We’ve heard a lot about the slow-fashion movement. People everywhere are talking about the benefits of leaving behind the fast-fashion industry and investing in pieces that will last us a lifetime. I’ve recently jumped on this train—saving up my pennies, eyeing handmade items on Etsy, prowling for vintage gems for hours at Goodwill. And it feels great—that is, until I inevitably get a coffee stain on that treasured silk investment, or my perfect, beloved high-waisted jeans get a tear in an inconvenient place.
Part of the premise underlying the slow-fashion movement is that we become good stewards of our clothing. If we don’t take care of our clothing, the slow-fashion movement becomes the expensive, frustrating, doomed-to-fail movement. That doesn’t sound remotely fun or sustainable to me! Let’s take a few minutes to talk about how to take care of the pieces we hope to treasure—and use—for years to come.
Know your fabrics.
The number one consideration when caring for an item of clothing is its fabric. It can also help guide you when looking for future pieces to add to your wardrobe—it’s likely that if you go to your closet now and pick out your favorites, you’ll see a trend in the fabrics represented.
Every fabric reacts differently to various cleaning techniques. Heat, for example, tends to help get your clothes clean, but it can also influence the way the fibers within the fabrics interact on a micro level, which can mess things up (as anyone who has inadvertently shrunk a wool sweater can attest). Before you warp or shrink anything, consider what your usual laundry routine may do to the specific fabric you’re working with. Some fabrics, such as cotton, nylon, and polyester, can do well with machine washing and drying. Anything stretchy like leggings or other workout gear should be kept away from the heat of the dryer, as heat degrades elastic. And some fabrics, such as silk, cupro, cashmere, and linen, do best with a quick hand wash.
Fortunately, it’s not all up to our assessment: every garment you purchase should have a care tag sewn or printed into it. But it’s still a good idea to know your fabrics because if you thrift, these tags have often been removed, and if you score a handmade piece, it might not have this information attached at all.
Do laundry with care.
If you’re investing in good-quality clothing, chances are you’re going to find that many of your labels advise hand washing or dry cleaning. This isn’t a bad thing! If we’re building a sustainable capsule, then the time and cost of these more meticulous methods are offset by the fact that we aren’t buying more clothing.
I imagine we’ve all tossed a “dry clean only” shirt in the washer and been pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t ruined. But that doesn’t mean that all shirts labeled “dry clean only” are lying or that all dry clean only shirts are created the same. Dry cleaning cleanses the clothes with chemicals instead of water, so anything that is particularly delicate, detailed, or dyed in a way that might not be colorfast will usually be dry clean only. Generally speaking, if a tag says “dry clean,” it means that other cleaning methods may work, but if it says “dry clean only,” listen to that!
The term “handwashing” carries with it arduous connotations, but it really doesn’t have to be that much more work. It’s about as difficult as letting a pan soak and then washing it in the sink. This method is really simple: just keep a tub in your kitchen for handwashing clothes, and you’ll find that it’s easier than planning for loads of laundry.
The tumble dryer can be really difficult on delicate clothing. If you’re able, set up a drying station, whether that’s racks in your kitchen or merrily-bobbing lines in your backyard. This can be difficult or impossible in the cooler months, so practice this as you can.
If you get a stain on your clothing, time is of the essence (cue action movie soundtrack!). You generally don’t want to let it dry, so wet the area immediately, if possible, and put some dish soap on it. (I have a small bottle of dish soap at my desk at work for this purpose.) Then, once at home, I throw the garment in the laundry with stain remover or throw it in a handwash tub. Usually, that solves the problem. However, for more stubborn stains (such as ones that have gone through the dryer, which sets stains), I’ve used a more intense baking soda method—hasn’t failed me yet!
Last but not least: lingerie bags are not just for lingerie. Get several of them. Throw socks in one and you won’t have to fish them out later. Wash a complicated, lacy, or buttony garment in one and it will interact less with other garments.
Store your clothes wisely.
Anything that is made from wool or cashmere should be kept in an airtight storage container during the summer to protect from moths. Bonus points if you have a cedar chest; cedar naturally acts as a moth repellent! You can also purchase cedar blocks online for this purpose.
Sweaters stored hanging in a closet can become misshapen from the constant pull of their own weight and, similarly, jeans can develop a crease when left folded over a hanger. So I don’t hang anything in my closet except items made of linen, which can wrinkle easily. However, that’s probably influenced by my specific closet setup—I have lots of drawer room and not so much hanging space. Work with what you have, but if you’re hanging lots of things, choose hangers with rounded edges or padding to them instead of wire ones. The thinner the hanger, the more it will stretch out your garment, particularly knits.
Find a tailor . . .
. . . But before you give her a call, consider what light tailoring you can do at home, if you’re so inclined. Emphasis on “light.” If you’re trying to do anything more complicated than darn a sock, re-attach a button, mend a tear, or take in a hem, then it might be time to look for a tailor. However, something is empowering about being able to do these easier tasks! It helps us appreciate our garments more, and it connects us to generations of women before us who did things like darn socks while listening to the radio at night.
However, there comes a time when we need to put our clothing in the hands of professionals. And that time may be more often than you think. If your style tends toward anything more fitted than billowy maxi dresses (and even then) it doesn’t hurt to make sure that the things you put on your body fit you like a glove. It’s the simplest way to make things look better on you (just as the surest way for something to look less-than-great is if it doesn’t fit).
Don’t just take this from me—if someone has fantastic style, there’s a good chance they have help. Actress Ginnifer Goodwin has said that “the most important thing in clothing is to find a good, inexpensive tailor, because clothes at the stores are made for bodies that are anomalies.”
If this practice seems swanky, consider the cost of a tailor’s services as compared to buying a new garment. If you’re tailoring a garment whose cost per wear is measured in pennies, it’s probably a good investment.
When you’re putting together your trove of treasures—the clothing that will help you stand tall and feel beautiful and move throughout your day with grace—it helps to remember that you should always aim to dress for yourself and your current life. Trends come and go, and the chapters of our lives page by. Often the “12 Wardrobe Must-Haves” simply don’t apply to us, and that’s okay. If your life or your style isn’t one where you need a linen blazer, don’t get one.
Likewise, if you know that your life—your real one, as it is now—doesn’t include ample time for trips to the dry-cleaner or hand-washing, don’t get clothing that requires such attention. This does not mean you need to pass quality by! It just means you need to know your fabrics, know how to take care of garments you hope will last for years, and know yourself—so that you can take care of you just as much as that treasured chiffon blouse.