The guide to fabrics and how to clean them

We wear different types of fabrics every day, but chances are that we don’t know what they are, or even how to take care of them. Good fabrics are worth nothing if not cleaned or maintained properly, and improper care could be a waste of money.  

Clothing, after all, is and should be treated as an investment. Proper care for the different clothes in your wardrobe can help keep them looking their best and prolong their use. Here are the different kinds of fabrics and how to take care of them:


Most cotton fabrics are “pre-shrunk”, which makes them highly durable. Cotton garments can be machine-washed with any detergent. As with any fabric, reserve bleach for whites. If bleach is needed for colored clothing, use color-safe bleach as much as possible.

(Denim, the cloth you find in jackets and jeans, also falls in this category – cotton is woven into denim using a twill.)

Machine-wash in cold or warm water with all-purpose detergent and line-dry in shade to avoid yellowing. For white cotton, wash with bleach on a hot water setting.

Synthetics (Polyester, Nylon, Spandex, etc.)

Synthetic fabrics don’t have the risk of shrinkage unlike more delicate fabrics, and are resistant to water-based stains. However, friction makes them conducive to static electricity.

Polyester, considered the “wonder fiber” of the 20th century, makes for durable, easy-to-wash garments that come in a wide variety of colors. Most polyester fabrics can be machine-washed in warm water, but be sure to iron on low heat to keep the fibers from melting.  

Another synthetic widely used today is spandex, an elastic fiber used in a lot of sportswear because of its flexibility and its resistance to wear and tear due to friction. Be sure to avoid bleach and hot water when washing spandex fabrics.


Rayon is a textile made from wood pulp and is treated with chemicals, which makes it a semisynthetic fabric.

While cool and comfortable, rayon has the drawback of losing its crispness, as well as bleed and/or shrink, when laundered.

Consider hand-washing in cold water with mild detergent if dry-cleaning is not an option. Air dry and iron when slightly damp.


This is an example of a natural fabric, this time made from flax. Linen is a surprisingly light and breezy fabric that keeps you cool in hot weather, and, like cotton, is machine-washable.

Clean linens in warm water with chlorine-free bleach and hang to dry. Using the medium heat setting on the dryer is also a good option for drying this fabric.


Cashmere makes for some of the most comfortable sweaters and scarves, as this fabric is made of a natural fiber woven from goat hair.

Dry-clean cashmere as much as possible. If this is not an option, consider hand-washing with baby shampoo. Ironing or machine-drying can ruin cashmere, and wringing can loosen the weave.

Never hang cashmere scarves or sweaters. Instead, fold them to make sure they retain their shape.


Silk feels exquisite, but is quite delicate to handle and difficult to clean. This natural fiber is among one of the world’s oldest textiles and clothing materials, and the fiber is in itself washable.

However, silk is difficult to clean because of the many fabric weaves that may tighten or pucker when washed. When washing silk, be sure to follow the garment labels. Dry-clean as much as possible. If hand-washing is an available option, use products formulated especially for delicate fabrics.

To dry silk garments, roll them in a towel to press out the moisture and hang to dry. Press with a warm iron.


Natural wool is woven from animal fur, which is a great natural insulator and really easy to dye into many different colors.

Wool fabrics can be a cross between rugged tweeds and wool challis, and sometimes both weaves are incorporated in certain clothing. Wool knits need to be dry-cleaned, but may be hand-washable in cool water depending on the label.

Garments made of lined wool look best when dry-cleaned once a month. Be sure to remove the surface soil a damp cloth and refresh by hanging from a padded hanger.