Laundry tips: How to keep clothes looking new longer

by | Oct 17, 2007

Laundry drying on a clothesline outside a window in San Gimignano, Italy

Washing machines, dryers, laundry detergents, and fabric softeners can turn your magnificent new apparel into lint in no time. Want to still be wearing the garments you bought last weekend well into the 2020s?

Sure you do. Here are my top seven laundry tips for clothing longevity:

1. Use a front-loading washer

Top-loading washing machines have an agitator in the middle which yanks your clothing clockwise and then counterclockwise throughout the cycle. This is hard on laundry and produces a lot of lint, which is tough on plumbing. Front-loading washers gently tumble the clothes over a longer cycle, producing less damage and lint. Front-loading machines also use less water and less detergent, and they typically spin at much faster speeds, leaving the clothes much drier at the end of the cycle. Europeans know about front-loaders already.

2. Turn clothes inside-out whenever practical

Turning clothes inside-out reduces wear and tear on the side of the fabric that shows, and gets the side that touches you even cleaner. It also puts outer hardware on the inside, where it’s less likely to snag other items.

When ironing, turning clothes inside-out keeps any shiny scorch marks from your too-hot iron on the inside of the garment where they won’t be seen. Ditto for any mineral deposits your iron unexpectedly spews.

3. Never ever use fabric softener

Besides being a sudden, full-body allergic reaction waiting to happen, fabric softeners also have the unexpected effect of actually softening fabrics by chemical means. Is this really what you want for your $250 Diesel jeans? Eliminate fabric softener from your life and your clothes will last many times longer, plus your towels will actually absorb water. Yes, your clothes will feel a little bit stiffer — more like new clothes, come to think of it.

4. Never ever use chlorine bleach

Bleach will eat your clothes away, and it can also harm the environment. If you must have whiter whites and brighter colors, learn to use Mrs. Stewart’s® Bluing. You’ll want to be conservative with it and make sure it’s properly diluted so it doesn’t turn your clothes blue (I mix several drops in a quart jar of water, then add that through the detergent chute after the clothes have tumbled a couple of minutes and become saturated), but it’s non-toxic, biodegradable, and very gentle on fabrics.

5. Never use hot water

The laundry symbols on your clothing care tags will specify either cold or warm water. Follow these instructions. You will most likely never see hot water recommended because it is too harsh for most fabrics and can set stains. Hot water can also melt synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester, warping their weaves.

6. Air-dry whenever possible

Visit France or Italy, and what do you see? There’s laundry air-drying out of windows, there’s laundry on clothelines. Clothes dryers eat up plenty of energy while they’re beating your clothes into lint. Dryers are much less common in Europe than in the United States, and yet who cares more about clothing than the French or the Italians?

Shirts air-drying on a shower curtain rod

Okay, so maybe line-drying is not entirely practical in Wisconsin in January. Personally, I don’t use a clothesline at all because we have berries and birds, and direct sun can quickly bleach fabrics. Instead, I purchased a twist adjustable-tension shower curtain rod and added rubber leg tips to both ends. This removable accessory gets tightly wedged above the dormer window in the guest bedroom, and plastic hangers are used to dry shirts, T-shirts, thinner jeans, some dresses, skirts, etc. Everything is buttoned and straightened at hanging time, and then 6 or 8 hours later it’s all ready for the closet. Sweaters and other fine washables dry flat on a mesh rack. Of course, socks and underwear, bulkier sweatshirts and towels still go into our clothes drier, but there’s an energy savings for the things we keep out of it, and there’s also much less wear and tear.

7. Use less laundry detergent

A New York Times article from March 2010 suggests that people use way too far soap in their washing machines — up to 10 to 15 times too much. This is not good for your clothes or the washing machine, according to the story:

Too much detergent can make your clothes stiff and shorten the life of your machine. An excess of soap can also cause a buildup of mold and mildew, said Jill Notini, a spokeswoman for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, a trade group.

Vernon Schmidt, author of Appliance Handbook For Women: Simple Enough Even Men Can Understand says that you might be able to get away with half or even one-eighth as much laundry detergent as the label recommends.

I’ve been watching laundry go ’round and ’round for over 30 years now and I’m still learning. Yesterday, believe it or not, I found a fascinating page about vinegar.

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