There are two options for cleaning your own clothes: by machine, and by hand. We'll cover these skill sets one at a time, with a final note about dry cleaning.
Machine washing clothesYou will need:
- A few hours to kill. This is why people used to set aside specific time for "wash day".
- A quantity of dirty clothes (duh).
- An automatic washer and dryer.
- Laundry detergent formulated for your washer (liquid or powder, your call).
- Laundry stain remover (brand names include Shout, Spray & Wash, Zout, OxiClean, etc.).
- Bleach (chlorine, oxygen, etc.; chlorine bleach is only for white loads).
- A measuring cup.
- Borax (optional, for hard-water areas).
- Dryer sheet (optional; I don't use them).
- Receptacle for clean clothes.
Sort your clothes by color. White clothes (true whites, that is, not partly-whites or white-and-color stripes) must be separated from other colors for washing, or they won't stay white for long. If you're lazy about sorting and accidentally leave a nice red shirt in your white wash, everything in the load will turn pink, which might revolutionize your social life but is probably not the best idea. As you sort, find the fabric care label for each garment (usual hiding places: back of the collar, seat of the pants, sewn into a side seam). Socks don't have care labels, but unless they're wool socks hand-knit by your Auntie Gertrude, you can wash them in a machine. If any labels read "hand wash," "delicate cycle" or "dry clean only," set these clothes aside to deal with later.
We'll do a white load first. Load whites loosely into an empty washer to see how they fit. If you have a larger load of clothes than the washer basket can easily hold, don't try compacting them into a single load by heaving and squishing with all your might; this isn't as efficient as you think. Washers work by agitating clothes in water, and if they're filled beyond capacity your clothes won't get clean and may wear out faster. It's also really hard on the washer. Sometimes you just gotta do more than one load, especially if you haven't done laundry for three weeks (slob!). So fill your washer lightly, don't cram it full.
Now pull the clothes out of the washer (yeah, I know; bear with me) and set the washer dials according to manufacturer instructions. These are often printed on the inside of the washer lid for your convenience. As a rule, with a full, white wash load you should set the load size to its highest setting, the water temperature to the hottest setting your laundry can handle*, then push down and turn the dial clockwise until you reach the cycle setting you want (I use general-purpose cleaning settings like Normal or Permanent Press for white loads). Pull up on the dial to start the cycle; the washer basket should start to fill with water. Some models won't start unless the lid is shut, so if nothing happens, close the lid. As it fills, add your detergent (and borax, if you're using it). You want to use the right amount of detergent: too little and the clothes won't get clean, too much and the detergent won't rinse out completely. Don't just eyeball it; follow the instructions on the detergent container and measure carefully.
[A note about local water quality and its effect on laundry: some municipalities have hard water -- in other words, high amounts of dissolved minerals in the local water supply. (American readers: check this map to see if you live in a hard-water area.) Hard water makes a big difference to your laundry; the minerals in your water react with soap and detergent to create a grayish curd that gets ground into your clothes, wearing them out prematurely and making them harder to get really clean. You can fight the hard water blues by adding a cup of borax to your wash. Using detergent over soap also helps, as does choosing liquid detergent instead of powder. Frankly, the most effective stuff for hard-water washing was laundry detergent with sodium tripolyphosphate in it, but due to environmental concerns you can't buy it in the United States any more. Though I guess you could buy sodium tripolyphosphate from a chemical supply store and put a quarter-cup in your wash just to see how the old stuff used to work... in the name of science... I'm just saying.]
When the washer basket is full and starts to agitate, put the clothes back in; keep a dirty white towel in reserve for the next step, which is adding bleach. (Why add bleach? It keeps your whites white, and it kills germs in your socks and undies.) Wait a few minutes before you put bleach in the wash, giving the clothes a chance to mingle and get to know each other better.
Liquid chlorine bleach is serious stuff, so respect its caustic power. Some rules to follow: NEVER MIX CHLORINE BLEACH WITH AMMONIA, as the resulting fumes can kill you. Also, NEVER POUR CHLORINE BLEACH ONTO DRY CLOTHES, and NEVER USE CHLORINE BLEACH ON COLORS; you will destroy them. Really. Don't let my tragic failures be yours. So take that dirty white towel and drape it across your front; that way if the bleach splashes up, it won't ruin the clothes you're wearing. Check how much you need to use on the back of the bleach container, pour the bleach carefully into a measuring cup, and pour it into the washer basket. Give it a minute to disperse into the wash load, then cap the bleach, put the measuring cup away, take off the towel and drop it into the washer basket. Close the lid and let the washer do its thang. (If you use a non-chlorine bleach instead, such as oxygen bleach, it's added the same way, except you don't need to wear the towel; these bleaches aren't as likely to damage your clothes.)
Sometimes washer loads go off balance, usually during the spin cycle. If this happens, the washer will start making a loud knocking or clunking sound. Some off-balance machines will stop the wash cycle, whining petulantly until you investigate; others will just start doing the Possessed Washer Boogie across the floor. You can fix it by stopping the cycle for a minute, opening the washer and shuffling the clothes around until the weight is evenly distributed, then closing the washer and starting it again. Repeat as necessary until the washer stops complaining and/or dancing.
Well, don't just sit around contemplating your navel; it's time to start prepping the dryer. First make sure the dryer is empty (if not, empty it). Pull out the lint screen (it's in different places on different dryer models, so hunt around), remove and throw out the lint, and replace the lint screen. Set the dryer heat (use Low first, and nudge it up a little if the clothes aren't drying fast enough) and the length of the drying time.
When the washer load is complete (about 20 minutes), unload the washer and transfer the clean, wet clothes to the dryer. If you want to use a dryer sheet, add it to the dryer now. Close the door until it clicks, and press the Start button. In my experience, most dryer loads take a longer time to complete than washer loads. (Especially if you forget to press Start. Don't ask me how I know about this.)
You're now free to goof off until the clothes are dry. Some dryer models buzz when the load is finished, which is nice if you want to avoid wrinkles in your clothes. Thicker items like towels take longer to dry, so check to make sure they're not damp. Once you're sure all the clothes are dry, pull them out of the dryer and into the clean clothes receptacle, and carry them off. If you fold your clean clothes or put them on hangers right away, they may not need ironing, which gives you one less task.
Dark loads are just like white loads, except you use cooler water to keep colors from fading, and don't add chlorine bleach (it's OK to use color-safe bleach on lighter colors). You should also find and pretreat spots or oily stains on the clothes with laundry stain remover; for best results, spray or rub it on the stain and let it sit about 10 minutes before you wash the garment. Before you put clothes in the dryer, check to make sure these stains are gone; if they're not, treat and wash them again. The heat from the dryer sets any remaining stains, making them harder to get out, so don't dry them until they're clean.
* Hot water is great for keeping whites really white, but it can also shrink fabric, especially all-cotton and all-wool fabric. If you're worried your favorite T-shirt might shrivel up, dial down the water heat a bit.
Hand washing clothesEven if you have a washer and dryer, you still need to know how to wash clothes by hand. It's a useful skill for times when you don't have access to a machine, and besides, all those items marked "hand wash" have to be cleaned at some point, right?
You will need:
- About an hour's time.
- Dirty clothes marked "hand wash."
- Tepid water.
- A sink, bathtub or washing tub. A running water source, such as in a sink, is ideal.
- Hand-wash detergent (brand names include Woolite and Ivory) or a bit of hand-wash dish detergent.
- A clean towel.
- A flat place to dry clothes.
When your clothes look and smell clean, drain out the wash water and fill the tub with tepid rinse water. Rinse out your clothes. You may need to do this more than once, depending on how much detergent you used. Try for clothes with no detergent residue (so no bubbles or foam, and no "soapy" feel).
Now to dry the clothes. You can wring water out of casual clothes like T-shirts and jeans, but delicate clothes like knits can be deformed by wringing and twisting. Instead, squeeze the garment gently to remove as much water as possible, then pull out the clean towel and open it up, spread out the delicate garment on the towel, and roll the towel up tightly. Press as hard as you can on the towel to release water from the garment. You can even kneel on the towel and press down with your knees. Then unroll the towel and take out the garment. It should feel almost dry.
Spread your cleaned hand-wash clothes out gently and let them dry on a clean flat place, like a drying rack or even the back of a sofa. Don't hang up your knits to dry (they stretch and deform when they hang, making you look like Quasimodo when you wear them). When they're completely dry, fold them and put them away.
Dry cleaning clothesWhat to do with the "dry clean only" items? Take them to the dry cleaners, of course. You can't just toss a dry-clean-only item into the washer and dryer; it will come out looking like crap. Search online for a dry cleaner in your area with a good reputation, take your clothes in and find out what they charge. If you agree to their rates, you give the dry cleaner your clothes and will get a claim ticket in exchange. DON'T LOSE YOUR TICKET; it's the only way to get your clothes back. The ticket should also be printed with the date you can return to pick up your clean clothes.
You may have noticed that owning "dry clean only" clothes is expensive, since they have to be cleaned by a professional every time they get dirty. Yep. Some dry-cleaned clothes such as outerwear (coats, jackets) are worth the extra maintenance cost in places where it gets cold during the winter. For other items of clothing, you'll have to decide for yourself whether the expense is worth it.
Don't wait until the last minute to get clothes dry cleaned. The longer a stain sits on a garment, the harder it is to remove. Also, most dry cleaners take a few days to finish your clothes; some charge extra for 24-hour turnaround service, so you'll spend less if you get your dry cleaning done when you aren't in a hurry.
You're well on your way to clean, fresh-smelling clothing. Next up: how to fold that pile of clean clothes.