Silks, woolens, silk-cotton blends and other delicate fabrics often come with instructions to dry clean them. However, the dry-cleaning process is expensive and can cause significant wear. According to Rodale, dry cleaning may also be a health and environmental risk. Washing dry-clean-only silk blends and other delicate fabrics takes considerable care and can have unexpected results. However, if done the right way, it also saves money and prolongs the life of a garment.
Despite its name, dry cleaning isn't really a dry process. It involves using liquid chemicals to remove stains without immersing a garment in water. According to the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute International, most modern dry cleaners use perchlorethylene, also called perc. This nonflammable chemical is applied to the fabric, flusing soil from the clothes, then extracted. After extraction, the dry cleaner uses a dryer to vaporize any remaining solvent. This process tends to affect fabric less than water and is often recommended for delicate garments.
Most fabrics, including silks, can be hand washed instead of dry cleaned. To wash silk or silk blends, use warm to hot water and a neutral-pH soap. Do not use chlorine bleach, which can yellow silk, or ordinary detergents, which are too alkaline. Never rub silk when wet, as doing so can damage the fibers. Hang the garment to dry indoors away from sunlight, which may cause discoloration. Alternatively, dry damp silk by ironing. If a silk or silk-blend garment wrinkles, steam it using a steam wand, iron it with a dry iron or simply hang it in a steamy bathroom to encourage the wrinkles to fall out. Never iron a silk garment using steam, however, or use water to remove a stain from one spot. Applying moisture to just one area can cause water spots.
Some silk and silk-blend fabrics, including silk-cotton blends, will survive machine washing. This process is fundamentally rougher than hand washing and may cause more damage to the fibers. Use only a delicate cycle and cold water. Place the garment in a mesh bag to prevent damage from other garments. Wash the silk with similar colors to prevent dye bleeding and use a neutral-pH soap. If soaking is required to remove stains, soak only for 30 minutes or less. Remove the garment from the machine immediately after the cycle finishes and hang or allow to dry flat away from sunlight.
Many silks and silk blends can be washed with no damage or change in texture. However, some clothes have been treated with special finishes to give them a particular texture or sheen. These garments may soften, lose their shape slightly or appear to change in color if cleaned in water. Some silk garments may also shrink slightly or develop water spots. Test clean a small, inconspicuous area of the fabric before washing the entire garment.
G.D. Palmer is a freelance writer and illustrator living in Milwaukee, Wis. She has been producing print and Web content for various organizations since 1998 and has been freelancing full-time since 2007. Palmer holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in writing and studio art from Beloit College in Beloit, Wis.