Since the first electric dryers were released for home use in 1938, they've made life much easier for us in the laundry room. And yet, there are some types of clothing that live in fear of being shuttled straight from the washer into the dryer.
Bathing suits, bras, or wool sweaters on tumble? You’re asking for it.
While shrinkage is at the top of the list for the evils a hot dryer can do, fried elastic, warped shapes, and merciless destruction of fragile fabrics are other ways precious clothing can be ruined by even a dryer’s gentle cycle. As a rule, any clothing that fits you like a glove—even cotton—won’t keep its shape after repeated trips through the dryer.
What to do with delicates and other special types of laundry? Read on.
Wool and Cashmere
Wool feels sturdy, but it needs TLC. Cleaning before storage is advisable, as unwanted household critters—including moths—feed on sweat and other stains. While many of us assume wool must go straight to the dry cleaner before storing for warmer weather, most wool pieces can be hand-washed. Always check the label first.
After washing, skip the dryer—it's the quickest route to a size reduction. Instead, lay the garment out flat on a clean, fluffy towel. Roll it up in the towel and press to absorb the excess water.
Since wool loses its shape during washing, lay it out again on a clean surface, pat it into the shape you want, which it will adopt as it dries flat. And since wool can retain a lot of water—i.e. weight—it’s rarely a good idea to hang your garment, as this will stretch the fabric vertically. If you’re in a hurry, a drying rack is a small investment that helps by letting air circulate top and bottom.
Dry cleaning cashmere means dosing a delicate natural fiber with harsh chemicals. Over time, it will shorten the life of a fine sweater or blouse. Instead, like wool, cashmere should be washed in cool or lukewarm water and laid out flat on a clean, dry towel. Press it into the towel and roll it up to absorb excess water, then lay it out flat in the shape you want.
The byproduct of dedicated moth caterpillars, silk fabrics are often designated dry-clean only. But if you don't want to head to the cleaners, hand washing in lukewarm or cold water is often an acceptable alternative. Use a mild detergent that is specifically designated for silk (shampoo is a cheaper alternative to more abrasive detergents). A tablespoon of white vinegar added to a final, cool rinse helps remove any residual soap, which can dull silk’s trademark sheen.
Lay the wet piece on a clean, dry towel and roll it up, squeezing the water into the towel as you roll. Then hang it on a non-metal hanger to drip dry. Many silk items can be ironed on a low setting while still moist, but check the label.
Dry cleaning isn’t a good idea for most down products, as the chemicals strip feathers of their natural, protective oils. But most down can be safely washed in front-load washers (the pole agitator in traditional top loaders can be brutal). Do not hang-dry down items, or lay them out flat—the best way to dry them is in a dryer.
Allow plenty of time for this process—a comforter can take several hours to properly dry. Use the largest dryer you can, and the medium heat setting. As the piece dries, interrupt the cycle occasionally to break up any clumps of down that have collected. Dryer balls will help distribute the down more evenly, or use a couple tennis balls inside a sock secured with a knot to help agitate the wet feathers.
Bras don’t belong in the dryer, ladies.
There is perhaps no other clothing item more explicitly designed to resemble a particular shape than bras, but with repeated tumbles in the heat of a dryer, they'll lose their form and their elasticity. What’s more, a bra’s loose ends—straps, clasps, and even its wire frame—can get caught in the dryer’s spinning parts.
Instead, lay out your bras on top of the dryer or another flat surface to air-dry. Don’t squeeze excess water out—you might alter the cup shape or pop one of the wires (you can set them on a towel, if need be). And don’t hang them on a clothesline from the straps; gravity is your enemy, and the straps will stretch as the bra bounces in the breeze.
They get plenty wet, but swimsuits don’t get washed when we swim. Chlorine, salt water, perspiration, sunscreen, dirt, and sand all dirty a used bathing suit. But most swimsuits have elastic elements, meaning they need a little extra attention; they can't just dive in the dryer with the rest of our clothes.
First, rinse the bathing suit in cold or warm water as soon as you’ve finished wearing it. If you rinse it in the shower, hand wash it with mild body soap or shampoo; otherwise, let it soak in a sink in cold water with a mild soap for a few minutes, then knead it to loosen any residual dirt or chemicals. Don’t wring out bathing suits to eliminate excess water—this will cause the suit to lose its shape over time.
Never put a swimsuit in the dryer. Lay it out on a fluffy towel and roll the piece to eliminate some of the water, then let it air dry, preferably on a drying rack. Hanging a wet bathing suit on a line will lead to the fabric becoming stretched, and drying in direct sunlight can fade colors.
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