The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Laundry Master (So You Never Shrink Another Anything)

published Feb 2, 2017
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So, you accidentally shrunk your favorite sweater. You’ve mourned its loss—and searched desperately for an identical replacement to no avail—and now it’s time to make sure you never make the same laundry mistakes again. In order to become a true laundry master, there are some major things to know—like what those weird symbols on your clothing labels mean, what settings to use, and why you should never ever overstuff your machines. Guess what: With our help, you’ve got this.

1. The symbols on the label are actually important

While the rest of the rules on this list will get you far, the symbols on your clothing labels are the ultimate decider. That means you need to know how to read them before you do anything else, so here’s a basic breakdown of how they work and what they tell you:

The symbol that looks like a bucket of water? That tells you all you need to know about washing an item. The dots inside the symbol indicate which temperature you should use (more dots means it can take more heat, no dots means it can take anything), while the lines underneath indicate whether you should use the permanent press cycle (one line) or gentle cycle (two lines). A hand in the symbol predictably means you should hand-wash the item—more on that later—and an X through the symbol means you shouldn’t wash it at all.

The square symbol gives you all the info you need to properly dry an item—if it has a circle inside it, that means you can put it in the dryer, and the color of the circle or the dots inside it tell you whether to use heat, and what temperature. Squares that don’t have circles inside will indicate whether an item should be drip-dried, line-dried, or laid flat to dry, and the lines underneath work the same as the wash symbol.

The presence of a triangle tells you whether or not you should use bleach (and if it’s striped, it should be non-chlorine bleach), the circle tells you whether or not you can or should dry clean an item, and of course, the iron-shaped symbol indicates all you need to know about ironing an item—including what heat settings to use and whether or not to use steam.

To see the full chart of all the symbols and what they mean, go to Textile Affairs.

2. Sorting clothes is about more than just color

When you think about sorting your laundry, you probably think about it by color, right? You probably wash whites in one load, light colors in another, and red and dark clothing in a third. That’s all well and good, but there’s something more to consider in the sorting process: the types of fabrics you’re washing. For example, some dark items are also delicates—think black bras, or lace shirts—and some white items, like towels, are sturdier and heavier than most clothing.

Separating by color is important so that dyes don’t bleed from dark or colorful items onto light or white items, but separating by weight in addition to color will help you avoid damaging your clothes. In other words, you don’t want to wash your jeans with your delicates just because they’re the same color, so think about the weight and type of fabrics you’re including while you sort your laundry, along with your usual sorting rules. (Also note: You can combine colors if you have to, so long as you wash them on cold—we’ll come back to temperature in a moment—but you should still be careful about delicates and the weight and types of the fabrics you include.)

2. The detergent you use matters

Generally speaking, you can choose whatever laundry detergent you personally prefer, but the detergent you use can definitely impact your clothes, your washing machine, and your body. So, here’s when the detergent you pick matters:

  • If you have allergies or sensitive skin, make sure you avoid scented detergents.
  • If you have a high-efficiency washing machine, you should be using high-efficiency detergent.
  • If you deal with frequent stains, some brands and types of detergent are more effective than others.

If you’re not sure what kind of detergent you need—or you want to make your own—LifeHacker has a helpful guide.

4. The cycles you choose matter too

All those cycle options on your washing machine? They’re not just there to confuse you, and yes, they do matter—the cycles you choose definitely affect your clothes and how your laundry comes out.

Some machines have more settings than these (if yours does, here’s a handy guide), but the common ones you need to know are regular (it might also be labeled as “normal” or “cotton”), permanent press, and gentle or delicate, according to CNET. The regular cycle is for more durable fabrics and getting out stains and spots, while permanent press is for everyday clothes and clothes that wrinkle easily, and gentle is for—you guessed it—washing your delicates safely. The regular cycle agitates your clothes more and has a fast spin cycle. Permanent press also has a fast agitation cycle, but uses a slow spin cycle. And the gentle setting is slow on both counts.

(Image credit: Ellie Arciaga Lillstrom)

5. Different temperatures are for different clothes

Speaking of temperature, it actually does matter when it comes to washing and drying your clothes—if it didn’t, those symbols wouldn’t bother telling you what temperatures to use, and no one would ever ruin clothes in the wash. So, here’s the general deal for washing, unless the symbols on your labels tell you otherwise:

  • Cold: Use on delicates and bright colors, but note that you might have to pre-treat and soak stains for longer since cold water won’t be as harsh on them.
  • Warm: Use for jeans, permanent press items and the majority of your laundry.
  • Hot: Most linens and whites, with the exception of any delicates.

Generally speaking, follow the same pattern for drying your clothes—low heat for delicates, regular heat for most other items, and high heat for linens and sturdy white items. And remember, when in doubt, consult the symbols. (Honestly, that should just be your new laundry motto.)

6. Some things should be hand-washed

Okay, so you probably already know this: Not everything can go in the washing machine or be dry-cleaned. But, do you know how to hand-wash your clothes properly? The process is a little different depending on what you’re washing (and how much you have to wash) but generally speaking, you can either fill your sink or bathtub or get wash tubs specifically for your laundry, and fill those. Then, you mix in your chosen detergent, and let the items soak for a few minutes—how long again depends on what and how much you’re washing—and gently move and mix the clothes around in the water.

Focus longer on any items that have stains you’re trying to get out, and then when you’re done, rinse them in clean water. Gently squeeze out the excess water—don’t wring or twist your clothes as it could stretch them or damage them—or roll items up in a clean, dry towel to get the extra water out before you dry them (if they can go in the dryer) or let them air dry—if you’re not sure what to do here, consult the symbols and either hang them on a clothes line or lay them flat to dry. For more info on hand-washing based on specific items, WikiHow has an illustrated guide to washing full loads by hand, as well as cashmere items, and other delicates like silk and lace.

7. Some things should be washed inside out

Most things can go in the wash as-is, but there are some items that can seriously benefit from being turned inside out before being cleaned. Turning your clothes inside out will help protect colors from fading and keep embellishments—think beading, sequins, iron-on prints, etc.—intact. Oh, and you should always wash your jeans inside out, since washing and drying processes are abrasive and could cause them to fade.

(Image credit: Anna Spaller)

8. Mesh bags are your new best friends…

If you haven’t already been using mesh bags to do your laundry, you’re seriously missing out—they have a number of uses that will, one, make doing laundry much simpler for you, and two, will protect delicate items from tearing, breaking or otherwise going rogue. A mesh laundry bag can:

  • Keep all your socks together, so you never lose one again.
  • Stop bras from stretching out or hooking onto other fabrics.
  • Protect delicates from ripping (especially if you have to mix fabrics in a load).

9. …and so are towels (both dry and damp)

Does it feel like the dry cycle always takes forever when you do laundry? A clean, dry towel can help speed things along a little bit. Just pop a towel in the dryer with your wet clothes for 15-20 minutes and it will help absorb some of the excess moisture, making the process move a bit quicker. (And another tip: Make sure the dryer’s not super full, as that will make things dry even slower.)

On the other hand, a damp towel can be of service if your clothes are wrinkly and can’t be ironed, or if you left them too long in the dryer by accident (hey, we’ve all been there) and now they’re crumpled up and could use a refresh. Again, just pop a damp towel in the dryer for 5-10 minutes, and it’ll create enough steam to get the wrinkles out—just be sure you take the clothes out of the dryer right away when it’s done, or the wrinkles will set back in.

10. Never ever over-fill your washer or dryer

This is (or at least, should be) the golden rule of doing laundry. If you find yourself shoving as much as you possibly can fit into your washer or dryer, you’re definitely doing it wrong. First of all, if you overload your washer, your clothes won’t get as clean—they need room to swish and spin around to get a proper washing. And if you overload your dryer, it’ll take forever for your things to dry (again, they need room to tumble and fluff). But those are just minor inconveniences when you think about the other consequences to over-stuffing your machines: it can cause irreparable damage.

Overloading your dryer can ruin the sensors and the motor, cause the dryer to overheat and stop working, and even cause it to bounce around—which can lead to dents and scratches on your machine as well as in your home. Overloading your washing machine can lead to damaged garments, drainage issues, and strain or even totally blow the machine’s motor. TL;DR: Overstuffing your laundry = damaged clothes and broken machines.