6 min

As many of us return to in-person workplaces, requiring us to, you know, wear pants again, a lot of us also will be returning to dry cleaners.

Before you drop off your favorite duds, though, check whether you really need to dry-clean them. If you learn a few tricks (and read care labels closely), the answer is probably not. Here are some options for doing your laundry without ending up with a closet full of shrunken or ruined pieces.

Read the label

Most clothing manufacturers are required to list only one way to clean a garment. If the tag reads “dry-clean only,” respect that as sartorial gospel. If it merely says to dry-clean, consider that a recommendation, and know that you might be able to do it yourself.

If the label says to hand-wash, always use cold water, which prevents shrinking or bleeding. Dissolve a small amount of liquid hand-washing soap in water, then gently clean your item. Carefully push out the water (never wring or twist), and place the garment flat on a white towel to dry.

For clothes labeled “hand-wash/gentle cycle,” it’s okay to put them in the machine. To cut down on potential wear and tear, turn the piece inside out, put it in a mesh bag and use a short, delicate wash cycle.

Fussy fabrics

Materials that spot or shrink when washed with water should go to the pros. Unless the label reads otherwise, that includes silk, acetate, velvet, taffeta and many wool items. And leather should always go to the cleaners unless the label says it’s washable.

You can usually hand- or machine-wash cashmere, linen, cotton and polyester. But test for colorfastness first by wetting a cotton swab with mild soap and dabbing it on a hidden spot. If you see color on the swab, take the item to the cleaners.

Items made with several materials also might need to go to the cleaners. For example, although a tweed jacket’s exterior is probably fine for hand-washing, its nylon or silk lining might not be. And because the two types of fabrics could shrink, wrinkle or bleed in different ways, you could ruin the item if you do it yourself. Similarly, leave leather- or bead-trimmed pieces to the pros.

Tips to make laundry day more gentle on the environment

If you need a professional, nonprofit Washington Consumers’ Checkbook’s unbiased ratings and price comparisons for local shops can help you find the best shop and a fair price. (Checkbook’s undercover price shoppers found big swings in prices for cleaning the same garment among Washington-area shops.)

Until June 20, you can access ratings of local dry cleaners free via Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/Drycleaners.

DIY dry-cleaning kits

Another option is to replicate dry cleaning at home. Stores sell various DIY kits, including from Dryel and Woolite. These kits usually include a stain-removing agent to attack spots, plus fabric-freshening sheets that go in the dryer with pretreated garments.

These kits aren’t as effective as a professional at removing stains or cleaning clothes, though. And your dryer can’t do the kind of crisp pressing a dry cleaner can. Home kits are fine for freshening up smelly sweaters, but if your stuff is really dirty, you’ll need a more thorough cleaning.

Stain 911

At-home stain removal comes with many risks: setting that wine blotch forever, rubbing a hole in your favorite shirt, making dye bleed. It’s probably safer to leave most stains to a dry cleaner, but if you’re in a bind, here are some tips for getting spots out on your own:

  • Don’t do anything without first reading the garment’s care label.
  • Immediately remove as much of the offending stain as possible. Blot — don’t rub — a liquid stain with a white cloth, tissue or paper towel, starting at its edge. If your mess is pasty, use a spatula or butter knife to scrape off as much as possible.
  • Test stain-removal products on a small, out-of-the-way spot to make sure they won’t destroy the garment.
  • Let a washable, stained item soak in cool water for a half-hour before washing it. (Many non-greasy stains — soft drinks, wine, candy other than chocolate, ketchup, coffee and ink — can be removed with water.) For non-washable pieces, sponge the stain with cool water; if that fails, work a stain remover into the spot and rinse it with cool water.
  • Oust an oil, margarine or wax stain by working detergent into the mess; however, you’ll often need a grease solvent.
  • Treat the grease first, then, after the spot dries, treat the stain. When grease meets other products, you get the difficult-to-remove stains that come from substances such as chocolate, ice cream and lipstick.
  • Treat blood as an ordinary stain. If that fails, try using a diluted ammonia solution followed by detergent and water, then rinse.

Dealing with a dry-cleaning shop

Before taking your clothes to a professional, check them for stains and empty the pockets. If there are stains, point them out to the clerk and tell them what caused them, how long they’ve been there and what, if anything, you have used to treat them. The more the pro knows, the better the chances of a successful cleaning. Also indicate any hidden spots, particularly from sugary spills. Pin a tag or have a staffer put tape on each stain.

When picking garments up, check that they look and smell clean. Were they pressed properly? One of the most common complaints Checkbook gets about dry cleaners is that shops sloppily press garments, leaving double creases and crushing or losing buttons.

If there’s a problem and you believe the dry cleaner is responsible, ask to have the work redone. A reputable shop will be happy to redo it for free. If the shop admits to an error that resulted in permanent damage, it should reimburse you for the price of the garment and waive any cleaning charges.

Unfortunately, you can’t count on getting the full replacement cost. According to the “Fair Claims Guide” published by the Dry Cleaning and Laundry Institute and widely used by dry cleaners, consumers and mediators, a dry cleaner is obliged to cover the replacement cost only after adjustment for the garment’s condition and the unused portion of its life expectancy, such as two years for a tie or three years for a woman’s blouse.

Kevin Brasler is executive editor of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access Checkbook’s unbiased ratings of Washington-area dry cleaners free until June 20 at Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/Drycleaners.