This is yet another post that my current and former housemates are going to read like slack-jawed yokels, because I am almost physically incapable of doing my own personal laundry. All of my clothes are dirty and heaped in piles both inside and outside of my house.
But as you may know, I actually wash people’s clothes for a living. So laundry is one of about 5 topics that I’m an expert on. (Along with Texas history, macaroni and cheese, Marie Antoinette and sweater folding.)
Let’s start at the very beginning: sorting. Yes, it’s totally boring, but it is also the absolute cornerstone of good laundry practices. If you are currently just cramming everything into one load, guess what? You’re doing it wrong.
I believe there to be 5 distinct categories you should be separating your laundry into: whites/lights, brights, darks, gentle/cold water washables, and household linens. Here’s a breakdown of what goes where:
A load of lights means only very pale colored or white T-shirts, cotton undies, pajamas, shorts, and the like. Basically anything that is light enough to not bleed onto other garments. I consider pale/medium yellow to be the demarcation line between light and dark. I wash lights in warm water.
In laundry, as in life, red means danger. Red clothing is laundry enemy #1, as it is notorious for turning an entire load of whites a pale pink. You can wash reds, bright oranges, hot pinks and deep purples together once you are sure they are colorfast.
I often test colorfastness by spraying the garment with water and blotting with a paper towel to see if any dye transfers. You can go a step further and swish the item around in a sink of cool water to see if it releases any color. This may seem like an annoying extra step but you will thank me profusely later when you preemptively save your favorite blouse. I wash brights in cool water to cut down on color fade.
Your darks load should obviously include stuff like blue jeans, sweatshirts, and gym clothes. Basically any garment that can stand up to the dye in a pair of blue jeans. But a warning: If your jeans are brand new, wash them alone until they finish their “new jeans dye purge.” (It will be obvious they are done purging once your thighs stop turning blue after wearing said jeans.) I wash my really good jeans inside out to help prevent fading, and take them out of the dryer while they are slightly damp to prevent scorching.
Shirts that have a white body with dark sleeves always stress me out—what to do? I just wash them by themselves in a mini-load the first few times to see how they behave. I wash darks in cool or warm water, depending on the grime level.
I keep anything delicate, silky, linen, vintage, or slinky out of the regular wash. This includes my underwear, bras, vintage slips, and stuff that just seems it would be beefed by hot water and a super aggressive spin cycle. Even cheap polyester dresses from Forever 21 can benefit from the extra care the gentle cycle and cold water gives! Cold water puts less stress on the fibers and when they take less of a beating, they don’t pill or fray quite as easily. I make sure throw my expensive undies in a mesh laundry bag so they don’t get hammered by the spin cycle.
The mesh bag is also a good way to make sure your socks don’t get lost in the wash, you crazed, neurotic sock matchers. Make sure you never put anything you deem mesh bag or gentle cycle-worthy in the dryer. It’s all drip dry, baby.
If you’ve ever accidentally washed a bath towel with some of your clothes, you already know that they produce a special kind of lint that attaches itself to your wardrobe forever, like lice on a first grader. Be sure to wash towels, sheets, and kitchen rags by themselves in the hottest water you can because ewww grime, food particles, body fluids, yuck.
Hot water kills bacteria and deodorizes naturally. If everything you are washing is pure white, add a 1/2 cup of chlorine bleach to really amp up the clean. But don’t overdo it because too much bleach turns everything yellow and can eat right through the fibers.
As you sort everything, make sure to check all pockets for money, tissues, lipsticks and other random objects that could foul up your clothes. My laundry cross to bear is pockets permanently full of safety pins. When my washer stopped working one day, the repair guy came out, opened up the trap and about 700 safety pins came tumbling onto the ground.
He looked at me rather incredulously as he asked, “What exactly do you do with all of these?” I just laughed and casually tossed the dozen or so pins I had in my pocket at that very moment into the nearest trashcan.
Be sure to button all buttons and snap all snaps. This helps lessen fastener breakage and stops garments from getting incredibly twisted in the wash. Trust me, we’re almost at the part where I’ll let you actually start the washer.
Check for stains and pre-treat them accordingly — because once you wash and heat dry a stain, it’s yours for life. I’m a huge fan of Dryel’s stain pen. It’s straight dry cleaning fluid on a stick.
If your stains are of the terrible yellow underarm variety, all hope is almost certainly lost — but you can try a homemade paste of Dawn dishwashing liquid, hydrogen peroxide and baking soda. Use it to give the affected area a scrub using an old toothbrush. It sometimes works, but only on plain white, 100% cotton garments.
I want to drop in a quick word about the Dryel home dry cleaning system here—I think it’s a decent substitute if you have lightly worn dry-clean only items that just need a refresher in between professional cleanings. I am hesitant to use it on silk and I never use it on anything with a lining (such as a suit jacket) or leather. It’s basically a good spot remover/steamy scent refresher, not a complete replacement for real dry cleaning.
Even proper dry cleaning can’t always remove certain stains—sweat in particular. If you happen to sweat like crazy, invest in a sweat-trapping Nudy Patooty undershirt or these clever disposable “Garment Guard” underarm shields. They are my two no-fail solutions to stop sweat before it has the power to ruin clothes.
It’s been a long time coming but you are finally ready to start the washer. But before you do, determine what the proper load size is for your washer. Overloading it leads to not enough water and soap working its way into your garments, preventing them from getting really clean. Everything should be packed in loosely, not tightly—much like a bowl of chunky chicken soup.
A regular capacity washer holds one bed sheet, four pillowcases, two or three shirts, and about six pairs of underwear. (Not that you should be washing all those things together! It’s just to give you a visual.)
You may not realize it, but your washer needs a little TLC sometimes. Make sure to run it empty with a cup or two of white vinegar every so often to keep it clean. (Listerine works too!) Wipe down the inside of the machine, lid and seals regularly with a wet cloth.
If your washer is leaving rust spots on your clothes, the enamel has most likely chipped off somewhere inside. A little sanding and painting with some rustproof paint is a way easier repair than it sounds.
Don’t forget to check the lint trap every time you dry a load — both inside the machine and at the back where the exhaust is. Clogged lint screens impact the efficiency of your dryer and can even start fires!
They not only keep your clothes from bunching up, but they kick out a pretty good portion of wrinkles. The steam action is minimal, but it can’t hurt. (If you are broke or cheap, a plain old tennis ball works well for this purpose too.)
I take everything out of the dryer while it’s just this side of damp. Any longer and things start shrinking rapidly. If you are anything like me, you now have a giant mountain of clean laundry that you can dig through like a rat all week long to find what you need.
Start doing your laundry right, would you?
This article originally appeared on xoJane by Alison Freer.