If you've ever paid close attention to the tags sewn into your textiles — that is, your clothing, sheets, towels, etc. — you've likely noticed a series of geometric shapes. These pictographs are actually laundry symbols designed to provide instructions for the item's care. They're a little tricky to decipher, so here's everything you need to know about laundry symbols, including what they mean.
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"Prior to the 1960s, clothing and textiles were almost exclusively made from natural fibers like cotton and linen, so caring for clothes was more straightforward," Procter & Gamble textiles expert Liz Eggert tells Hunker. "As synthetic fibers became more widespread and new manufacturing techniques and washing machines were developed, garments and their care instructions became much more complex."
Then, in the 1990s, manufacturers began using symbols for care instructions rather than words, since words naturally took up much more space on a tiny tag. (Eggert notes that at the time, North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) regulations meant that all instructions had to be written in English, French, and Spanish in North America — it was as if a full "instruction booklet" had to be sewn into clothes.)
Now, there are dozens of symbols used on textile tags that explain how to care for the item.
Are the symbols universal?
Not entirely. "Care symbols vary by region because different countries often have different regulations on what is required of manufacturers," says Eggert. But, she adds, "Most use the same basic shapes for wash, bleach, dry, iron, and dry clean."
What does each laundry symbol mean?
"There are so many symbols and even I, who have studied fabric and work with it regularly, cannot memorize them all," independent fashion designer Nic Hyl tells Hunker. "There are, however, posters with the pictures on them that one can purchase from Etsy or Amazon for a few bucks to help out. Instead of trying to memorize them, I would suggest buying one of the posters, framing it, and putting it in your laundry room as wall art for all to see."
But, what you can easily memorize — or simply infer from their shape — is the five basic icons that are pretty universal. Here's what they are:
This means your item is washable! If there's nothing inside the icon, it's machine washable. If it displays a hand, that means you must wash it by hand. Some icons might feature a number or dots inside — this indicates the temperature at which you can wash the item. And if there's a big X through it? Not washable.
A triangle indicates that you may bleach the item. Keep an eye out for an X through it, which warns you not to use bleach.
A square represents drying instructions. If there's a circle inside, as shown above, that means your item can be tumble-dried in a machine. Then there are variations for other forms of drying, like hang drying (usually a curved line dropping down from the top of the square) or lying flat to dry (usually a horizontal line in the center of the square).
This might be a little obvious, but if you see an iron, you can iron the item. As with the washing icon, the iron symbol might have dots or numbers inside that indicate the temperature at which to set your iron. If there's an X through the iron, don't iron! If there's an X under the iron, that means don't iron with steam.
A plain circle indicates that the item should be professionally dry cleaned. Letters inside the circle will tell the dry cleaner what chemicals they should use for the process. But a big X through the circle means do not dry clean.
Stefanie is a New York–based writer and editor. She has served on the editorial staffs of Architectural Digest, ARTnews, and Oyster.com, a TripAdvisor company, before setting out on her own as a freelancer. Her beats include architecture, design, art, travel, science, and history, and her words have appeared in Architectural Digest, Condé Nast Traveler, Popular Science, Mental Floss, Galerie, Jetsetter, and History.com, among others. In another life, she'd be a real estate broker since she loves searching for apartments and homes.