Have you ever looked at the tags on your clothing and wondered, what exactly is rayon? Or polyester? Or linen? We wear these fabrics every day, but the majority of us have no idea what they are—much less how to take care of them.
That last point is key, because good fabric is worthless if you don't know how to clean or maintain it. So let's go through the most common types of fabric—from acrylic to wool—and learn the proper way to care for each of them.
As a general rule, remember to always check the care tags on your clothing. Just because that dress shirt is made of linen doesn't mean you should toss it in the wash. And if you don't know how to read those crazy laundry symbols, don't fret, we have a guide for that too.
I know what you're thinking: "Acrylic? Like... acrylic nails?" No, not like acrylic nails, although acrylic fiber is made from the same basic stuff—namely, acrylic acid. This fabric has been around since the 1940s and feels sort of like wool or cashmere. It can be very warm, which is why it's used to make sweaters, socks, and other winter garments.
Due to its synthetic construction, acrylic is machine washable. It's best to use a warm wash cycle with fabric softener. And yes, you can iron acrylic clothing if needed—just use a medium heat setting.
Ah, cashmere. It makes for some of the most comfortable scarfs and sweaters—just make sure it doesn't have any defects. Cashmere may be in the wool family of textiles, since it comes from goats, but those two fabrics have little in common. In fact, the fabric is actually a type of hair. It may sound strange, but if you own any cashmere you're wearing animal hair.
When it comes to cleaning and maintaining cashmere, dry cleaning is pretty much a must. But if you want to avoid professional cleaning, Real Simple suggests hand-washing the fabric using baby shampoo or Woolite. Just remember not to iron or machine-dry it, and definitely don't wring the fabric out. Instead, just lay it out or run it through a salad spinner to remove moisture.
Lastly, remember not to hang your cashmere, as it will lose its shape.
Everyone loves cotton. It's the standard-bearer of clothing materials and the fabric of our lives. Made from the small tufts of fiber found in a certain family of seedpods, cotton is understandably the most popular fabric in the world. It's cheap, durable, and easy to manufacture.
Aiding cotton's popularity is its simple cleaning process. It can be washed in a machine, tossed in a dryer, and ironed until the cows come home. Just make sure you match the right water temperature to the color type: Whites can be washed in hot water, but colored fabrics are best cleaned in cold temperatures.
We all love our jeans. And now that denim jackets and shirts are coming back into style, you probably own more of it than ever.
Denim is actually made from cotton; it's just woven into a hardier material using a type of weave called twill. Even though its tougher than cotton, you absolutely should not wash your denim in a washer. That may surprise you but it's true. So follow our handy guide to properly cleaning denim.
There's nothing quite as stylish as wearing tanned cow hide treated in chemicals. Suede is even cooler (especially in blue footwear form). But both materials are highly vulnerable to dirt and dehydration. According to leather maker David Morgan, there are four things that can cause leather to deteriorate: chemical damage from oils or compounds in the air, oxidation, chafing, and abrasion.
The company recommends using a leather dressing to keep the material soft and fresh. You can also bathe it with soap and warm water for a thorough clean. As for suede, we highly recommend using a suede protecter to keep your shoes water repellant. You can also clean the fabric by washing it with wool detergent (like Woolite) or scrubbing it with a suede brush.
This fabric's name may sound generic, but linen is actually a fiber derived from the flax plant. It's favored for its ability to keep you cool in hot weather, and like cotton it's washing machine-friendly
Belgian linen maker Libeco suggests washing linens with chlorine-free bleach in warm water and letting the items dry on a clothes line. If you want to use your dryer instead, be sure to run it on medium heat.
Nylon is another synthetic (plastic-based) fabric, and it's made from one of the most commonly used polymers in the world. When it was first invented in the 1940s, nylon was used to make toothbrushes and stockings. Now it can be found in everything from parachutes to guitar strings.
As with other synthetic materials, caring for nylon is pretty easy. It's rugged, machine-washable, moisture-resistant, and suited for cleaning in either warm or cold water (although cold is recommended for white fabrics). That said, you should use a low heat setting in the dryer to prevent wrinkling.
Polyester, like nylon, is a synthetic fabric made from plastic. The only difference is the type of polymer used to spin it into a thread. Polyester is less durable than nylon but still plenty strong. Its low cost and wrinkle resistance make it one of the most commonly used fabrics in the world—found in everything from t-shirts to upholstery.
You can clean polyester clothing more or less the same way you clean nylon, although a warm wash cycle is ideal. Be sure to use a low-heat setting if you toss it into the dryer.
While technically a synthetic fabric, rayon is actually made from wood pulp—you know, the same stuff used to make paper. However, rayon is not as durable as other chemical-based synthetics; heat and laundering will cause it to shrink and lose its color.
If you want to clean rayon fabrics, you are either going to have to get it dry-cleaned or wash it in cold water and let it air dry.
Silk is often regarded as one of the most luxurious fabrics in existence, and for good reason. Few materials—natural or synthetic—can match the soft, plush fiber that comes from the silkworm.
Due to its delicate nature, most silk garments will require dry cleaning. However, the Silk Association of Great Britain notes that you can hand wash silk with warm water and a mild detergent. Some silk garments can even be cleaned using a washing machine's Delicates cycle, but you're probably better off taking it to the dry cleaners. After all, silk isn't cheap.
Where would the world of sports be without this super-stretchy synthetic fabric? Spandex is used in everything from compression bands to swimsuits and helps athletes reach new heights. In fact, according to Spandex World, the material can be stretched up to five times its length.
Despite its stretchiness, though, spandex is actually pretty sensitive to heat. So when you need to wash your smelly athletic gear, be sure to hand wash it in cold water, and to avoid ironing and dry cleaning. It's also a good idea to separate light and dark spandex since the colors can bleed.
Wool is another staple in the world of natural fabrics. Sheared off of sheep, wool makes for great warm clothing like sweaters, caps, and coats. And like the other items on this list, most wool fabrics are machine-washable, although you should probably use the Delicates cycle. Some washing machines may even have a wool setting—just make sure you keep it out of the dryer! And remember, when in doubt, refer to those laundry symbols for the best cleaning practices.