Your Guide to Washing Delicate Clothing, Including Silk, Wool, and Lingerie

clothes hanging on a rack
Photo: Nina Vartanava / Getty Images

It's time to get your hands dirty. Machine-washing isn't always the best for most delicate fabric, but hand-washing isn't exactly foolproof either. Here's how to ensure your clothes come out of the wash not only cleaner—but intact.

01 of 09
clothes hanging on a rack
Nina Vartanava / Getty Images

Our fancy silk dresses, cozy cashmere sweaters, and lacey bras are often the clothing items we splurge the most on (with the exception of outerwear, that is). Sadly, these are also the most expensive (and stressful!) items to clean. If your still be scarred from that time you shrunk your favorite cardigan or ruined a beloved silk blouse, laundering these delicate items at home might feel like a nerve-wracking endeavor.

But be honest with yourself: How often do you really make it in to the cleaners to drop off and pick up your clothes? More often than not, your go-to blouse and soft turtleneck just sit in a pile of dirty clothes in your closet waiting for that free Saturday you're going to run errands. The good news is, there's no reason not to wash these items at home. That's right: You don't need to send each of your go-to wool sweater or silk joggers to the cleaners in order to give them a refresh. You can safely wash these items in your home laundry room or bathroom sink. All you need is the right method, detergent, and a little know-how.

And that's exactly where we come in. We at Martha take fabric care seriously. After all, just spending a few extra minutes washing and folding your clothing the right way will keep them looking their best for years. Isn't that the idea, less waste in our world and more time enjoying the things we treasure? Sure, you'll have to roll up your sleeves and do some work since these items can't simply be thrown in your laundry machine with the rest of the wash. There are also some precautionary steps to take. Even so, the outcome—when, years from now, you're still able to wear the gorgeous silk dress or sweater—will be worth it.

02 of 09

How to Test Silk

Bryan Gardner

Washing can damage poor-quality silk, but most silk garments can be washed safely. To test silk quality, crush the fabric in your hand, then let go. If it feels full and "liquid" and smooths out quickly, it probably can be hand-washed. If it holds the wrinkles, have the garment dry-cleaned. Before washing colored silk, test for colorfastness. Dampen the fabric inside a seam and wait a few minutes. Then dab the spot with a white clot. If the color comes off, the dye will run when washed, and you must dry-clean the garment.

03 of 09

How to Wash Silk

silk pajamas
Peter Ardito

Wash white and colorfast silks in tepid water—no warmer than your skin—with a mild detergent. Add 1/4 cup of white vinegar in the first rinse to remove soap residue and restore luster to the fabric. Then rinse thoroughly with water one final time. If the label on the garment says it's safe to iron, do so. Iron while the item is still damp for the best results, with cool iron, on the wrong side, and finish drying on a padded hanger.

04 of 09

Why You Should Be Careful with Wool

Cashmere sweaters
Lucy Schaeffer

Once wool shrinks, the damage is irreversible, so you want to be careful. Each wool fiber is covered with tiny over-lapping scales, much like the tiles on a roof, which repel water. As the washing machine twists, turns, and churns a wool sweater, the scales catch on one another and wind up permanently locked together. The result is an item that has become felted, meaning it is thick and matted—and smaller by a size or two.

If the label says dry-clean only, you should definitely not try to wash it in any kind of water.

05 of 09

How to Prevent Stretching

everlane sweater
Peter Ardito

Before washing any stretchable knit, measure in four places (shoulder to shoulder, across the bottom, and along the outside of each arm) so that you can restore it to its correct shape (also know as blocking) before drying. For more precise shaping, trace the outline of the article while dry on a piece of kraft paper; use the outline as a reference for reshaping.

06 of 09

How to Wash Wool by Hand

southern california house laundry room
Lauren Pressey

Use a detergent designed for hand-washables or a mild shampoo. Dissolve the detergent in a sink or basin with cool water. Use the amount suggested on the label, or just enough to create suds that cover the surface of the water (but not enough to overflow the basin). Dissolve detergent in water completely before adding clothes. Immerse the article in the sudsy water. Swish it about and gently squeeze the suds through the fabric. Do not wring or twist. Let it soak for several minutes, gently squeezing, then gently lift the item over the basin and drain the water. Run fresh water into the basin to rinse. Repeat until the water runs clear. Gently squeeze over the basin to remove excess water.

07 of 09

How to Dry Wool


Carefully transfer the item to a clean, dry white towel on a flat surface. Support the weight of the fabric as you lift so that it does not stretch. Reshape the article on the towel, then roll the article and towel together, pressing as you go to remove water. Repeat with a second towel, if necessary.

Hang lightweight items that will not stretch on a rack or the clothesline. Dry heavy items flat on a mesh sweater dryer on a dry towel. You will need to replace towels as they get wet. It's also a good idea to place a hand towel inside the sweater, between the front and back, to help it dry faster. Reshape according to the measurements you took before washing.

08 of 09

Before You Fold...


Once the sweater is dry, run a handheld steamer over it to remove any wrinkles. Lay the sweater on a flat surface and gently hold it in place with one hand while running a depilling sweater comb from one end to the other in a straight line. When you've finished one side, turn the sweater over and repeat. If you don't have a depiller, or if the item is fragile and you'd rather not use a blade, try a fine-toothed comb instead.

09 of 09

How to Wash Lingerie


You should probably hand-wash these items, but if you must, you can set the machine to the gentle cycle—which mimics the motion of hand-washing. If your machine has an agitator, use a lingerie bag for garments with straps and ribbons, as well as panty hose. This bag, available at department or lingerie stores, ensures those items won't get snagged in the machine. Line-dry all lingerie to prolong its life. Depending on how often it is worn, a bra has a life span of anywhere from six months to two years. A good way to extend it is to rotate bras—don't wear the same one twice in a row. Alternating bras lets each one return to its original elasticity.

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