Understanding Clothing Care Instruction Labels

Fabric composition and washing instructions label on white shirt

Decoding Common Clothing Labels

What happens when your cookie recipe calls for 3/4 cup of baking powder and you add a full cup? Your cookies get gigantic. Baking is an exact science – just like laundry. Clothing comes with washing instructions on the label. These labels explain the recommended method for washing and drying. The instructions are usually dependent on the fabric type.

Some popular clothing care label instructions include:

Tumble Dry

When you dry your freshly washed clothing in a hot dryer you are “tumble drying” them. For most dryers “tumble dry” is the standard dry setting, so no additional step is needed. Occasionally clothing care tags will read “Tumble Dry Low” or “Tumble Dry High.” If this is the case you should adjust the heat temperature. Of course you can always line dry the clothing as well. Just because the instructions read “Tumble Dry” doesn’t mean you can’t line dry.

Do Not Bleach

“Do Not Bleach” is easy enough to understand. Bleach is a harsh chemical that can be rough on certain types of clothing. If the label doesn’t mention bleach at all you can still use Clorox liquid bleach sparingly. In this case the label may read, “Bleach When Needed.” If the label says “Non-Chlorine Bleach When Needed” use a non-chlorine bleach that is color safe, like Clorox 2.

Learn more about the different types of bleach.

Dry Clean Only

“Dry Clean Only” means professional dry cleaning is the preferred method of wash for the given article of clothing.  Note that sentence said “preferred” and not “only.”  Depending on the type of fabric, you may be able to wash a “Dry Clean Only” article of clothing at home on a gentle cycle if you care to take the risk of ruining or shrinking the article of clothing. To be clear, if the tag says “Dry Clean Only” the clothing manufacturer recommends you take it to a professional. However, there are methods that allow one to wash “dry clean only” clothing at home. Learn how to safely wash a variety of “Dry Clean Only” fabric types.

Hand Wash

A “Hand Wash Only” label typically refers to delicates. A full machine wash may be rough on some fabrics. In such cases, it is recommended you wash by hand. You can wash by hand in a bucket or deep sink. However, many people believe you can do a load of “hand wash” only clothing in the washing machine.

Read more about how to machine wash “Hand Wash Only” clothing.  Not sure about the best hand washing method? Follow these steps

Dry Flat

“Dry Flat” is typically found on the label of knitted clothing like sweaters and scarfs. If you dry knitted clothing on a hanger, it tends to stretch and loose its shape. The ideal way to dry these articles of clothing is to lay them on a flat surface.

It is best if the surface has holes or vents that allow air to flow through the bottom of the surface, helping with the drying process. There is no way around the instructions for “Dry Flat.” It is best to pull these items out of the washer and lay them down to air dry, as recommended.

Maintain the Quality of Your Clothing

You spend a lot of time and money on your clothing. Although some of the care described above requires extra work, and in some cases extra money, the additional steps are an investment and help extend the shelf life of your favorite pieces.

Additional Resources

  • Care Labels, by Drycleaning & Laundry Institute International




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