Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About DIY Dry Cleaning

Save money and skip the trip to the cleaner.


Sarah Crowley

Technically, at-home dry cleaning isn't quite the same thing as dropping your clothes off at the cleaner. Not only are you using different methods to clean and refresh garments, but you do have to put in a little more effort. Ultimately, though, it's worth it. Not only is doing it yourself easier on your wallet, but learning how to care for your clothes properly will keep beloved pieces looking and feeling their best for years to come. Patric Richardson, laundry expert and author of the forthcoming book Laundry Love, explains how you can reduce your trips to the cleaner with DIY dry cleaning.

It's All About the Label

Laundry is truly an art form–and a lost one. We now view it as a major chore. "Being able to wash your clothes is a privilege and a luxury, really," Richardson. "It's funny, it's really all about how you frame a task in your mind. Cooking is the same way. It used to be a chore, but we've now decided that it's a hobby. It's the same with taking care of beautiful pieces of clothing."

In the U.S., our clothing labels are much vaguer than in Europe. Apparel companies put "dry clean only" on our clothes to protect them from our lack of laundry experience. "They want to protect their image, and by ensuring you won't improperly wash and dry it, it's also protecting the clothes. When you buy an expensive piece of clothing, you want it to last," he says. But reading labels allows you to glean what a piece of clothing is made of. And that's step one for figuring out how to wash and dry it.

How to Refresh Clothes at Home

Don't bother with special, dry clean-at-home products. "An at-home dry cleaning kit is essentially a stain treatment, a Mylar bag, and a wet sheet that has fragrance," says Richardson. "It creates steam that refreshes the clothes. You can get a similar refresh by wetting a washcloth, wringing it out, and tossing it in the dryer with your clothes for five to 10 minutes." For a subtle fragrance, add a few drops of essential oil to the washcloth or wool dryer balls. A lemongrass essential oil will impart that dried-outside-on-the-line sunniness.

Rather than letting your clothes accumulate on a chair in the corner of your bedroom all week, Richardson suggests hanging up your clothing immediately after you're done wearing them. "It lets the fabric breathe. Just brush it with a lint brush, and you're good to go," he says. "For any persistent musty odors, spritz with vodka. It will take it right out."

How to DIY Dry Clean Clothes at Home

Despite the name, dry cleaning isn't actually dry. It uses liquid solvents. At home, you'll have to replace the chemical solvents with water and mild detergent.

The usual candidates for dry cleaning are wool, cashmere, silk, rayon, and any other cocktail fabrics, but you can wash them at home. Richardson recommends hand-washing clothing in a clean kitchen sink with the tiniest bit of delicate detergent. Swish the pieces around and then let them sit for about 20 minutes. Drain the sink and gently press the pieces of clothing against the side. Refill the sink with clear water, swish it gently to rinse, and then drain the sink again. Press the garments against the side of the sink to remove excess water—do not squeeze!

Dry the pieces flat on a towel or flat on a drying rack. If you're washing silk, he recommends hanging it on a plastic (no wood) hanger to help prevent wrinkles. Once the clothing is dry, you can steam the pieces to remove wrinkles. Richardson's go-to steamer is from Laurastar.

Treating Stains at Home

Tricky stains are usually the main reason clothes go to the cleaner, but Richardson says you can usually get them out yourself. "My go-to stain remover is this natural product called Amodex; it even removes Sharpie. When I'm working out stains, I also use soap and a horsehair brush. He says that horsehair is gentler than an old toothbrush, which is commonly recommended.

For brightening, he uses oxygen bleach. For tricky oil stains, he starts with white vinegar and water to break up the stain but says you can also use a product like Shout. One thing to remember with an oil stain is that water alone won't help break it up.

When to Take It to the Cleaner

If you don't feel comfortable washing a piece of clothing or don't have the time to clean certain pieces properly, you can take them to a professional cleaner. "I think you don't have to take anything to the dry cleaner," says Richardson. "But if you don't have a steamer to steam or an iron to press, it might be smart to take it in."

Here are some considerations when choosing a dry cleaner. Many use a carcinogenic chemical called perchloroethylene to help remove stains. If you don't want your clothes exposed to this solvent, there are green dry cleaners that use liquid carbon dioxide instead. Before you drop off your clothes, ask your cleaner what method they use to make sure you're comfortable with it.

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