Reflecting on the NoImpact Movie, part 1: handwashing your clothing

So last night was our screening of the No Impact Man Documentary. (huge thanks to Becky, Jeanee, and the ladies of ICE, and to Mike for letting me borrow his projector) According to Becky, I think we were able to raise 130$ for the NoImpact Project! Yay!

The movie itself was pretty entertaining, and despite the fact that I’ve been reading his blog regularly, there were quite a few things that made me go “hrm….”.
The first one of those is the laundry scene – the one where they’re stomping their unmentionables in a tub full of borax and castille. First, allow me to interject here, and direct anyone interested in natural laundry detergents back to this post where a few of us made our own. I have to say it worked great. It was also super cheap to make, and when “eco-friendly” laundry detergents run 10-15$ a bottle, you can save some real money by doing this yourself.

That said, let me get back to today’s point: During this scene, I heard a lady in the audience mention Michelle’s designer wardrobe and make a comment about the dry cleaning. That prompted a flashback to a couple of weeks ago when Wayne brought me one of his shirts and asked why on earth a cotton shirt was labeled “dry clean only”. Hmmm…

Well, why IS a cotton shirt labeled “dry clean only”?

Good question. And here’s your answer:
Laziness, cheapness, and liability.
Sound harsh? Well, it is, but it’s also mostly true. One of the biggest reasons that normally washable fabrics are labeled dry clean only is because the manufacturer is cutting costs. Fabrics can and often do shrink the first time you wash them, which is why most sewing instructions begin with the line “pre-wash your fabrics”.
In an effort to reduce production time and cut costs, many manufacturers skip this step and simply slap on an unrealistic cleaning label to shift the burden of the fabric’s care to you.

This is a huge pet peeve of mine. (second only to constructing garments so cheaply they can’t be altered, but I’ll get to that another day) Not only is dry-cleaning costly, but it’s sort of an environmental nightmare.

So what’s a person to do? Well, while this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive guide, I hope the following information will help you figure out what you might be able to go ahead and wash at home. If it’s something really special though, check your area and see if there are any reputable “Wet Cleaners”. Wet cleaning is a process that uses natural soaps and is a much less toxic alternative to perchloroethylene.

Ok, back to that cotton shirt. Cotton is a natural fabric and there’s really no reason in the world why a properly constructed cotton garment cannot touch water. That said, the key is properly constructed. Fabrics have a direction, even if they don’t have a pattern. Think of it like the grain in wood, or the weaving of a rug – the fibers have a direction and garments should be sewn following this direction. In a cotton shirt, unless the fabric is cut consistently, you will wind up with a misshapen garment after washing, as different parts of the fabric will move in different directions when wet. If you’ve ever washed a tee shirt and noticed the side seams were no longer at your sides, that’s what happened.
Unfortunately, if you’ve bought something poorly constructed, there’s not much you can do. American Apparel tee shirts have done this so often on me that I no longer buy anything printed on their blanks.

The other problem with washing cotton is temperature. If your cotton garment says dry clean only, the only way to wash it is in COLD water. The reason cotton shrinks is because the bonds in the fabric get broken by stress, and usually this stress is heat or extreme agitation. If you wash your shirt in cold water on either gentle cycle or by hand, then dry it on a line it should be just fine after a quick iron.
(speaking of ironing – this is another reason why your cotton shirt may say dry clean only… If the shirt has complicated details, the dry clean label is probably there due to the difficulty in reclaiming those details during the ironing process. In this case, the label is merely telling you a professional probably needs to handle your shirt. Unless you are really patient, it’s probably a good idea to go ahead and listen)

Ok, the next item on my list is wool. I think we’ve all made the mistake of washing a sweater and pulling it out of the dryer to find it now fits the cat. While there are some home remedies for this situation, they don’t always work and it’s better to just not have it happen in the first place.
With wool, it isn’t only the temperature that can cause problems. You also have to be careful what type of soap you use, as sometimes the shrinkage is caused by the PH factor of the soap. In most cases, a good natural shampoo is the best thing to use on your favorite sweaters (wool is just sheep “hair” after all…). Simply let them soak in the cold soapy water before gently swishing the suds through. To rinse, it’s best to drain and refill the sink with clean water, repeating the soak and swish process until there are no more suds. To improve color-fastness, you can add a tiny bit of vinegar to the first rinse water. After you’re suds-free, remove the excess water by rolling your sweater in a clean towel and squeezing, then lay it out to dry flat away from direct heat or sunlight. If your sweater gets a little out of shape, you can re-“block” it with a warm steam iron. There are good instructions for that here:

Moving on, silk is another natural fabric with a reputation for difficulty it doesn’t deserve. Like cottons, a garment constructed with pre-washed silk fabric has no need to be dry cleaned. Even though it isn’t hair, it’s still a natural substance produced by animals and derived from proteins, and like woolens, the ph of the detergent is your biggest enemy. You will also want to steer clear of any detergents with a petroleum base as those may leave an oily residue that is noticeable on silks. A good natural shampoo in a sink of cold water is again the best way to wash these garments. The biggest problem you may encounter is the garment stretching if it’s hung to dry, or twisted while it’s wet, so be careful here. As with cotton, if the design or cut is complicated, it may be best to let a professional handle the cleaning, as silk can be finicky to iron.

I’m not going to go into caring for rayon and other synthetics because honestly the variables are too many for the scope of a blog post. I will note that many of these fabrics are not ever intended to be washed, which is sort of horrifying to me. One trick I’ve seen floating around the internet, but have yet to try, is freezing your clothes to rid them of germs. This obviously won’t help with stains, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

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9 thoughts on “Reflecting on the NoImpact Movie, part 1: handwashing your clothing

  1. I have always wondered why some of my cotton t-shirts did exactly that – twisted funny as time went on. Hmmm. I can get away with washing quite a few “dry-clean only” items using the wool wash that I bought from the local knitting store (Eucalan; there are others). You may want to point out the challenge of mixed-fabric items, like lined skirts or suit jackets, in which the shrinkage would happen at different rates, which is why the recommendation is for dry cleaning.

    • Actually, with linings, a lot of the problem is then being able to iron them properly. Did you know people used to actually take suits apart to wash them once upon a time?? It boggles my mind!! (they might still do that in some places, I know it’s still done with kimono)

    • Yeah, the tee shirts… ugh. Liz and I ordered a whole bunch of blanks from them, very carefully washed them in cold with no dryer, and they ALL shrunk and twisted. I was furious. We lost a lot of money on that project, but at least we pre-washed. I’d have been mortified if it happened after a customer bought the shirts from us.

      • That seriously bites. I haven’t had a problem with American Apparel so far (we get our “women’s” aka fitted tees for the band from them) but maybe our local screen printing place deals with the pre-washing for us. Or perhaps you got a bad batch?

        Do you know of any good alternative companies?

      • The only ones that did it were the ones with side seams. All the other blanks we got from them were great (boyshorts and tanks). I’ve bought things on Bella before and like them, but I haven’t given home-screenprinting a go again, so the issue kind of got dropped. =)

  2. thanks for this; i just nabbed a cute skirt at the thrift store that i’m going to risk ruining by hand washing, simply because i never dry clean *anything* anymore. i won’t wash it frequently, but will be upset to find it doesn’t fit anymore if a cold, hand wash in gentle soap ruins it.

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