Clothing care is an important part of the conscious fashion journey, but what does it entail exactly, and how can we care for our garments in a sustainable way? This guide will have what you need to care for your clothes responsibly so that they can truly last.
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Why Do We Need to Take Care of Our Clothes?
The linear approach of buy, wear, and dispose has left us with a massive global clothing waste problem — that amounts to one garbage truck’s worth of textiles being landfilled or incinerated every second. (Source)
Between 2000 and 2014, the number of garments the average person purchases increased 60% — while the average garment was worn half as long. (Source)
On the flip side of this, extending the life of a garment and buying less can reduce the footprint of our closets dramatically.
So, this article is dedicated to exploring all of the various ways — from thoughtful laundering to mending — that we can help the items in our closet last longer. After all, the most sustainable clothes are the ones we already own!
Change Your Clothing Mindset
Before diving into the nitty gritty tips and tricks to care for our clothes, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that the clothing we have in our closets is worth caring for — no matter the price of the garments!
Inexpensive fashion has reduced the incentive to handle a piece with care, let alone repair or mend that garment, but we know that this approach is wreaking havoc on our planet.
So instead of valuing clothes at their face value — the price tag — a truly sustainable approach to fashion involves shifting our mindset to caring for all of the clothing we’ve brought into our lives. (This applies even to the clothing that we no longer want — it’s important to be mindful of how you’re discarding unwanted garments too!)
Taking some level of responsibility for each and every garment extends their life, keeps our clothing out of the landfill, and helps us develop a deeper appreciation — and therefore, greater contentment overall — with our clothing.
Wash Clothes Responsibly
We’ve all witnessed the demise of some of our favorite garments thanks to overwashing. We’ve been faced with faded colors on once-vibrant dresses, stretched out sweaters, shapeless shirts, loose or lost buttons, damaged zippers, and shrunken blouses.
Turns out the impact of machine washing is just as harsh on our planet as it is on our clothing. Washing and drying clothing are estimated to account for 120 million tons of CO2. (Source)
These numbers are shocking, but this is also an aspect directly in our control. The simple act of washing less — and therefore needing to dry less, too — can have a dramatic impact.
Here are some tips for washing more consciously.
This first tip is the easiest, but don’t let that fool you — it’s actually the most effective, too!
While items like underwear and socks need to be washed after every wear, garments like jeans, jackets, and sweaters typically need only to be washed every so often.
Get Smells Out Without Washing
One reason you may be quick to throw a garment in your washer is due to residual odor left on your clothes (smoke, spices, or even from a strong perfume).
But, my friend, a light odor on clothing also does NOT have to sentence the item to time in the laundry room or a trip to the laundromat!
There are actually a number of ways to get rid of smells sans washer, from vodka to vinegar!
Remove Stains with Ease
Similar to a faint odor, a small stain usually doesn’t always require tossing your entire garment in the wash — and it rarely necessitates some of the harsh (and toxic!) stain removal treatments on the market.
Moreover, a stain *never* has to lead to tossing the garment into the trash bin.
For practical tips on how to get just about any stain out, check out American Cleaning Institute’s A-Z “Stain Removal Guide” — it’s a detailed list worth bookmarking for reference later.
Another handy resource with crowdsourced stain fighting tricks is WikiHow’s collection of Stain Removal strategies.
Some general tips to keep in mind:
- The earlier you address the stain, the easier it is to deal with;
- Don’t forget to check the care label — if a garment is fragile and strictly dry-clean only, it might be best to take it to a professional;
- If the stain isn’t removed on the first try, go through the stain removal process again and do not put it in the dryer until the stain is gone! (The heat of the dryer could cause the stain to set in that piece for good.)
With some basic supplies, awareness of some stain “rules”, and a willingness to do a little bit of stain removal research, you’ll be on your way to being a spot-stick master!
Wash With Care
Though we can stretch out the time between washes, at some point the need for a good, clean wash is inevitable. There are ways, though, that we can minimize the negative impact of washing on our clothes and the earth.
When it is time to wash, wash with care. Proper care and washing can do wonders in extending the wearable life of our clothing!
Look at Care Labels
The easiest way to do this is to follow the care labels and err on the side of caution.
Care labels are a cheat sheet of sorts letting us know the most that a garment can handle.
They tell us if we can iron that garment safely, if a garment should be dry cleaned only (though there are some workarounds for this, see below for more), and information about the highest level of temperature that garment can withstand.
Note that it’s the highest temperatures that the garment can be washed in — garments that say “wash in warm water” can also be washed in cooler temperatures! (Source)
Sort Out Your Laundry
Before we get into washing tips any further, let’s talk about what good garment wash care looks like before the clothes enter the washing machine — sorting!
To retain colors well, separate lights from darks. And for new colored garments, it may be worth the extra effort to hand-wash first separately the first go around.
In order to retain fabric quality, separating by texture is useful. Washing thin fabrics like your organic cotton blouse, with heavier items such as jeans, can exacerbate wear and tear of the more delicate fabrics. So, take care to further separate heavy from light fabrics for your washer loads.
Another quick tip for pre-wash prep: turning our clothing inside out before putting them in a washing machine can lengthen the life of our clothes by making sure the outside fabric of our clothing, buttons or zippers as well, won’t bear the brunt of the washing machine cycle.
Hand Wash Delicates
Items like bras, camisoles, silks or silk-like clothing, and garments or undergarments with lace or embellishments are best left out of the washing machine altogether.
Some garment care labels will specify hand-wash only, but you can also hand-wash other pieces to protect the garment and extend its life as well.
Machine Wash in Cold Water
Washing with cooler temperatures, when possible, is preferable since the majority (90% to be exact) of the energy used by washing machines is for one simple function: heating the water. (Source)
While there are some specific cases where hot water can be useful or necessary, if each household were to select the cold setting on their washer for four out of five wash loads, they could decrease their annual emissions by 864 pounds of CO2. (Source)
In addition to the environmental benefits, washing clothes in cooler temperatures protects the dyes on our clothes and prevents shrinkage!
Machine dryers not only expedite the drying process, but also the wear and tear of our clothing. The high heat can be harsh on fabric, shrink our favorite tops, loosen elastics, and cause colors to fade.
Plus, the average clothes dryer in our homes today uses more energy that most other household appliances.
In fact, Grist reported that machine dryers “can consume as much electricity as an efficient new clothes washer, refrigerator, and dishwasher combined.” (Source)
The solution is quite simple: avoid using a machine dryer for your clothing as much as possible. Line-drying, hang-drying, and laying out flat to dry are all eco-conscious alternatives that could add years of life to your clothing.
I personally love using a collapsible multi-row drying rack! You can find them at retailers such as Target or secondhand through an app like OfferUp.
Search for Green Dry Cleaning
The first thing to note is that not all “dry clean only” items actually need to be sent to the cleaners. The Laundress has an entire collection of non-toxic products and DIY resources for cleaning (manufacturer labeled) “dry-clean only” garments, such as silk, wool, and delicate synthetics.
For cases where an item truly must be dry-cleaned, search online for local green cleaners that don’t use toxic chemicals — most notably perchloroethylene, referred to frequently as “perc”.
If you can’t locate green dry cleaners nearby, inquire with your local cleaners to see which chemicals and methods they use. If their response concerns you, don’t be afraid to let them know — consumer demand can be a driving force for businesses to modify their operations.
Post Laundering Care
And what about after your clothes are freshly cleaned? Here are some tips for keeping those garments looking good as new!
Hang or Fold Properly
After your clothes are freshened up, it’s time to put them away. Hanging or folding garments soon after they’re washed and dried reduces wrinkles.
Sealed garment bags can be nice for rarely-worn formal wear to keep out dust and moths.
Other than that, it’s typically best to keep your clothes easily accessible — hanging in your closet or folded and stacked neatly in your dresser or on shelves where you have a better view of your wardrobe.
This will not only help you with putting together an outfit in the morning but will reduce the risk of purchasing duplicates!
Another way to keep track of your clothes is to enter them all into an online “inventory” in a closet app. Learn more about that in this episode of the Conscious Style Podcast with Jess Atkins of the Stylebook app!
Smooth Wrinkles with a Steamer
While I like to think that wrinkles can give a garment — especially a beautiful pair of linen pants — their character, there are, of course, cases where you’ll want to smooth out creases and wrinkles.
An iron will usually give the most crisp result, but using a steamer is typically less time-consuming and reduces the risk of damage across a wider variety of fabrics — think wool, cashmere, and silk, anything blended with those fibers, and synthetics with similar properties — while still resulting in wrinkle-free clothing.
Your handy steamer also gets some bonus points for being able to freshen up clothing and get rid of most smells without revving up the washing machine.
No steamer? No problem. Hanging wrinkly garments in your bathroom during a hot shower is a well-known hack that can sometimes (though unfortunately, not always) do the trick.
Avoiding and Addressing Pilling
Conscious laundering methods, like those laid out above, can reduce or even eliminate the chance of getting pills on your favorite sweaters and other garments.
But when the time comes that a well-worn garment does start to pill — or if you already have some sweaters with pilling — here are a few tricks of the trade:
- To remove pills easily, simply rub a pumice stone or specialized “sweater stone” on your sweater.
- For tighter-knit sweaters, you can get an unused basic disposable razor. (i.e. nothing fancy like razors with soap or smoothing bars) or special fabric shaver to lightly shave the pills off with small strokes.
- Roll over any remaining pills with a lint roller (look for reusable, washable ones).
Join the Repair Revolution!
Often we feel the need to discard old clothing — and then replace those items — for two main reasons: they no longer fit just right or they’re in need of repair. These issues, though, can be solved without sending our garments to the landfill.
Learn Basic Mending Tricks
For starters, most clothing can be mended quickly. Slight damages like holes or ripped seams can be fixed with a simple thread and needle — and, as with all things in life, by watching a few YouTube tutorials.
The most basic sewing stitch to get you started is the running stitch — this stitch is great for repairing worn hems on your trousers or sewing on patches to torn jeans.
Some other basic hand stitches that you may want to learn to mend small snags on clothing include the backstitch, slip stitch, the catch stitch, whip stitch, and invisible stitch.
Find a Reliable Tailor or Seamstress
For some mending projects that go beyond a basic DIY — or in cases where we simply don’t have the time — a good tailor can be an incredible resource.
Consider finding a good seamstress or tailor that you can trust with your alteration projects.
I’ve gone to my local dry cleaners for alterations in the past as well as a seamstress recommended to me.
Department stores such as Nordstrom offer tailoring services and some brands, like Patagonia, Nudie Jeans, and MUD jeans offer repair services as well.
You can also find local tailors by searching popular customer review platforms or online community marketplaces that connect service professionals with customers.
Give Your Clothes a Second Life
Finally, part of caring for our clothes means ensuring that we give them to a good home when we’re done using them.
If the garment is in good condition, consider swapping it with a friend for something else, selling it on a peer-to-peer marketplace like Depop,or selling it to a local consignment store or resale marketplace like ThredUP.
If the piece is not sellable, check out how and where to recycle your clothing here.
Or, perhaps with a few small tweaks (like dyeing it a new color or shortening the hem) will turn it into something you’re excited to wear again!
If the piece is totally unwearable, see if you can cut it into pieces of fabric to use as rags for cleaning, or if the fabric can be donated somewhere else for upcycling.
And that’s a wrap to this guide to clothing care! Hope you enjoyed it. You may also want to check out this content:
- What is Sustainable Fashion?
- Plastic-Free Detergents for a Zero Waste Laundry Routine
- 16 Best Online Secondhand Stores