Fabric Care 101: Know Your Fibers

Before you start washing, it's important to learn the differences between cotton, wool, silk, and so on.

In a perfect world, you could toss all your clothes in the washing machine, no sorting required, and everything would emerge looking like new. In the real world, each one of your garments is made of a different fabric—and needs to be cleaned based on its particular fibers.

Some fabrics are great at resisting shrinkage or stains; others need some extra TLC. Can you toss your jeans into the machine with your rayon sweatshirt? How do you get your wool sweaters clean without stretching them out of shape? What temperature is best for your silk blouse and linen pants? These questions are easier to answer if you know about the fabrics they're made of. Here's a fabric care cheat sheet to peek at before your next load of laundry.


Cotton is made from the fluffy fibers of the cotton plant. Most are preshrunk, so "you really can't mess them up," says Chris Allsbrooks, a textile analyst at the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute in Laurel, Maryland.

How to Wash:

  • Machine-wash in cold or warm with all-purpose detergent.
  • Separate whites and darks. (Don't throw your jeans in with a white T-shirt, as the indigo dye might run and leave the T-shirt looking gray.)
  • Wash cotton sheets in hot water.

How to Dry

  • Preshrunk cotton can go in the dryer. For regular and organic cotton that hasn't been preshrunk, use a low-heat setting. Otherwise, it could shrink by 10 percent.
  • Or, line-dry in the shade. (Sun yellows it.)


Polyester, nylon, spandex, acrylic, and acetate won't shrink and will resist water-based stains.

How to Wash

  • Machine-wash in warm water.
  • Consider eco-friendly laundry soaps and detergents when cleaning synthetic clothes, because this type of clothing can have a negative impact on the environment. (They release microplastics into the washing machine and then out into our waterways.)

How to Dry

  • Most produce static and may permanently wrinkle in a hot dryer, so dry on low.
  • Use fabric softener to curb static.


Wool is woven from the undercoats of sheep, goats, and other hairy mammals. It's ultra-durable but shrinks in warm water, so take precautions.

How to Wash

  • If the instructions say "dry-clean only," follow them.
  • Hand-wash in cold or lukewarm water with a mild detergent or baby shampoo. Soak for 10 minutes and rinse gently.
  • Some wool sweaters can handle a very gentle cycle in the washing machine, as long as you wash like with like.

How to Dry

  • Squeeze out the excess water by laying the sweater on a clean towel and rolling it up into a spiral. The water will seep into the towel, and you'll avoid stretching the fabric.
  • Lay the sweater flat on a dry towel, and air-dry.


This durable, luxurious fabric is made from protein fibers produced by silkworms. It's treated with sizing and may have dyes that bleed.

How to Wash

  • Dry-clean if that's what's indicated in the care instructions.
  • Test for colorfastness. Dip a cotton swab in detergent and hold it on an inconspicuous area for two minutes to see if the color bleeds.
  • Turn the garment inside out and submerge it in a sink or basin of cool water and some mild detergent. Then gently move it around so it's saturated.
  • Rinse with cold water.

How to Dry

  • Don't wring out the excess water, which can stretch the fabric. Instead, press on it gently with your fingers.
  • Lay it on a clean, dry towel to air-dry.


Cool and comfortable rayon is created from wood pulp treated with chemicals and is considered a semisynthetic fabric. When laundered, it may bleed, shrink, or lose its crispness.

How to Wash

  • Does the label say "dry-clean only"? Follow that advice.
  • Hand-wash in cold with mild detergent.
  • Some types of rayon can be machine washed (check the label). Turn it inside out and slide it into a mesh washing bag. Wash on a gentle, cold water cycle.

How to Dry

  • To remove excess water, lay it on a dry towel, roll it up, and let the water seep into the towel. Gently unfold and lay the garment flat on a new, dry towel. Air-dry.
  • Iron it when slightly damp.


Linen is woven from fibers of the flax plant and is sometimes treated with sizing, a finish that makes it crisp. It wrinkles very easily and requires ironing.

How to Wash

  • Dry-clean if instructions call for it.
  • Otherwise, hand-wash in cold or lukewarm water with mild detergent.

How to Dry

  • Shake out your garment.
  • Lay it flat on a white towel to air-dry.
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