Adventures in Thrifting

Adventures in Thrifting: To Dry Clean or Not to Dry Clean, That Is The Question

So in light of my New Years clothes resolution, I made an attempt to deal with my enormous pile of thrifted stuff. Previously, I’d asked my vintage-store owner friend for advice:

Me: I have this big pile of stuff to be dry cleaned or mended. And it’s basically because I’m lazy, and it’s a pain to hand-wash stuff, and I can’t mend stuff on my own, so I think “I might as well take stuff to a dry cleaner that also does mending and get things mended and dry cleaned at the same time.” But the pile gets bigger and bigger, so I’m going to have make some command decisions about what really needs to be dry cleaned and what I just need to suck up and hand-wash myself.

Bad Cholla: There are a few things you cannot hand-wash.

Me: Like what? This I need to know.

BC: Basically, any shiny material—

Me: Like silk?

BC: Like silk or rayon or satin.

Me: Because I have that silk skirt that I bought while we were thrifting, and it has a stain on it. So I’m wondering if I have to get that dry cleaned.

BC: Silk or rayon with a satin finish is iffy—some will hold up and be fine. Polyester satin is fine. They want you to ‘dry clean only’ but no—it’s polyester.

Me: Yeah, that skirt—I think it’s real silk. I guess I have to dry clean it.

BC: Maybe. The main thing with silk is people always think you can’t wash silk because it gets water-spotted, but if you wash the whole thing and then dry the whole thing, it won’t.

Polished cottons, vintage polished cottons, can also be iffy, because some of them basically have a layer of wax—that’s how they were polished. So that will come off and it won’t have the same look—it won’t be ruined, but it will have a different look. If you think of those stiff 50s dresses—the bright cotton ones—they’re often polished cotton, and those cannot always be washed. If you see the phrase “Polished cotton” now, it’s not treated the same way, so you can wash it.

If you think of 40s dresses—the rayon crepe 40s dresses—those do not wash well. Rayon in general does not wash well. I don’t understand how it became the replacement for silk, because it’s just as fussy. I think it’s a little hardier in terms of wear, but it’s just as fussy. It puckers along the seams so that you can never iron it down again.

Me: This is all good to know. Maybe I can make some harder decisions about what I really do need to get dry cleaned and what I have to suck it up and iron and wash myself.

BC: The thing is, I used to just be cheap about it and not want to spend the money. So I’d have something that was dry clean only, and I’d be like “I have to take it in, I have to take it in” and then I’d just get sick of it and say, “I’m just going to hand-wash it and see what happens.” And I’ve never had a disaster. Most things really are fine.

Me: True. I’ve never hand-washed something and had a disaster. Ever.

BC: Putting things in the dryer is where I think the mistake comes in.

Me: I think lots of things are like that. People say, “Oh you can’t machine-wash bras.” But you can put bras in the washing machine! Just don’t put them in the dryer.

BC: In terms of my personal clothing, I don’t put much in the dryer. I hang most stuff up. It lasts a lot longer.


And I was in for some surprises! Two things I really thought would need to be dry cleaned, it turns out don’t (these are all thrifted purchases, so let me just boast share that I paid between $5-$10 for each item. Of course, I’ve let them languish in a bag, so…):

I’d foolishly gotten this dry-cleaned before (as the yellow tag attests), but it turns out it’s made from POLYESTER and SPANDEX. WHAT. HAND-WASHING IT.

This Apt 9 skirt turns out to be made from 61% Rayon, 37% Polyester and, ominously, 2% “Other Fiber.” How do they calculate 61%? WHAT’S “OTHER FIBER”?I think I’m gonna hand-wash it. Although Bad Cholla did say rayon was fussy…

This skirt shocked me by 1) Turning out to be DKNY, and 2) Turning out to be 100% silk. What? I would have thought this was hand-wash for sure. Guess not:

This Ralph Lauren skirt shocked me by also being 100% silk:

Here’s the Talbot’s skirt that set the whole thing off. I did know this one was silk:

So, what have we learned? 1) You can hand-wash most things; 2) I don’t know bupkus about a lot of my thrifted purchases; 3) How do I own so many silk things? How did that happen? I don’t THINK of myself as someone who wears silk; 4) Hurrah! I can hand-wash some of the of stuff from the Bag of Doom and save it from a life of obscurity! Now I just need to learn how to sew and my work will be done…

We also talked about some of the environmental issues of dry cleaning, as well as the cleanliness of wearing second-hand clothes, but that’s matter for another day. Right now, I can celebrate my progress in emptying my Bag of Doom…all over my bed.

Sigh. I’ll get right on hand-washing those things. I swear. Right now. I’m so on it.

Image from Dry Cleaning Chiller.

  • Erin Miuccio

    Another trick is getting the home dry-cleaning kits that you use in your dryer. If the clothes have bad stains, it may not work; but for general upkeep, the home kits work great and are WAY cheeper in the long run. :)

    • Laura Owen

      This is a great tip! Thanks.

  • Mackenzie Barrow Warren

    thank you! this was very informative

    • Laura Owen

      Thanks, dude.

  • Marsha Ames

    Try Wet cleaning, for an environmentally friendly option. I wet clean my garments and I’m super happy with them. One of my dresses has glued on sparkles. My laundry mat told me dry cleaning isn’t an option as I would lose those fabulous sparkles, but with wet cleaning I keep the sparkles. It is win win! Happy thrifting!

    • Laura Owen

      I approve of anything with sparkles! Seriously. I really mean that. Wet cleaning it is

  • Desiree Penaloza

    I just discovered the hand wash/delicates cycle in the washing machine. I’ve washed silks, wool, cashmere in cold water and hang or flat dry. It’s a time & $$ saver!! The only thing is you will prob need to iron. Separating colors is also a must in case of color bleeding. Another plus is the clothes aren’t dripping wet when the cycle is over vs hand washing.

    • Laura Owen

      Ironing is another personal Waterloo. I have a nice new iron, though, and I’m determined to get better at it.

  • Josey Yordey

    My life is embiggened by BadCholla’s deep knowledge of the responses of fibers to various cleaning techniques. (I’m not being snarky in the least). I’m not surprised you have so much silk! Because you love shiny, and silk brings the shiny.

    • Laura Owen

      I know, it’s totally useful, right? And your astute insight into my magpie-like brain is astute.

  • Michelle Menchaca

    My questions have been answered ! This saves me money and time, now I feel good about washing my silk shirts. Thanks :-)

  • Fenna Blue

    I used to hand wash my silk blouses (when I was in boarding school and owned such things)…just spot cleaned or soaked in the sink in Woolite. And what I mean is, I was 14, so I just filled the sink, put the Woolite in, put the shirt in, and agitated sometimes. NEVER a problem.

    Also, any synthetic can be machine washed. Synthetics are: rayon, acrylic, nylon, spandex, modal, polyester…anything that is part synthetic and part cotton or wool can be machine washed. All cotton, linen, and wool can be machine washed. Just wash in cold and hang to dry. The problem is hot water and heat drying, not the machine washer. And you don’t even have to separate. I was everything together and never separate.

    You probably should separate, but it’s not like your denim turns into a tiger in the washing machine and tears apart something….sort of. Zippers, eye hooks, and other catchy things have the possibility to catch your nylons or silk skirt and give it a tear. Zo, zip everything up and turn it inside out before you throw it in together.

    Dry cleaning is not even for wedding dresses anymore, since you can spot clean those by hand as well. I guess, it’s for men’s suits. Women don’t need dry cleaning.

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