The Low-down on the Label
How do you shop for clothes?
Are you the one who checks every label, looking for the “easy” set of care instructions? Do the words “dry clean only” sound like “don’t buy me….even if you really, really love me”? You’re not alone. A lot of people shop this way, and can be intimidated by clothing that can’t be managed with home washing.
While this may have been the easy way to shop back in the day when clothes were washed on a board with a bar of soap and a bucket, today’s variety in fabrics and embellishments make finding a safe-for-home-washing wardrobe more challenging. With tons of options in naturals, synthetics, and blends and confusing terms like “wetclean” and “dryclean” how is the average person expected to maintain their own clothing care, let alone understand it?
“Well”, you may think, “isn’t that what the care label is for?” And you would be right. That little care label on this inside of our clothes should tell us the proper way to clean and care for them. There is just one problem with this. Even though it is mandatory to attach a care label before selling an article of clothing, what’s not mandated is ensuring that the method listed is actually the best course of treatment.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is responsible for enforcing the Care Labeling Rule, which requires manufacturers and importers to provide care instructions attached to a garment before being sold. There are stipulations and restrictions to this rule; for example, there must be evidence available that the care method won’t damage the item. It is also required that any method that may damage the item be listed, such as, “do not iron”.
So while the label may be telling us what not to do with our clothes, it’s not necessarily telling us what we should do with them. Furthermore, if there are two methods of treatment, equal in effectiveness or not, only one is required to be listed. This means that if an item can be safely washed at home and dry cleaned, only one of these methods may make it to the care label. And manufacturers may see “dry clean only” as a safe catch-all for clothing care labeling, leaving it harder and harder for consumers to find items that claim to be safe for home care, even if they may be.
Experimenting with clothing care can be tricky though. You also have to remember that extending the life of your clothing is the goal. You may not see any changes now in that “dry clean only” dress you just threw in the washing machine on the delicate cycle, but over time, this can prematurely degrade the fabric.
Best rule of thumb is to follow the “do not” warnings listed on the care label, and as much as you may hate to hear it, have a professional dry clean or launder the items you are unsure about. Home washing machines can be pretty rough on clothing, and hand washing just doesn’t provide the thorough cleaning needed. Plus, not all clothing manufacturers are negligent when labeling care instructions. Most of them probably don’t want to see their creations ruined either, so we can assume that the method they listed on the care label will at least work.
Unfortunately, unless you are a garment specialist, there is no way of knowing whether the care label is accurate. You can study up on some basic fabric care, but you may have to use trial and error to learn what really works best. Sometimes testing on a small area of the item may work, but it should go without saying that trying out different care methods other than what is provided on the label may cause irreparable damage.