Wash away your worries about the do's and don'ts of perfect laundry with these pro tips.
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Readying Clothes for the Washer
Remove pins or buckles, zip zippers, close snaps and hooks, and secure Velcro to prevent snags and abrasion. But don't button buttons, which can stress the buttons and buttonholes.
Empty pockets and turn them inside out, unfurl socks, and unroll cuffs. Tie sashes and strings to prevent tangling. Place delicate items like lingerie and fine knitwear in zippered mesh bags. Turn delicate items, sweaters, and cotton T-shirts inside out to prevent pilling. Put socks -- oh, those socks -- in a pillowcase or mesh bag so they don't get separated.
Photography: Johnny Miller2 of 21
Washing Down Pillows and Comforters
Clean down pillows in the washing machine every three to six months to remove bacteria and odors, and launder comforters only as needed, up to twice annually. (Each washing strips feathers of their natural oils, which causes them to lose their loft.) Dry both on the lowest heat setting -- along with a clean tennis ball, to help evenly redistribute the feathers -- and keep them even by fluffing daily when you make the bed. Between washings, air out down items, preferably outdoors on a clothesline, once or twice a year to keep them smelling fresh, and spot-treat small stains with mild dishwashing liquid and water.
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Residues from fabric softeners and their fragrances can aggravate allergies and sensitivities, and leave buildup on moisture sensors or lint screens, blocking air flow.
For a DIY fabric softener, add between 1/4 cup and 1 cup white vinegar to the final rinse cycle (never mix vinegar and chlorine bleach).
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Bluing the Laundry
Once a laundry room staple, bluing is an old-fashioned product that was added to the wash or rinse cycle to give whites a very subtle blue tint. Bluing makes some white fabrics that already have a blue-white hue appear even brighter, cleaner, and whiter. Bluing fell out of use as fabric detergents became more effective, but even with improved formulas, whites gradually begin to look dingy after repeated washings. Chlorine bleach is an effective whitener, but it can weaken fabrics and fibers. Martha likes to use Mrs. Stewart's Bluing (no relation), particularly on antique linens and lace.
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Removing Stains 101
The best way to fix a stain is to treat it before it sets. Quickly scoop up solids with a dull edge, and blot liquids with a clean white cloth from the outside in to avoid spreading. Treat stains before washing, and always make sure stains have been removed before putting items in the dryer; heat sets stains into fabric. Use our comprehensive Stain First Aid chart to treat specific spots types.
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Think you know how to do laundry? You might be surprised to find out how many of these steps you've been missing.
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DIY Laundry Detergent
Use a gentle, nontoxic soap or detergent, and boost the cleaning power as needed by adding 1/2 cup borax. This naturally occurring mineral has antiseptic, antibacterial, water-softening, and whitening properties.
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Brighten Whites Without Bleach
The first step to keeping whites bright is to wash them separately in hot water. Smaller items like napkins, socks, and linens can be whitened on the stove in a solution of hot water and lemon slices. Fill a pot with water and a few lemon slices, bring to a boil, turn off the heat, and add linens. Soak for up to an hour and launder as usual.
Whites can also be lightened with 1/2 cup of borax or white vinegar mixed into one gallon of water during the wash cycle. For an extra brightening boost, hang laundry in the sun for natural bleaching.
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Regular detergents are often too harsh for sensitive baby skin. To avoid irritation, use the mildest soap available without unnecessary additives and chemicals. Some of these are less alkaline than regular soaps, so they may not clean stains as well, but they will be safer for your baby's delicate skin. Avoid fabric softeners, and always pre-soak stains in cool water as soon as possible to spots setting.
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Laundering Napkins, Step 1
Though you may be worried about pulling out the good linens for holiday celebrations, they actually benefit from occasional use. After the meal is over, immediately place napkins and other linens in an ice-water bath. Martha always lines her sink with a sturdy bath towel before filling it with water -- this helps later when lifting delicate linens from the sink. If you're too worn out from a day of cooking and entertaining to do the laundry right away, you can leave the linens in the water bath overnight.
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Photography: Victor Schrager11 of 21
Laundering Napkins, Step 2
Lift the towel with the linens inside from the water, and drain the sink. Then, fill the sink with very hot water and laundry detergent. (Martha likes to add some non-chlorine bleach to the water for gentle brightening.) Spray any remaining stains with a stain treatment, and allow to sit for a few minutes. Add linens to the wash water, and gently squeeze suds through -- do not rub or wring. Let soak for a few minutes, then drain the sink, and carefully squeeze out excess water. Rinse away the soap by refilling the sink with water and squeezing it through the linens until the water runs clear.
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To dry, roll linens in a large towel, gently patting to remove excess water. Then, lay the linens on a rack -- ideally in the sunlight -- until they are dry. Martha likes to iron her napkins before putting them away. She puts a terry-cloth towel over her ironing board and places a dampened napkin, back side up, on top. If your napkins are monogrammed, always iron on the back side -- never directly over the monogram. As you work, fold the napkin in half, then in quarters, gently ironing over the creases for a neat, crisp finish.
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When to Hand Wash
Just because a clothing label reads "dry-clean" doesn't mean it can't be hand washed, especially if it's made of natural fibers. Wool, silk, rayon, and linen can usually tolerate hand washing. When hand washing, immerse delicates into a solution of lukewarm water and mild detergent, and swish for three to five minutes. Drain soapy water, rinse items until water runs clear, and then gently squeeze out excess water, but do not wring. Reshape clothing flat on a towel, and roll up, pressing out excess water. Repeat with a dry towel, and then hang on a drying rack or another towel, flipping once.
Photography: Steven McDonald14 of 21
When to Dry-Clean
Some clothing items need truly professional care. Don't chance washing very delicate fabrics yourself, especially if they include embellishments like beading, fur, or sequins. Leather and suede should also be left to professional handling. Heavily soiled garments, especially those with difficult oil-based stains, should be taken to a dry-cleaner, who may be able to remove them with specialized solvents.
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The Wash Cycle
The correct washer settings are a primary step to ensuring your clothes are cared for properly. Regular cycle is best for sturdy and dirty clothes, while the permanent press setting is fine for the average load. Use the delicate cycle for lacy and loosely woven fabrics. Use hot water for white loads, warm water for the average load, and cold water for bright colors.
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Most dryers have a setting called "electronic" or "automatic dry" that lets you choose how dry you want the clothes to be rather than how long you want them to dry. The permanent press setting has a cool-down cycle at the end to reduce wrinkling. On air fluff, the dryer circulates air but adds no heat; this is good for freshening pillows and reviving clothes that have been packed in a suitcase but don't need to be washed. To avoid shrinkage, you can dry your clothes the old-fashioned way: on a clothesline or drying rack.
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Rather than pay for professional cleaning, you can safely clean many down-filled items yourself using a low-sudsing, mild detergent. When machine washing, a large front-loading washer is best. To hand wash, fill a tub with lukewarm water and a little detergent. Gently squeeze soapy water through the item, and drain water. Rinse with cool water; repeat as needed. Before drying, use a washer's spin cycle to release excess water, or press out water by hand.
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Tips for Drying Down
Dry down-filled items on the tumble-dry low setting. When drying down pillows, add a tennis ball or two to the dryer to prevent matting. Add a dry hand towel to loads of down outerwear to absorb excess moisture, and before washing a comforter, pop it in the dryer to see if it will fit once fluffed up after drying.
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Washing Bath Towels
There is nothing quite like a basket full of fresh, fluffy bath towels. For best results, launder towels every three to four days. For white towels, use non-chlorine bleach and wash on the hottest setting. Do not use fabric softener, which can actually stiffen towels with residual buildup over time. When drying towels, use one scent-free dryer sheet.
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Washer and Dryer Maintenence
Like all other home appliances, the washer and dryer must be cleaned and serviced. Wipe the washer's interior with a clean, damp cloth, then run a short hot wash cycle with detergent; rinse the empty machine with a plain water cycle. Occasionally disinfect with a solution of 3/4 cup chlorine bleach and 1 tablespoon powdered detergent for every gallon of warm water used. Let sit for a few minutes, then drain and rinse a few times. To prevent the dryer from overheating, clean the screen or filter after every use, and remove accumulated lint from behind the dryer. Every so often, disconnect the exhaust duct to remove blockage.
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Keep Clothing Clean
Prevent unnecessary washing with practical clothing maintenance tips. Apply toiletries (deodorant, perfume, hair products) before getting dressed to avoid contact with chemicals that could cause soiling. Address stains as soon as possible with the proper steps, depending on the type of spot. Finally, at the end of the day, change into something more comfortable and hang clothing up to allow wrinkles to release and fabric to air out.