First things first, let's talk about cotton. It's a plant fiber that is grown throughout China, India, the U.S.A. and lots of other countries. This natural fiber is hugely in demand making up nearly 40% of all clothing fibers being produced worldwide. We love cotton for its softness and other natural qualities. It's also very easy to care for correctly, which is increasingly more important in a world where our demand for cotton is harming our planet and the people that grow it.*
As a rule of thumb, it is safe to wash cotton garments. This is not so true for tailored and lined pieces, but in general, hand and machine washing are safe bets. How you launder a garment will depend on what type of garment it is and on the type of fabric. For instance a light gauze top versus a denim-anything will have different instructions. With that said, here are some tips for washing a variety of garments. Let's get started!
What You'll Need
- bucket or pail
- natural detergent
- mesh drying disc/rack
Not every garment should be washed in a washing machine. Cotton jeans, t-shirts, gym pants, sweaters, unlined dresses and skirts and all be washed in the machine if the fabric is not delicate. If the fabric is light-weight/sheer or has very thin lacy sections for instance, consider hand-washing. Tailored items or garments with linings should not be washed since the different layers could shrink at different rates and therefore deform the garment. Otherwise, follow these steps for happy cotton garments.
1. Check for extra soiled sections or possible stains to spot treat those areas. If it needs the extra love, dampen spot, add a dot of regular detergent and rub in. Even if the spot doesn't come out completely there's a good chance it will come out in the wash.
2. Choose your machine settings carefully. Hot water will deteriorate fibers SIGNIFICANTLY faster than cold water. By changing this little habit, you will extend the life of your garments and save the world some energy. Of course, if you're dealing with grass stains, only hot water will do.
3. With like colors, add you garment to the washing machine.
1. Again, check for spots that may need some extra attention, treat as in previous step 1 and add into a bucket of lightly soapy lukewarm water. I use about a teaspoon of soap for about gallon of water.
2. Gently agitate making sure the fabric is fully absorbing the soapy water and let soak for 30 minutes to an hour.
3. Remove from water and wring out as much of the water as possible. The more water that is removed at this stage, the less time it'll take air drying. However, pulling and twisting too aggressively can permanently stretch the fabric, rip seams or temporarily deform the shape of the garment. The trick is to find that balance!
Back to the heat thing. Heat, especially in the drying stage, breaks down fibers SIGNIFICANTLY faster than cooler temperatures do. I use the dryer for bedding and towels. Most everything else, I air dry! Everything from a t-shirt to a denim smock can benefit from being air dried. Here are a few drying suggestions:
Some pieces are best dried hanging vertically like button-down shirts and smocks made from woven fabrics that won't stretch for instance. In the case of a collared shirt, hang it on a hanger, button it all the way, flatten the center placket, collar and cuffs so they appear wrinkle free. Find a spot with good air flow or sun and let it do it's thing. If you take the time to hand-flatten the big wrinkles, cotton will forgive the rest leaving you with a top that requires no ironing.
Do not hang knit sweaters. The weight of the wet fiber will stretch and deform its shape.
Garments that are very stretchy like sweaters and knitted tops should be dried flat to avoid deforming its shape. I recommend a mesh rack like this one, which allows air flow from all sides, but you can also try placing your knitted garments over a towel. Because it's hard to wring these more delicate pieces, keep in mind that they will be wetter then if they had gone through a machine spin cycle. If you're using a towel, be sure to place everything over your washer/dryer or on tile/linoleum floors while they dry. The dampness can damage wood floors.
MACHINE LOW HEAT
Some machines have low and medium heat setting. But keep in mind that dry heat is more damaging to fibers than moist heat. Remember to remove from dryer as soon as they become dry.
I hope you enjoyed the cotton manual. There's much more to learn so please give these a try and let me know what else you'd like to know. Linen, wool and silk will be posted within the next few weeks. In the meantime, I'd love to read your comments and see you at my workshop about garment care at E.M. Wolfman on Saturday, September 17 in downtown Oakland. It's called Long Live Cloth and is organized in collaboration with Jennifer Williams maker of the workshop and workbook Have a Creative Practice. Learn more and sign up here.
* The hard truth is that cotton is very harmful to the land it grows in, the waters around it, the people who grow it and live near to where it grows. It uses unimaginable amounts of herbicides, pesticides and the GMO lords are all over it. There's a great documentary that covers this in detail called Cotton Road.