit in to the washer.

I recently went to John Lewis to order new three piece suite covers (the current ones having been made in 1983, the same year I bought the washer and been washed in the washer once each year ever since). The man in John Lewis told me taht the reason curtains and suite covers are dry clean only is because ordinary machine washing removed the fire retardant treatment that they have to have by law. I asked where I could buy ‘home use’ fire retardant treatment and he said the dry cleaners would probably sell it as they usually re-treat even dry-cleaner articles.

I’m afraid that even now I know this I won’t be dry cleaning anything much still.


I have had a few successes and a few failures, but I usually play safe and pay for dry cleaning. Even hand-washing is a good way of destroying ties.

I have never understood why dry cleaning is so expensive.


I just washed an unlined 100% silk dress in my Bosch washing machine on the delicates programme. It came out absolutely fine – no shrinkage or colour fade despite the dry clean only label. I think that common sense and using the right programme and a suitable detergent designed for delicate materials play a big part in getting good results. I’d always be cautious with expensive wool suiting or coat materials.

Hazel Glendinning says:
18 November 2011

There are several product such as Dr Beckmanns, Svit and others available in supermarkets to at least spot clean dry clean only items. They are used in tumble dryers and I have always found them to be satisfactory if not excellent at clearing stains on dry clean only clothing. I would also agee with washing some clothing on the delicates programme for items made with such materials as polyester and viscose.


Stergene – old as my grandparents and around since long before automatic washers – does the job just fine.

My washer doesn’t have a 30 degree cycle, the coolest is 40 degrees Woollens with Woolmark approval.

I use that cycle for many dry clean things, such as curtains, but linen, which has been mentioned elsewhere, goes on a 60 or 90 degree cycle, depending on colour. Linen of all things is supposed to be boileable and robust. I must say I’ve never even looked to see if any linen items of mine (trousers, shirts, tablecloths, tea towels) say dry clean: it never crossed my mind, but nothing has suffered at all.