Errata: Ignoring Dry-Cleaning Instructions Does Have Consequences

If you've been following this blog, you'll know that I almost always ignore "dry clean only" labels. That's because I've gotten away with washing them by hand without shrinkage. Why bother paying the dry-cleaning bill if I can take care of it myself?

This time, my willful disobedience of instructions backfired on me in the worst way.

Here's my victim, after it was rescued:

Yes, I said "rescued." I can't believe I almost ruined this lovely new Jak & Rae top, purchased during my last trip Loehmann's (see last post). It wasn't very expensive, which was why I was willing to chance washing by hand (I would never do that with my suits). Still, if I did total it, I wouldn't have been able to buy a replacement. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending, but I'm here to let know what to do to prevent a scare in the first place.

I hand-wash things for a number of reasons. First, people have done it for years before dry cleaning existed. Second, most things won't shrink through contact with cold water, despite the "dry clean only" label. Even if a new piece is machine-washable, I do it in order to prevent brilliant dyes from leaching onto the rest of my laundry (since I have to pay to get laundry done most of the time, I save money by not separating colors). However, reasons #1 and 2 need to be reevaluated. True, people have washed lots of fabrics, even delicate ones, throughout history, but that's before man- and woman-kind were able to invent new fiber materials that don't necessarily conform to the laws of nature. Some of those newfangled fibers will shrink if you wash them.

My top was 100% Rayon. I figured that I've machine-washed some rayon-blend clothes before and they came out fine, so hand-washing should be fine. After I washed it and wrung it, I thought, "Wow, this is really heavy! I guess rayon absorbs tons of water!" I hung it on a drying rack, but I grew impatient at the snail's pace of drying. I tossed it into the dryer when my machine-washed load was done. After I took it out of the dryer, I noticed that the front seemed a bit shorter, shoulders were tighter, and the back seam (where the ruffles were gathered) went up 2 inches! I was understandably aghast.

What I didn't know is that rayon has low wet strength, which means it's highly unstable when wet. Therefore, it is susceptible to shrinkage (as much as 10%) or stretchage (is that even a word?). Some types of rayons (like viscose) were manufactured to have better wet strength than others. Apparently the fibers in my top didn't fall into that group.

Take home lesson #1: read the label to figure out what the fibers are, then do a quick Google search on the properties of those fibers. It might be helpful to sample a few sites, since even expert opinions can vary. I found this site to be simple and informative, and I've included the link so that I can reference it in the future. If I had known about the low wet weight issue, I would have carefully dried my top like I would with cashmere sweaters (with a towel, then lay flat) instead of employing expedient yet detrimental methods. If the fibers are really, really unsuitable for water and/or your piece of clothing costs a lot of money, it's better not to take the risk.

After feeling a bit of outrage, I was determined to unshrink this thing. If the fibers can both shrink and stretch, I was sure that I can stretch it back out. I followed TBF's advice on unshrinking a wool sweater (using lukewarm water and hair conditioner) with a few of my own modifications. After I squeezed out water, the top was really heavy, so I gently tugged at it lengthwise. Then, I used a towel to blot out the excess water. The top was laid flat to dry for a few hours, subjected to a few more gentle stretchings over time. When it was mostly dried but still a little damp, I decided to let gravity do my bidding. The top half of the top was flat on the drying rack, but I pushed the bottom half over the edge so that it hangs free. An hour or two later, I let the top half hang down instead of the bottom. By the next day, my top was back to more or less normal size, as shown in the pictures above.

Take Home Lesson #2: If it shrank, don't panic! Do some online research and act quickly.

I consider myself pretty lucky, since not all mistakes are reversable. On that same day, which I should dub the "unluckiest laundry day ever," my Joie pants also shrunk in the dryer. It's now a good fit and has a better length (which is what I wanted), but unfortunately the outside seams are all bunched up. I'll try to simultaneously iron and stretch later, but I don't know if it's gonna work. I'll let you know when I have time to try it.


LeighAnn said...

That was so funny! I loved the pictures.

So, where are the "After" pictures to see how well it turned out.

I will have to try washing at home and see what happens.

Thanks for the advice.

Sales Rack Raider said...

I was too distraught to take the "immediately after" pictures, but these are the "all's well that ends well" ones =)

Marcy said...

Due to sheer laziness, I tend to just wash even "dry clean" clothes in the gentle cycle, though with some newer pieces of clothing that I really don't want to ruin I started seeking other methods. I'm still too lazy to actually go to a dry cleaners to drop off AND then pick up clothes, so I picked up a Dryel package-- it has a bag to put your dry clean garments in, plus I think 10 moist towels for putting in the bag (one at a time) with up to 4 of your dry-clean pieces. Then you simply stick it in the dryer to 30 minutes. Works awesome. I also have to pay for laundry, our dryers cost $1, but that comes out to 25 cents per clothing item so it works out well enough.

I never put my jeans in the dryer anymore. They're another thing that I'd rather just not risk ,since I have such a hard time finding good jeans that actually fit well.

I'm glad you were abl to resurrect your top! =)

Sales Rack Raider said...

Thanks for sharing your Dryel experience, Marcy. A while back a reader asked me about it, but I didn't know much beyond the name. When you describe it as 4 pieces of clothing cleaned for a dollar + the cost of each Dryel sheet, it does sound like a pretty good deal.

Kati said...

Thanks for the advice. I had the same thing happen with a rayon sweater. I'm going to try out your method and hopefully I'll have the same luck you did! I'm thinking manufacturers need to distinguish between different types of rayon. Mine did NOT say dry clean only (I think it should have been!) and I washed as directed. Unfortunate mistake...

Courtney said...

What were your modifications to the wool sweater stuff? I just shrunk a cute rayon dress I bought and wore ONCE! So I am determined to unshrink it!

Sales Rack Raider said...

Hi Courtney--I stretched the fabric out (length-wise) a bit while it is still in the water. Then, I squeezed out as much water as I can, and hang it on a drying rack to drip dry, stretch it a little, continue drying, and then check back periodically and stretch as needed. Because the water makes the fabric quite weighty, I just let gravity do the work after I've given the fabric a few stretches.

kaylagarcia_1 said...

I'm going to try my luck at returning 3 100% rayon cardigans that I just bought last week. I bought another rayon cardigan from another store as well but doubt they'll exchange it. I washed them all in cold water but was stupid and stuck them in the dryer in lingerie bags (thinking they'd stretch out if I didn't) and they all shrunk terribly, some cardigans go about half way down my back when they use to hang over my behind. I didn't expect it at all! I really hope the store will let me exchange them because I really do love these cardigans. If not, I'll try your technique. I don't have a drying rack though, I might just use a table instead

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