While few things beat the rush of a wardrobe refresh, once your new clothes are in need of a wash, spotting the words “dry clean only” can create an instant sinking feeling. From silk blouses to suits, it can be nearly impossible to get beloved pieces to the cleaners on a good day, let alone if you're running between obligations or spending long days working from home. So upon spilling something on your favorite dry-clean-only sweater, you suddenly find yourself with a big dilemma. Is it ruined forever? Do we cross our fingers and throw it in the washer? Or, should we try our hand at dry cleaning at home?
It turns out, dry cleaning at home isn't as far-fetched as you would think, so it's a legitimate option if you choose to pursue it. In fact, the dry cleaning isn't even as "dry" as it sounds: the clothes get wet with a cleaning and degreasing solvent called perchloroethylene, and then are put through a large washing machine. So, if you need to quickly remove some wrinkles or get rid of a stubborn stain, you may be able to do it from the comfort of your own home. Keep reading to learn how to dry clean at home properly.
What Does "Dry Clean Only" Really Mean?
Personally, I’ve always just thrown my clothes into the washer and hoped for the best, unless it was something super delicate. This system has serviced me well for the majority of my laundry life. Part of this is pure luck. Another part is that “dry clean only” is actually a pretty flexible rule.
“There are many reasons why a garment might have to say ‘dry clean only’ on the label,” says Jessica Ek. “Washing might harm the buttons or the trim, or the dyes might be more prone to run if the garment is washed. In addition, some fabrics, such as cotton, shrink when washed—unless they have been preshrunk in the manufacturing process. Most manufacturers choose care labels that cover the worst-case scenario. In many cases, you can wash the garment, as long as you do it carefully, but you do so at your own risk.”
When doing your own dry cleaning, make sure you read the label in full, noting what kind of dyes the garment has or if it has been preshrunk. However, while most things can be cleaned at home, Ek warns to stay away from materials like suede and leather, which are best left to the professionals. And, above all, “don’t take a chance with things that have high sentimental value and are not replaceable for you,” says Ek.
With that in mind, let’s start dry cleaning.
Meet the Expert
Jessica Ek is the director of digital communications at the American Cleaning Institute, which serves the U.S. cleaning products industry by prioritizing health and the planet.
Step One: Pre-treat the stain
Spilled wine on your silk blouse, or found a mystery stain on your favorite cocktail dress? If you think you’ve ruined your favorite garment forever, think again. If it’s a fresh stain, you can remove it by taking a clean cloth and dabbing at it (no rubbing) to soak up any extra stain, suggested Ek. Then, take a stain removing pen and treat the area. If you have an older stain, it may take a while to fully remove the stain, though it's not impossible. You can also check out The American Cleaning Institute’s stain guide, which will show you more specific instructions on how to remove any stain, from baked beans to wine.
Step Two: Wash your garment
There are two ways to go about laundering, depending on whether you have a washing machine. If you have access to a washing machine, place your garment in a mesh bag, which will protect your clothing from getting tangled during the cycle. Ideally, you should work on one piece at a time if you’re dry cleaning at home, but you can also put a few similar items together. For example, you can do a few plain cotton pieces, but don’t mix dyed wools and white silks—it’ll get very messy.
Once it’s in the washer, add in a gentle laundry soap into your detergent dispenser. Make sure not to use regular laundry detergent; it’s too harsh on your delicate clothing. Instead, we recommend using The Laundress's Delicate Wash, or the brand's Wool & Cashmere Shampoo for your sweaters. The Laundress also has a Dry Cleaning Detox Kit that includes both soaps, the mesh bag, and a stain bar. Run your washer on the delicate or express cycle and wait.
If you do not have access to a washing machine, you can also wash your clothes by hand in the sink. Fill your sink with warm water and add three pumps of either a gentle laundry soap or a foaming hand soap, and submerge your garment into the water. Leave it there for no more than 20 minutes, moving the piece around with your hand every four minutes or so to get that washing machine-like movement. After that, remove the warm water from the sink and replace with cool (not cold) water, then swirl the clothing around a few more times before draining again. Rinse off any excess soap, then roll your garment in a towel to squeeze out the excess water.
Step Three: Let it dry
This step is a little misleading, as you don't want to "dry" your clothes in the usual sense: not under any circumstances should you put your dry-clean-only clothing in a regular dryer. Not only could delicate pieces get damaged from all that tumbling, but it also creates wrinkles and can shrink your cotton, wool, and denim pieces. The dryer also has the potential to permanently set any leftover stains.
Instead, hang up your clothes or lay them flat to dry. However, if you need your garment for an important event or notice that it’s starting to wrinkle, you can use a steamer to dry it quickly and smooth it out. Ek says owning a steam cleaner is the best investment you can make if you own a lot of dry-clean-only clothing because it can release wrinkles and help to remove odors. If you’re looking to splurge, try the Rowenta Pro Style Steamer, or for a more budget-friendly option, Black + Decker's Easy Steamer is simple to store and has great reviews.
So remember: read the label, be gentle, and you'll be dry cleaning at home with confidence in no time.