If you want to avoid dry cleaning because of the chemicals used, rest assured that you can wash many clothes by hand that say “dry clean only,” but you need to learn some tricks.
Almost all dry cleaning establishments in the country clean with perchloroethylene (perc), a probable carcinogen, neurotoxic chlorinated solvent that bioaccumulates in fat and is suspected endocrine disrupter, meaning it is a chemical that may confuse the body into thinking it is estrogen!
Until the dry cleaning industry changes, we can take charge of getting our “dry clean only” fabrics cleaned safely by learning the wet clean process.
Through hard-earned experience—I shrunk a lot of rayon outfits three sizes before I finally figured out what I was doing wrong—I’ve finally learned how to wet clean wool, rayon and silk.
The most critical bit of information you need to know is that it is the agitation of wool, silk and rayon that causes the shrinkage of the fabric, not just hot water. Even the agitation of the gentle cycle in a washing machine is too much agitation for these fabrics. Make sure to spot-test the fabric for colorfastness first.
Wet Cleaning Wool and Silk
- Hand wash in a sink by gently swirling the clothes in cool water; never twist or wring out wool or silk.
- Use a mild detergent with a pH below 7 for wool, such as Infinity Heavenly Horsetail, available in health food stores. A mild liquid castile soap such as Dr. Bronner’s baby soap is best for cleaning silk, since it won’t strip the natural oils. Any harsh lye-based soap with a pH above 10 will destroy silk.
- If necessary, spot clean with vinegar or lemon juice, but test for dye color fastness first.
- Gently press water from the fabric. Block wool—lay it flat on a towel and stretch it to the correct size and shape—before drying; it will dry to the blocked size. Wool is resilient and recovers quickly from wrinkling if hung. Hang dry silk.
- Rayon absolutely must not be agitated at all; it is a weak fiber and shrinks easily.
- Follow washing directions for cleaning wool and silk, with one big difference: rayon is an alkaline fabric, and acidic detergents can harm
the fabric. Don’t spot clean rayon with acidic vinegar. Most all-purpose detergents will be fine to use, or a liquid castile soap.
Even a harsh detergent won’t harm rayon.
- Gently press out water, and hang dry.
Note that I haven’t tested this method on expensive wool coats and jackets. I spot clean such clothes with vinegar.