A few weeks ago, inspired by watching all those people getting cheerfully tidied up on Netflix, I Marie Kondo’d my closet. (Yes, it’s a verb.) All my clothes were taken out and piled on the bed in a soft, haphazard mountain — it looked as if a small and very dark-color-favoring boutique exploded — and only those that sparked joy, to use Kondo’s term, got returned to the closet. I hope the Goodwill shoppers in North Seattle are enjoying my ’90s Elaine Benes blazers (which I of course, as Kondo advises, thanked for their service).
I recommend this exercise — seriously, it makes you feel very virtuous, and inspires you to text way too many pictures of your progress to tolerant friends — but must warn you that it brings about problems of its own. To wit: When everything you now have left sparks joy (or, at least, mild contentment), you really want to keep it all, forever. But how do you keep clothes looking nice for many years? How do you deal with a favorite shirt with a mysterious stain, or a vintage garment with a persistent musty smell? Kondo was no help for me here; I was clearly in need of the Laundry Fairy.
The Laundry Fairy, whose existence I have made up (though maybe she shows up if you really, really believe in her, like Tinker Bell), knows everything about keeping your clothes looking good. She embodies the collective wisdom of a panel of experts I consulted on the subject: Anna Banana, owner of the Capitol Hill vintage-clothing boutique Pretty Parlor; Angie Cox, fashion stylist and founder of the style-advice website youlookfab.com; Norma Garcia, longtime laundry supervisor at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel; and Victoria Roberts, owner of the University Village lingerie store Zovo.
Here are some of their very best tips. Just wave a magic wand …
In general …
Don’t wash things more often than you need to, says Banana — it’s not good for the environment, and it’s not good for your clothes. If in doubt about whether something needs washing, smell it; it’ll tell you.
On laundry day, sort your clothes into machine washables and delicates. Check for colorfastness, Banana says, by rubbing a white paper towel on the inside of a seam; if any color transfers, you need to wash the item with dark things only. Cox washes all delicate items in the washer, on the delicate cycle (not bothering with mesh bags — “I think they’re bollocks”); Roberts recommends hand-washing with a delicate fabric wash, in cold water. Squeeze out excess water by rolling in a towel, and hang to dry.
Everyone agrees: Beware of the dryer — heat is the enemy of many fabrics, particularly knits. If you want things to last, hang them up or lay them flat to dry. Cox says she uses her dryer only for towels, bed linens and already-stretched-out T-shirts.
Out, damned spot!
Check your clothes carefully before washing, warns Garcia; an oil spot that’s been laundered is very difficult to get out.
For general stain removal, Banana starts with Fels-Naptha soap — “just get it a little wet and rub it right on the stain.” If the stain isn’t moving, try a paste of OxiClean. As a last resort, she recommends the charmingly named Krud Kutter, which can be bought at hardware stores and can even remove dried paint and permanent marker. Whatever you use, try it on a hem or an inside seam first, to make sure it doesn’t leave a mark. And be patient; stain removal is one of those step-repeat things. Both Garcia and Banana emphasized using a gentle touch, so as not to cause damage; Banana recommends a toothbrush on delicate fabrics.
Don’t spot clean silk, Roberts says; it’ll leave a water mark. Sprinkle baby powder to absorb the stain, then hand-wash the entire garment.
A few specific stain-fighters: Efferdent — yes, the denture cleaner — is good for cleaning lace, says Banana. Garcia recommends rubbing alcohol to remove ink stains. Cox has found that lemon juice removes rust stains — just squeeze it on, rub it in and launder.
A wrinkle in time
To steam or not to steam? Garcia recommends steaming for light fabrics, like silk; heavier fabrics, like cotton shirts, need ironing. Cox says she hasn’t had much luck with steamers (though she has clients who use them); she presses everything with her trusty Rowenta steam iron. Roberts will iron silk — carefully! — using the silk setting, and putting a tea towel between the fabric and the iron. Banana suggests that for folded garments like sweaters, hang them up the night before you want to wear them, or hang in the bathroom during your shower. Misting it with a bit of water also helps; the weight of the water will get the wrinkles out.
Putting it away
Don’t overcrowd your closet, Cox admonished; leaving space between garments lets them hang better. She suggests a folding board (which you can buy or make) to help fold sweaters and T-shirts neat and flat.
If you need to store seasonal clothing, Banana recommends laundering it first and storing it in plastic tubs (good for keeping moths out; as long as they’re not overstuffed, the clothing has room to breathe) or cotton/linen garment bags (for breathability; good for higher-quality fabrics, not as good for wool and wool blends). “If you want it to last 100 years, pack in acid-free paper,” said Banana, who recommends storing things in a cedar chest if you have one, or packing them away with cedar balls if you don’t.
Tips for specific types of clothing
If you have a vintage item and you don’t know how to clean it, “wash it according to how much you love it,” Banana advises. If you love it: spot clean it, spray some Febreze on the armpits (Banana prefers the allergen-reducing kind, which can be special ordered) and don’t wash it. Or grit your teeth and pay for dry cleaning; it’s worth it.
To get that vintage-clothing smell out, dry cleaning will work, or Banana suggests turning it inside-out, spraying it with Febreze or with a vodka/water solution (one part vodka to four parts water) and hanging out it in the sun. (Line-drying in the sun, whenever possible, is great for getting any garment smelling fresh, vintage or no.) She also suggests a product called RetroClean, for brightening age-stained garments.
Dry cleaning is best for wool; machine washing (gentle cycle, inside-out) works for acrylic. Dry it flat, but try five or 10 minutes in the dryer with wool dryer balls, to puff it out a bit, says Banana. And don’t hang them up, it’ll misshape them.
Hand-washing seems like a bother, but Roberts emphasizes that it’s worth it: A bra, carefully washed by hand, can last up to 10 years. That’s assuming you rotate it properly — elastic needs rest in order to retains its shape, so don’t wear the same bra more than two days running. (Apparently bras, like all of us, require rest and recuperation.) Also, put it on correctly: Roberts says many women fasten a back-hooking bra in front and then twist it around, which will eventually distort that temperamental elastic. If you absolutely must throw it in the washer, use the delicate cycle and for God’s sake don’t put it in the dryer. Hang it up.
Those who enjoy high-end sleepwear (we all know that casual PJs can just be tossed in the wash) should note that fine cotton can be machine-washed, but anything silk or with lace should be washed by hand, Roberts said. She suggests four days is the limit to wear a bra or sleepwear without washing.
Usually these require professional dry cleaning, but Banana says you can minimize the frequency of this by keeping pockets empty (so they don’t stretch out), spot cleaning stains and regularly using a lint brush. Cox suggests that always wearing a scarf with your coat will help keep the collar clean.
Wipe your shoes after each wearing, with a towel or a disposable wipe, says Cox, to keep dirt from building up. Shoes worn without socks can be kept clean on the inside with Krud Kutter and a toothbrush, Banana suggests. For stained shoes, Cox recommends OxiClean for canvas shoes or sneakers, and nail-polish remover for black scuff marks on light-colored leather (but be careful; test it in an inconspicuous area first).
Do you have a clothes-cleaning question you’d like to ask the Laundry Fairy? If so, submit your question below. We won’t be able to get to all the questions but may select a few for a follow-up feature.
What to do with clothes you no longer want
One thing Marie Kondo doesn’t talk about is how to ethically dispose of the clothing you don’t want — in other words, how to make sure they don’t end up in a landfill. Seattle fashion stylist Angie Cox recommends the following:
- Donate work-appropriate women’s clothing to the nonprofit Dress for Success (seattle.dressforsuccess.org; 206-461-4472), which helps its clients lift themselves out of poverty through employment. Other wearable garments can be donated to Goodwill or the Salvation Army.
- For clothing that’s truly worn out, look for bins from UsAgain or Planet Aid, which repurpose and recycle textiles.
- Or just recycle them yourself: weary T-shirts and sweatpants can be cut up and used as rags or dustcloths.
For more ideas, see youlookfab.com.