How to Do Laundry

A no-spin guide to washing clothes, car-seat covers, and nearly everything in between.

  • Sarah Stebbins

Clothing and Outerwear

Button-Down Shirts

  • Unbutton the shirt. Unfasten all buttons, including the tiny ones at the collar, before laundering. Otherwise, the agitation in the machine and the weight of other garments may cause buttonholes to tear.
  • Apply a stain remover. It’s a good idea to pretreat collars every time you wash them. “Once stains from body oils build up, they are very difficult to remove,” says Chris Allsbrooks, a textile analyst at the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute, in Laurel, Maryland. Use a stain remover or spot-clean with a mixture of water and liquid detergent. Pour it over the area, then rub with a soft toothbrush. It’s especially important to spot-clean permanent-press shirts and other items that have been treated with resins so they retain their shape, because these fabrics tend to hold soiling.
  • Use the permanent-press setting. Wash permanent-press shirts with all-purpose detergent on the permanent-press setting, which is gentler than the regular one, uses warm or hot water, and has a long cool-down rinse to further minimize wrinkling. Opt for the dryer’s permanent-press feature, which has a cool-down period at the end. Wash non-permanent-press shirts on the regular cycle in cold or warm water.

 

Sweaters

  • Wash cotton blends on gentle. Many knits made of cotton, synthetics, or blends can be machine-washed in cold or warm water on the gentle cycle with all-purpose or mild detergent. To combat wrinkles and stiffness, dry items on low for 5 to 10 minutes before laying them flat on a mesh sweater rack or a towel.
  • Use a zippered pillowcase for delicates. Place a wool, cashmere, or fine cotton sweater in a zippered pillowcase; wash on the delicate cycle with cold water and lay flat to dry.
  • Test silk sweaters for colorfastness. Delicate knits, like crochet and silk, are a different story: Dry-clean these, or test for colorfastness (to see if the color will bleed, place a dab of detergent on a dip a cotton swab in detergent and hold it on the fabric for two minutes) and hand-wash in cold water with mild detergent. Some knits may stretch out; reshape after washing and lay flat to dry.

 

Socks

  • Never lose a sock again. One of the most frustrating aspects of doing laundry is the number of socks that suspiciously go missing. Forget putting out an APB: Simply pin each pair together before throwing it in the machine. No sorting, no matching necessary afterward.
 

 

Jeans

  • Wash jeans in cold water. Most denim is top-dyed, meaning only the surface of the fibers is colored. To keep jeans from fading or acquiring white streaks, wash in small loads in cold water (with more water than clothes) with all-purpose detergent. This cuts down on abrasion, says Allsbrooks.
  • Stretch the legs to prevent shrinkage. “It’s common for jeans to shrink in length” when washed, says Steve Boorstein, author of The Clothing Doctor’s 99 Secrets to Clothing Care. Hold them by the waistband and legs and gently stretch them vertically before drying. Dry on low or medium heat; overdrying causes unnecessary wear and tear, so take jeans out when the legs are done but the seams and the waistband are slightly damp.

 

Hats and Gloves

  • Wash knit hats and gloves like sweaters. Follow the same instructions based on different fabric types. Cotton blends can be machine-washed cold on delicates, wool and cashmere on the delicate cycle with cold water, and so on.
  • Spot-clean structured hats. Newsboy and baseball caps could become misshapen so its best to keep them out of the washing machine.
  • Hand-wash leather-trimmed gloves. You can hand-wash gloves with small sections of leather if the leather is the same color as the knit; otherwise bleeding may be a problem. To dry, insert the handle of a wooden spoon in one finger and set the spoon end in a vase. This will help the glove retain its shape.

 

Down and Polyester Coats

  • Wash adult coats in warm water. You can wash down coats in front-loading machines with a mild powder detergent and warm water on the gentle cycle. (If you have a top-loader, take these coats to a dry cleaner; most top-loaders have agitators that can compress and displace down filling and prevent pieces from tumbling freely.)
  • Use towels for speed drying. Smaller items, like children’s jackets, whether filled with down or polyester, can go in a front- or top-loader on the gentle cycle; tumble dry on low. Put a few clean, dry towels in the dryer to help soak up excess moisture and speed drying.

 
 

Undergarments and Delicates

Everyday Bras and Lingerie

  • Set the washing machine to the gentle cycle. Most lingerie can be put through the machine’s gentle cycle, even if the labels say “hand-wash.” Use all-purpose detergent with cotton and synthetics; opt for mild detergent with lacy fabrics.
  • Apply a stain solution. Pretreat yellow perspiration stains by rubbing them with mild soap and warm water; let soak for 30 minutes.
  • Place delicates in zippered mesh bags. Protect hosiery, bras, bustiers, camisoles, slips, and any other garments with straps or underwires by placing them in zippered mesh bags, which will keep them from twisting or snagging; fasten clasps to prevent them from catching on the netting. Use a bag with fine mesh so hooks can’t get through.
  • Wash undergarments separately. Wash in light loads, and never throw them in with heavy items, as these can cause wires to bend or break, says Chris Allsbrooks, a textile analyst at the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute, in Laurel, Maryland.
  • Don’t use the dryer. Air-dry to prevent damage to underwires and straps.

 

Fine Bras and Lingerie

  • Hand-washing is best. Hand-washing is often the best way to care for ornate pieces and those made of delicate fabrics, like silk. Let the pieces soak for a few minutes in warm or cool water, then gently squeeze the suds through the fabric; rinse and roll in a towel to absorb excess moisture before hanging them to dry. Bras, nightgowns, and the like are not apt to be heavily soiled, so “hand washing gets them cleaner than you might think,” says Allsbrooks.
  • Clean lingerie while you’re in the shower. Get the article wet, lather a pea-size amount of mild shampoo or baby shampoo in your hands and wash, as suggested, then air-dry.

 

Baby Clothes

  • For an infant, use an extremely mild detergent to start. The skin of an infant is often too sensitive for the chemicals in many detergents and bleaches, so textile analyst Chris Allsbrooks advises introducing these products gradually. She followed this timeline with her son: For the first six months, she used Dreft, a very mild detergent formulated for babies ($15, dreft.com for stores).
  • Then upgrade to a stain-fighting detergent. When he started eating solid foods, she moved on to Ultra Cheer Free & Gentle, which is “a little stronger and better at getting out stains from pureed spinach,” she says. Once he was eating regular food, it was “straight on to the Tide.” Wash with warm water and tumble dry on low. “Using the lowest heat setting will minimize static electricity, lessening the need for dryer sheets,” says Sandra Phillips, a cleaning consultant and the author of A Clean Break ($10, amazon.com).
 

 

Underwear

  • Don’t overload the washing machine. To ensure thorough cleaning, wash underwear in light loads. Use the gentle cycle with warm water and all-purpose detergent, unless the label specifies “mild.”
  • Dry on low. Tumble-dry items that contain spandex on low or air-dry them to prevent shrinking.
  • Hand-wash delicate items. As with fine bras and lingerie, anything with delicate lace should be washed by hand.

 

Swimsuits

  • Rinse, launder, and air-dry. Rinse them well when you get home from the pool or the beach to remove chlorine or salt water, which can cause fading or changes in color; chlorine can also damage elasticity. Launder by hand or in the machine, as with everyday bras and lingerie. Air-dry.

 

Shapewear

  • Follow underwear-washing instructions. If the item has underwires, use a mesh bag. Since shapewear typically contains spandex, air-dry or tumble-dry on low. 
 

Household Goods

Blankets

  • Wash nonwool blankets on the gentle setting. Check for colorfastness first. If it passes the test, machine-wash on gentle with cool water and all-purpose detergent. Rinse with cold water; tumble-dry on low or line-dry.
  • Dry cleaning is often the safest bet for wool. But if you have the patience for hand-washing such a heavy piece, use a mild detergent in cold water. Lay flat and dry completely before using the dryer’s air setting to fluff it up.

 

Curtains

  • Wash in warm or cool water on gentle. Many must be dry-cleaned, but you can treat washable fabrics, like cotton, with a gentle touch, as the cloth has probably been weakened by months or―let’s face it―years of exposure to sunlight and dust. Launder separately with warm or cool water on the gentle cycle with mild detergent. Air-dry, then iron when slightly damp.
  • Vacuum regularly. To make laundering easier in the future, go over curtains with the vacuum’s upholstery tool every couple of months and wash every one to two years, says Boorstein.

 

Rugs

  • Use less detergent. Clean small cotton and synthetic rugs, and bath mats and doormats with thin latex or rubber backings, by themselves in cold or warm water on the gentle cycle. To get a thorough cleaning but minimize wear of the materials, use half the recommended amount of all-purpose detergent, then air-dry.
  • Carpet cleaners are best for special fibers. You can also spot-clean these and other rugs with a foam carpet cleaner, such as Resolve High-Traffic Foam. Let a pro handle large carpets made of wool or plant fibers, like sisal and jute, as well as valuable and antique pieces.
 

 

Tablecloths and Napkins

  • Presoak to remove stains. Soak heavily soiled items in oxygen bleach, then wash with all-purpose detergent in hot water. Since it’s hard to detect oily marks on wet cloth, let pieces air-dry (heat from the dryer may set stains), then look at them under bright light.
  • Dry clean, if necessary. If spots remain, turn to a pro. “Water in most machines gets up to only about 110 degrees on the hot setting, which isn’t enough to remove most grease stains,” says Boorstein.

 

Slipcovers and Cushion Covers

  • Check the material. Some materials should be treated by an upholstery cleaner; others can be dry-cleaned if the manufacturer recommends it. Many are not preshrunk and often have backings that may be damaged by home laundering.
  • For some fabrics, wash on gentle in cold. If the piece is made of linen, cotton, or a synthetic fabric and you are certain it is preshrunk and colorfast (ideally, ask the salesperson when buying), you can machine-wash it, separately from other articles, on gentle in cold water with all-purpose detergent. Air-dry or tumble dry on low, then reposition the cover on the furniture or the cushion when slightly damp. This will help with the fit if there has been any shrinking.

 

Sheets

  • Wash cotton sheets once a week in hot water. Wash sheets made of cotton, flannel, synthetics, bamboo, or modal (which is created from beech-wood pulp) once a week in hot water with all-purpose detergent to help kill germs. Dry on low.
  • Wash delicates in cold water. Wash linen, silk, and sateen-weave cotton on gentle in cold water with mild detergent. Dry on low or air-dry. Don’t dry-clean if you’re especially concerned about removing allergens.

 

Shower Curtains

  • Wash plastic and cloth curtains on gentle in warm water. Clean plastic and cloth curtains (including those with plastic backings) on gentle in warm water with all-purpose detergent. Air-dry plastic curtains; follow care labels for cloth ones.
  • Prevent rips in plastic curtains by washing along with socks. When washing plastic curtains, add a few soft items, such as socks, to absorb some of the force during the spin cycle and prevent the material from ripping. 
 

Toys, Gear, and More

Backpacks

  • Wash separately in cold water. Wash alone in a front-loader on gentle in cold water with all-purpose detergent. Don’t wash multicolored packs; the dyes may bleed.

 

Cloth Purses and Tote Bags

  • Wash on delicate in warm water. Use all-purpose detergent. Air-dry. Don’t wash purses with sequins or other embellishments.

 

Laptop and iPod Cases

  • Wash certain fabrics in warm water. Wash canvas, nylon, and microfiber cases in warm water with all-purpose detergent. Air-dry. Don’t wash padded cases―they contain a foam layer that holds water and doesn’t dry well.

 

Ironing-Board Cover

  • Wash in warm water. Use all-purpose detergent. Air-dry.

 

Sleeping Bags

  • Wash in a front-loader. The agitator in a top-loader may rip seams. Wash on gentle in warm water with mild detergent. (Harsher detergents can ruin the feathers in down bags.) Dry on low or no heat.

 

Car-Seat and High-Chair Covers

  • Use extra detergent for stains. Use warm water and 1½ capfuls of all-purpose detergent to get rid of the ground-in soils on cloth covers. Dry on low for 5 to 10 minutes, then air-dry.

 

Footwear

  • Wash in cold water. Wash canvas or leather sneakers (even those kids’ shoes with plastic parts) in cold water with all-purpose detergent. Wash slippers with rubber soles if the care label allows it.
  • Place them in mesh bags to keep laces from wrapping around the agitator. Dry on low for 10 minutes, then air-dry for a day.

 

Oven Mitts and Sponges

  • Wash in hot water. Use all-purpose detergent. Air-dry.
 

 

Cloth Diapers

  • Use hot water. Add bleach and mild detergent, and dry on high to help kill germs.

 

Travel Pillows

  • Wash pillowcases only. Rather than washing the pillows themselves (their padding tends to get mildewy), slip them inside pillowcases for use, then just wash the pillowcases instead.

 

Bath Toys

  • Use warm water. Rubber duckies sometimes need a bath, too. Use warm water and all-purpose detergent. “Throw toys in the wash with a hand towel, which will get the slime off,” says Phillips.

 

Plastic Pool Floats

  • Use cold water. “If it can be deflated and it fits in the machine, it can be washed,” says Phillips. Use cold water, all-purpose detergent, and a hand towel (as with bath toys) to remove slime. Air-dry.

 

Pet Accessories

  • Wash on gentle in cold water. Wash pet-bed covers, collars, and leashes on gentle in cold water with all-purpose detergent in small loads but on a large-load setting to flush out dirt and hair. Tumble dry on low.

 

Plastic Dish Gloves

  • Wash on a gentle, short cycle. They need only about four minutes in warm water. Air-dry.

 

Sports Gear

  • Wash on gentle in warm water. Wash basketball nets and shin guards on gentle in warm water. Air-dry.

 

Mop Heads

  • Use warm water. Add in an all-purpose detergent. Air-dry.

 

Toys

  • Wash cloth toys on gentle in cold water. Use mild detergent; dry on low for 5 minutes, then air-dry.