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How to Wash & Launder Different Kinds of Fabric

Jun 5th, 2024

Let's face it, laundry isn't always the most exciting chore. 

In fact, it’s almost certainly the most annoying one that’s more annoying than all other chores combined in the history of chore-ing. It’s the worst.  Not that we have a personal vendetta against it or anything… more like a hate-hate relationship. We’re fine. It’s fine. 

But despite all the pain and torment, mastering the art of washing clothes properly can extend their lifespan, keep them looking their best and even save you money in the long run. The key lies in really understanding the different fabrics lurking in your closet and how to care for them. So fear not! This basic guide will equip you with all the knowledge you need to tackle any textile with confidence.

How to wash different clothing materials

Know your threads

Before we dive into washing techniques, let's talk about fabric. Most clothes are woven from either natural or synthetic fibers or a delightful blend of both. Knowing the fiber content is crucial, as different fibers react differently to water temperature, agitation and drying methods.

Natural fibers: These come from plants (cotton & linen) or animals (wool & silk). They're generally breathable and comfortable, but some may wrinkle or shrink.

Synthetic fibers: These fibers are man-made (polyester, nylon & acrylic) and are usually made from polymers found in fossil fuels. They're wrinkle-resistant, durable and can dry quickly, but they can trap heat and be prone to static cling.

Blends: Many clothes combine both natural and synthetic fibers, offering a mix of properties designed to suit the wearer or the garment’s function.

The care label

Think of the care label sewn inside your clothes as a secret laundry code. It holds the key to proper washing, drying and ironing, and it even tells you if dry cleaning is recommended. The label uses symbols that might seem like hieroglyphics at first, but with a little practice, you'll be deciphering them like a pro. In fact, we’ve got an article that explains all of it pretty perfectly, just to make it easy!

For the short-and-sweet version, here’s a recap of the basics:

Washing symbols: Look for a basin with water. The number of dots inside indicates water temperature (cold, warm & hot), while lines drawn beneath the basin mean a delicate wash cycle.

Bleaching: A triangle with a "X" means “do not bleach”. A blank triangle means bleach is okay, but always check which type of bleach(chlorine or non-chlorine) should be used.

Drying: A square represents drying. Dots inside indicate dryer heat setting (low, medium & high), while a circle inside the square means to tumble dry. A line drawn through the square means air dry.

Ironing: An iron symbol with dots indicates ironing temperature (low, medium & high). An “X” drawn over the iron means no ironing.

Laundry do’s and don’ts

Now that you've identified your fabric and consulted the care label, let's get down to the actual washing process! Here are some general tips to keep in mind:

  • Sorting is key: Separate clothes by color (darks, lights & whites) to prevent dye bleeding from ruining lighter colored items. Delicates like lingerie or silk should also be separated from sturdier garments like jeans to avoid snags and tears. This is where mesh dryer bags really come in handy!
  • Water temperature matters: Hot water can be a recipe for disaster, since it can cause shrinkage and set stains. Warm water can be used for heavily soiled items, but always check the care label first. Cold water is generally the safest option for most fabrics. 
  • Choose your weapon wisely: Ditch the all-purpose detergent and opt for a mild detergent formulated for a specific fabric type. Using too much detergent can leave a residue on your clothes, so stick to the recommended amount. Consider using a separate detergent for delicate fabrics.
  • Drying techniques: Heat can be a double-edged sword. Always refer to the care label for drying instructions. Air drying is the gentlest method, but some items can tolerate low heat in the dryer.
  • Pre-treat stains: The sooner you tackle a stain, the easier it is to remove. There are many stain removers available, but always test them on an inconspicuous area of the garment first to ensure they don't cause discoloration.
  • Zip it up: Close zippers and buttons before washing to prevent them from snagging on other clothes, especially if you’re washing delicate fabrics or fabrics with strings and tassels.
  • Don't crowd the washer: An overloaded washer reduces cleaning effectiveness and can leave clothes badly wrinkled. Leave enough space for the clothes to move around freely and for the soap to penetrate as much surface area as it can reach.
  • Clean your machine: Run a cleaning cycle with your washer's recommended product every now and then to remove detergent buildup and mildew. This will help your washer function at its best!

Fabric-specific washing tips

Now, let's delve into specific washing techniques for some common fabrics:


Our trusty friend cotton is generally machine washable. Use cold or warm water depending on the soil level, then tumble dry on low or air dry it to prevent shrinkage. For heavily soiled cotton items like towels, warm water is okay.

Synthetics (polyester, nylon)

These synthetic fabrics are generally machine washable in cold water. Tumble dry low to avoid melting the fibers; definitely skip the hot iron, as these fabrics can scorch easily.


Delicate wool requires special attention. Hand wash in cold water with a wool detergent or use the delicate cycle on your washer. Never put wool in the dryer, as it will shrink dramatically! Lay the garment flat to air dry.


Silk needs the gentlest of touches to avoid damaging the fabric or the design. Hand wash silks in cold water with a gentle detergent or opt for professional dry cleaning. Air dry silk fabrics flat and away from direct light, as silk can fade if exposed to too much sun.


Turn your jeans inside out before washing in cold water to prevent fading, then tumble dry low or air dry to maintain their shape. Avoid using fabric softener, as it can make denim stiff.

Maintaining your wardrobe beyond the wash

By following these tips and understanding the specific needs of different fabrics, you can confidently conquer any laundry pile — no matter the material! If you have a question about a particular garment, consult the care label or do a quick internet search for more information. Chances are someone else has already asked the same question and has found an answer.

With a little practice and these handy tips, you'll be a laundry pro in no time, conquering your laundry pile with confidence and leaving your clothes looking and feeling their best while also lasting longer. It’s a win-win!

Good luck!

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Featured photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives on Oahu in Hawai'i. She loves to travel, camp, spearfish and hike. She's also part of a super cool canoe club and is pretty decent at it. Colleen enjoys Star Wars and also not being cold ever.

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