“Dry Clean Only” says the label. So, of course you pop down to your nearest dry cleaning agent, drop the garment in question off, and pick it up and pay for the service a day or so later. It couldn’t be simpler, right?
Well, it may save you a lot of time, having your clothes dry-cleaned, but stop and think for a moment. Dry cleaning isn’t done by magicians who wave a magic wand over it and make all the dirt and grime just disappear. Dry cleaning is done using a degreasing solvent called perchloroethylene (known as perc). Perc is recognised as an environmental pollutant (it doesn’t biodegrade easily) and, what’s worse, a probable carcinogen. In short, it’s not what you want to have on your clothing and things next to your skin. Let’s not even start on what it’s doing to the professional cleaners and to the environment!
This will leave some of you in a dilemma. Your favourite clothes have that label “dry clean only” on them but you don’t want to ruin them or your health (or the environment). So what are you going to do? Not buy silk, suede and cashmere? Let them get grubby?
What you are going to do is hand-wash these items. Silk, wool and leather-based products such as suede have been around for centuries – much longer than dry cleaning solvents. And if they disintegrated on contact with water, nobody would have bothered making clothes out of them and they wouldn’t be the luxury fabrics we know today.
In many cases, the label “dry clean only” is put there to protect the manufacturer, not the garment. Not that you should be tossing your designer silk shirt into the washing machine along with the towels – that would ruin it. But most, if not all, garments that have a “dry clean only” label can be hand-washed perfectly safely. If you can wash your hair, you can wash your clothes – they’re made from the same type of protein, after all.
When hand washing, you need to get rid of the mental image of an old-fashioned laundress scrubbing and banging at things in a boiling copper. Hand washing is much gentler than that. For a start, you will need some warm water. If you can put your hand in it comfortably, it is the right temperature. You will also need soap. Normal hand and face soap is fine, but it is best if you dissolve or liquefy it first. I keep a collection of soap slivers in a bowl of water ready to use for handwashing.
Put the soap and warm water into a bucket or sink. Then add the clothes. Be careful with brightly coloured silks (e.g. sari fabric) as these can run colour. Things that are not colour-fast should be spot-cleaned or washed separately. Stir them around gently with your hand, then go away and leave them. The soap will do its work of gently lifting the grease and grime out of the fabric. Make sure you have plenty of water to soak your clothes in.
After a good long soak – overnight is ideal – stir the clothes with your hand again and gently squeeze them. Roll them lightly between your hands, but do not wring them. Take them out of the soapy water, then go and pour the soapy water out (it’s great as an aphid spray on roses). Then rinse the clothes twice, changing the water each time. You can add vinegar and/or essential oil to the final rinse for soft fabric and a nice smell – try it on lingerie. Do not wring them out.
Hang the garments up to dry, but do not use pegs on very delicate fabrics (suede and leather can handle pegs). Wool, mohair and cashmere should be dried flat to avoid stretching. Do not dry over a hot radiator or use a tumble drier. The clothes will take longer to dry, but be patient. Leather and suede will be stiff after washing. Scrunch it and work it in your hands and it will soon become supple again. Do not iron these garments if at all possible, but if you absolutely have to. use a cool iron.