What to do when a simple wash isn’t enough.

By Andra Chantim
Updated August 10, 2015
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Laundry Washing Machine
Laundry Washing Machine
| Credit: Dorann Weber / Getty Images

Though you’ve probably done enough loads to consider yourself a laundry expert, sometimes a blouse or a set of curtains comes along with a stain so stubborn that it makes you rethink everything you thought you knew. Luckily there are real experts, and they're here to solve your biggest laundry troubles.

Despite drying my comforter with a tennis ball, the down is still clumped and not evenly distributed. — Simone, via e-mail

THE FIX: Rewash it, but skip the soap. Then dry it on low heat for a longer time with a tennis ball (or two) wrapped in socks. Down that isn't fully dry—or totally rinsed of detergent residue—can set in clumps, says Karin Sun, a cofounder of the luxury bedding brand Crane & Canopy (craneandcanopy.com). If you don't have large-capacity machines, you may want to haul the comforter to the Laundromat. (A queen or king size needs tumbling space for even distribution.) While drying, pull out the duvet every 30 minutes or so to shake it and massage out developing clumps. Be patient: Duvets take at least three to four hours to dry. To prevent lumps, shake out weekly, and wash only once a year, says Shannon Maher, an assistant professor of home-product development at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York City.

"When I wash my sheets, they twist into a rope." — Carolyn, via e-mail

THE FIX: Launder each set of sheets separately (not the whole family's sheets all at once). Also, include smaller garments, like underwear and tees, in each load, says Stephanie Hutaff, the director of product marketing for laundry care at Bosch. Long items can intertwine as they move with the flow of the circulating water, says Donna Smallin Kuper, the author of The One-Minute Cleaner. But if you mix in small pieces of fabric, which have different tumble patterns, the load will tend not to entangle. Besides the annoyance factor, twisted sheets can rip if the material winds too tightly, especially around the agitator in a top-loading machine, and stubborn wrinkles that won't come out in the dryer can set in. Always wash sheets on a gentle cycle to reduce the agitation, and never cram them into the machine. Shake them out first and place them in loosely.

"My clothes pill and collect lint every time I put them through the washer and dryer." — Cher, via e-mail

THE FIX: Sort laundry strategically to prevent fuzz from proliferating. Wash major lint producers (towels, terry-cloth robes) in one load, medium lint producers (corduroys, fleece jackets, sweaters) in another, and low lint producers (jeans, dress shirts, exercise gear, T-shirts) in a third, says Jim Kirby, the chief fabric-testing analyst for the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute, in Laurel, Maryland. To lessen pilling, turn clothing inside out, use the gentle cycle, and be careful not to over-stuff the machine. (Fill to only 80 percent capacity.) Set the dryer at a low temperature, and remove clothes as soon as they're dry. The friction of dry fabrics rubbing against one another creates additional fuzz balls, says Dean Brindle, the director of laundry-product marketing at Samsung. After every load, clean the lint filter, and—if you're really ambitious—wipe down the interiors of the washer and the dryer with a damp cloth. This step staves off lint buildup in the machines.

"I don't use bleach, but my colored towels still come out of the wash covered with spots." — Luna, via e-mail

THE FIX: You probably only think you're not using bleach. "Many products we use in the bathroom, from shower cleaners to toothpaste to acne medication, contain bleaching agents," says Lorraine Muir, the director of textile testing for the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute, in Laurel, Maryland. "When you transfer these products from your hands to the fabric, and the fabric interacts with water, the material will stain." To avoid ruining new towels (alas, the spotted ones are a lost cause), inspect the bathroom for sneaky bleachers. Anything that claims to whiten, brighten, or disinfect or that contains benzoyl peroxide, hydrogen peroxide, sodium perborate, sodium percarbonate, or chlorine could be a culprit. Once you find the offenders, remember to wash your hands thoroughly after using them and to store colored towels somewhere safe from inadvertent spills and splashes. Or, for the ultimate in prevention, stock the bathroom with white towels only.

"I washed a shirt with a name-tag sticker on it and the glue left white flecks behind." — Mary, via e-mail

THE FIX: If the shirt is made of natural fibers, spread it out on a table and place a towel behind the stain; check that the glue is dry. Dab clear acetone nail-polish remover onto a cloth and rub it into the glue, says John Mahdessian, the president of Madame Paulette, a New York City dry cleaner. The white spots should vanish quickly. For synthetic fabrics, stick the shirt in the freezer for an hour to harden the glue, says Gwen Whiting, a cofounder of the Laundress line of cleaning products. Pick off what you can, then wet the shirt and rub it with a microfiber cloth and a little dish soap to remove any residue. Soak the garment in warm water for 20 minutes, then air-dry.

“My towels are stiff, even though I have soft water” — B. Wilkinson, via e-mail

THE FIX: Wash towels in hot water with only the recommended amount of detergent, and skip the liquid fabric softener, says Mary Marlowe Leverette, the laundry expert for About.com; The roughness could be from detergent residue. Still not soft? Add a cup of distilled white vinegar to the rinse cycle next time. It can break down leftover gunk.

Have a disaster that needs solving? E-mail your problem to askrealsimple@realsimple.com.