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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.

I wash all of my knitwear in my washing machine, regardless of the label – they are wool, cashmere, wool/silk blends etc. I wash them on the delicate 30 C wash with the slowest shortest spin and dry them flat on a clothes airer.

In the summer, my linens amd silks go in the machine – same cycle, but these tend to be a bit more dicey – to play it safe I get them dry cleaned in season one so that I get a reasonable amount of wear out of them and then move on to hand washing after that – I had a pair of linen trousers that shrunk once but other things have been fine. Washing can change the finish on linen permanently though – that very crisp “shiny” look of linen doesn’t always stay with hand washing. With a bit of judicial shaking and smoothing of the wet washing on the slow spin, most things don’t require much if any ironing (hurrah!)

I do however shell out at the dry cleaners for eny item that is lined and interlined (suit jackets, coats etc) as the different fabric types are likely to shrink at different rates. I also keep suits together when they get cleaned so that any fading or colour change (happily never happened with my dry cleaner) would be that same on both items.

I still spend way too much on dry cleaning!

I had a very expensive Burberry raincoat that had been ‘egged’ dry cleaned with poor results as all the stains were still there. Washed it in a machine after pre treating stains with bar soap and it came out good as new. Also i still wash in a machine a ‘dry clean only’ labelled silk blouse from a designer range and steam press it myself. As you normally wear a blouse for only one day it would be prohibitively expensive to always dry clean and again it is just like new.
Obviously garments of more than one fabric or unusual material may need dry cleaning but most in my experience can be carefully hand washed.

Nora14 says:
21 November 2011

many moons ago I worked as a Saturday girl in a dry cleaners we would never get our clothes dry cleaned even though at that time we could get them free this was what I was told no matter what the label said (obviously there is always one exception to the rule but as I am not rich I do not have this problem) it is how you start off, if you start dry cleaning the item then you always have to it is because of the chemicals they use, so start off washing it yourself and you will be ok

Peter Jones says:
22 November 2011

I bought a relatively cheap pair of trousers, noticing that they were 55% polyester:45% wool but failing to notice the ‘dry clean only’ on the other side of the label. When they needed to be washed/cleaned I decided to wash them, as similar mixtures had not carried the ‘dry clean only’ instruction and otherwise the cleaning bills would soon have grossly exceeded their cost. I realised that there was a risk that the lining of the waistband might shrink, even if the rest of them didn’t, but washing in a ‘delicates’ cycle with ‘minimum iron’ switched on does a perfect job, clean, no shrinkage and, by hanging them carefully on the line, no need to iron.

If it had been a jacket of the same material I would not have washed it, as there is too much risk of the linings shrinking.

I was a bit surprised by ‘Wavetrain’s’ comment about ties – a quick look through mine shows most are polyester or polyester mixtures, carry washing instructions and wash well (typically the marks on mine are from food and with modern detergents these will come out much better with water). The problems can arise with woollen ties, where the problem seems to be that the tie and the lining shrink at different rates, the tie material is cut on the bias and the result is puckering and twisting.

I wash dry clean only pure wool skirts with woolmark label in my Bosch washing machine on cold hand wash programme using a wool detergent and they come up beautifully and even those with pleats need little pressing. I always disregard dry clean only on silk garments as silk should be hand washed and again I use my machine but on a 30degree wash.
I have occasionally washed light weight jackets but her you really need to know what
stiffening material has been used on the front of the jacket and collar

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15 January 2013

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Hi, I have a made to order bridesmaid dress that states “professional clean only” on the label. When I took it to a dry cleaners they said they needed to make me aware that because it doesn’t have the dry clean symbol they can’t be held responsible for any damage caused by dry cleaning. Is that right when the label clearly states that it must be professionally cleaned? It doesn’t seem fair to pass that liability on to me when they are the professional cleaners! I left the dress with them as I need it again in less than a week but I wanted to check my rights now just in case something does happen.
Thanks in advance.

Hi everyone! I need a peace of advice! I’ve recently bought duvet on http://www.jasminesilk.com , it’s quite expensive. So, I was really upset when my child spilt orange juice on it….I now that silk is very sensitive to washing and I don’t want to screw up my new pretty duvet. Does anybody know the best way of washing spots like this?

junehilly says:
1 December 2014

After deliberating for almost a week, I finally took the plunge and machine washed my
cream and brown patterned dunelm thermal lined curtains. They were marked
do not wash, dry clean only P. They are polyester 52%, cotton 48%, and lining polyester 65% and
cotton 35%. Washed on 30degree, and spun on 1000.
I am pleased and relieved to report they are absolutely fine, fresh and clean, no shrinkage!
Next time I wash them I’ll probably do them on an even hotter setting.

BettyG says:
12 June 2015

Hi I have a jacket which is dry clean only – it is 72% linen and 28% viscose with a 100% viscose lining. I am tempted to machine wash on a cold setting and would appreciate any comments on whether or not this would be okay. Thank you.

Belleh90 says:
13 July 2015

Hi All,

i have a dress which is 64% polyester / 30% viscose / 6% Elastane. Label states dry clean only but it’s not lifting stains. Can I risk washing it on cold in the machine?

Wendy says:
15 June 2016

What is the difference between a delicate wash and hand wash only programme on a washing machine?
Many thanks