The Ultimate Guide to Cleaning and Caring for All Types of Fabrics

updated: 17/06/2024


An assortment of various types of fabrics

Natural fibres and natural cleaning methods – sounds like the perfect cleaning combination. But as each natural fibre needs a slightly different cleaning method for washing day, what needs to be done for what?

How To Clean And Maintain Cotton Fabrics

Cotton is the most common natural fibre and one of the easiest to wash – assuming it’s pre-shrunk. Cotton can stand very hot or boiling water – assuming it has no elasticity – and can handle most fabric cleaning methods – machine wash or hand wash. Cotton is the easiest fabric to dye and is thus the easiest to stain. However, as some artificial fibres do, they respond well to all-natural stain removal methods without melting. Cotton sheets and towels can become harsh and scratchy if not rinsed properly. Get the final bit of soap residue out of your sheets and towels by adding about half a cup of vinegar to the final rinse instead of artificial fabric softener.

Cotton often needs ironing. Drying cotton clothes on a washing line or drying rack (clothes horse) and hanging them on hangers as soon as possible minimizes creases. You can do it with the iron on high if you need to iron cotton items.

White cotton can be prone to mildew if left damp for too long. To remove mildew from white cotton, dab lemon juice on the spot and put the item in strong sunshine. To remove mildew from coloured cotton, dab the site with vinegar and allow it to dry. Then wash as usual. You may need to scrub the mildew spots slightly with a soft toothbrush.

A close-up shot of light cotton fabrics

How To Clean Woollen Fabrics

Wool needs more delicate treatment and should not be stretched, wrung, or exposed to high temperatures. Your best bet is to wash it by hand in warm water using soap gel, but you can get away with using the wool setting on your machine. Adding vinegar to the final rinse (plus some essential oil, if desired) will remove the last traces of soap and help the wool stay soft and fluffy.

Dry woollen items flat, or else they will stretch out of shape.

Woollen clothes can get attacked by moths. However, moths hate lavender essential oil, so tuck sprigs of dried lavender in stored woollens, or else spray the items with a blend of distilled water and lavender essential oil (about 15 drops of oil to about 500 ml water) shaken together and stored in a plant mister (you can buy ready-made lavender room spray or linen spray from a good chemist).

A close-up shot of white woollen fabrics

How To Keep Your Silk Clothes In Top Condition

Silk looks delicate but is not as fragile as you might think and does not need dry cleaning. Dry cleaning should be avoided as much as possible, especially for items worn close to the face or other sensitive areas (i.e. silk underwear). Handwashing silk using warm-to-cool water and soap gel, preferably made from castile soap, is best. Rinse in cool water. If possible, silk should be dried flat or draped over a washing line or clothes horse – do not peg them, as the pegs will damage the silk.

If you have to iron silk items, set the iron on low. However, silk’s slightly wrinkled, crushed look can be part of its charm and “look”.

Multicoloured silks that are not colour-fast should be spot-cleaned by gently rubbing soap over the dirty spots and then rinsing them. This will prevent the colours from bleeding into each other.

How To Maintain Leather And Suede

Leather and suede can be hand-washed in cool water and rinsed twice in fresh water. Dry leather and suede items are flat, preferably away from direct sunlight and not in front of a radiator or heater. After the item is dried, it will need to be softened again. This can be done for suede by squeezing, rolling and twisting the item in your hand until it becomes supple again. For leather, using the twist-and-roll method, the leather can be softened by wiping it sparingly with olive oil, which also restores the leather gloss.

Saltwater is death to leather. If you get salt water on the leather, soak the item overnight in milk and water before rinsing. Then, allow it to dry as described above.

Red velvet fabrics

How To Clean And Care For Less Common Fabrics

Acetate: A synthetic fabric. It doesn’t like biological washing powder, vinegar or pre-wash stain removers. It also doesn’t like soaking, rubbing, ironing, rubbing, wringing, twisting or spinning. This is a definite “dry clean only” fabric. It looks a bit like silk.

Acrylic: A synthetic fabric that’s entirely washable, although some prefer to be hand-washed only (check the label). A cold wash is best. Don’t bleach. Avoid ironing it when wet, and only use a cool iron. It looks a bit like wool and is often mixed with wool.

Angora: A natural fabric made from goat hair. Hand wash gently in warm water using hand soap. Dry flat and do not twist, wring or rub – this will make it stretch or turn to felt. Avoid ironing it.

Broderie Anglaise: This is usually made from cotton but can also be made from polycotton. It can be machine-washed (if the garment is attached to allow this) but put in a pillowcase or lingerie bag to prevent the holes from getting hooked on things.

Calico: This light cotton weave has a particular print (usually floral—think Laura Ashley). As it is cotton, it can handle hot washes, tumble drying, and hot irons. It will probably need ironing, too.

Cheesecloth (muslin): Very fine cotton. For some reason, muslin/cheesecloth garments usually run in colour. Wash items separately, preferably by hand, although you can use warmer water. It can be ironed, preferably when damp. Don’t wring it.

Chiffon: Very light, see-through fabric made from synthetics or (luxury of luxuries) silk. Hand wash the synthetic chiffons; dry clean the silks. Alternatively, spot-treat any dirty marks.

Corduroy is hard-wearing and is usually made from cotton or a cotton blend. It is more delicate to wash and should be turned inside to protect the distinctive pile. If you must iron it, iron it damp and turn it inside out.

Down: These are soft feathers usually used to stuff things. Wash in cold water using a delicate cycle. Tumble dry on low or dry in the sun– it will take ages. Fluff it up periodically to move the feathers around and stop them from clumping. If you dry clean it, air it well afterwards, as the down will trap the toxic fumes – not what you want to breathe in while you sleep.

Fur: Real fur should either be brushed or (if dirty) dry cleaned. You can spot clean marks with shampoo or hand soap and cold water, stroking in the direction of the fur.

Lace: Can be made from cotton, linen or synthetics. It is best to use a delicate cycle on the washing machine or hand wash it. If washing lace in the washing machine, put it in a pillowcase or a lingerie bag to stop it from snagging on zips, buttons and hooks, which can tear the lace.

Nylon: A synthetic fabric. It prefers to be washed in cold water, but can handle being machine washed on regular. It dries quickly and doesn’t usually need ironing.

Satin: This is a finish rather than a fabric type. It is made from silk or synthetic fabrics. Silk satin should be hand washed, but synthetic silks can cope with the delicate cycle in your washing machine. If you iron it, use a cool iron and iron it on the dull side to protect the shiny finish.

Velvet: Can be made from synthetics, cotton or silk. Wash inside out, using the delicate cycle. Hand wash or spot-treat silk velvet. To fluff the pile back up again after drying, hold the item over a steaming kettle (be careful not to get burnt).

Removal Using Natural Products is the Best

There are many age-old and homemade methods for cleaning mildew from various fabrics. Lemon juice and salt are the most common and oldest methods. When you discover mildew on your clothes, brush off the surface immediately. Mildew is a living organism, a mould that thrives in warm places and lives longer in humid environments.

Weekly house cleaning is an excellent opportunity to spot-check clothes in wardrobes and drawers for mildew. I am talking about clothes you don’t usually wear daily. Take extra care in looking after them; they will serve you long.

Instructions to Clean Mildew from Your Clothes

  1. Take the piece of cloth away from the rest of the clothing and take it to the area where you can brush off the mould growth from the cloth. You can use a soft bristle brush with your gloved hand.
  2. If you delay brushing off the mould, there is a high chance that the mould will eat your clothes away, and soon, you will find small holes in the place of the mould. Take enough care not to scatter the mildew spores in your house or anywhere on your clothes. Sometimes, when the mildew hasn’t grown much, just cleaning it with a brush, washing it in a detergent and drying it in the sun would be sufficient. But even after dusting the mould from your cloth, if you still find mildew spores, you can use any of the following remedies listed here.
  3. As mentioned, mixing natural cleaning products like lemon juice and salt is the safest and easiest method to clean mould from your clothes. Make a thin paste of lemon juice and salt in a bowl and slowly spread it over the area where you see the mildew spots.
  4. Allow the clothes to dry in the sun.
  5. Once dry, rinse it under running tap water and sun-dry it again. The lemon juice and salt mixture is a natural bleach to remove mildew and mould stains from the fabric.
  6. If the mildew stains are stubborn and spread wider on the fabric, use peroxygen bleach to clean it.
  7. Take a pint of water and make a mixture using about one to two tablespoons of sodium perborate or powdered bleach with sodium perborate. If you do not have powdered bleach with sodium perborate, you can use the same amount of potassium monopersulfate.
  8. If your fabric can be washed with hot water, soak the cloth with the mildew stains in hot water and apply this mixture of powdered chemicals. You can also soak the cloth directly into the solution for at least 30 minutes, rinse it off thoroughly with cold water, and allow it to dry in the sun.
  9. If the stains are old and remain after the first wash, you might have to soak the fabric in the solution for one night and then follow the same procedure.

The only risk with this natural cleaning method is that you might harm the fabric’s texture and colour. Hence, check your clothes for colourfastness before trying this method.

About the author 

Nick Vassilev

Nick blogs about cleaning. He is a cleaning expert with more than 25 years of experience. He is also an NCCA-certified carpet cleaner. Founder and CEO of Anyclean.