The Dirt On 'Dry Clean Only' Labels

You've found that perfect soft, warm sweater. But the label says "dry clean only." Drat. Another thing to take to the cleaner, another $8 every time you go.

Still, you can't help but wonder if handwashing would really lead to ruin.

Clothing manufacturers often recommend dry cleaning to avoid responsibility for laundry-room disasters, according to Consumer Reports magazine. Manufacturers are required by law to put a cleaning method on clothing labels. Many feel it's better to be safe than sorry and stitch on the "dry clean only" command.

But when Consumer Reports ignored dry-clean only labels and home washed garments, they found that many cleaned well. Consumers, they found, could save money and avoid exposure to chemical solvents used in conventional dry-cleaning processes.

When they surveyed readers, the magazine found that many people avoid buying clothes with "dry clean only" labels, and many wash garments regardless of what the label says.

Drawing on tests and talks with experts, the magazine has issued the following guidelines:

* No matter what the fabric is, structured garments like jackets that have interfacing and lining belong at the dry cleaner; so do lined dresses and clothes with decorative elements that may not take to water.

* Rayon loses strength when wet, so it can shrink or stretch. Plain-weave rayon had minimal shrinkage, but pebbly crepe or crinkle weaves often shrank dramatically. Both washing and dry-cleaning can remove the sizing that makes rayon garments look crisp. If you decide to wash rayon, do it by hand. Squeeze, don't wring, excess water from the garment.

* Silks with fancy weaves or intensely colored prints must be dry cleaned. Simple solid-colored shirts can be washed by hand.

* Many sweaters can be washed in cold water by hand or machine and dried flat. After drying, fluff mohair sweaters with a brief tumble in the dryer on "no heat." Cashmere can go in the washer. Most cotton sweaters can be machine washed and dried. Fancy, loose knits should be hand-washed and dried flat. Angora, on the other hand, must be dry-cleaned.

* With linens, heed label instructions. Do washable linens by machine using cool water for colors, warm for whites. Don't use chlorine bleach - it yellows linen.

* In choosing a dry cleaner, look for one that offers "hand-finishing" for fragile or elaborate garments. Ask about posted prices and what your bill will be before you retrieve your clothes. Point out stains and special-care instructions when you go in. Mention what caused the stain and if or how you tried to remove it yourself.

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