How to clean every kind of fabric: Leather, linen, nylon, silk, and the rest

Spandex and viscose and wool—oh my!

Credit: Getty Images / PeopleImages
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Have you ever looked at the tags on your clothing and wondered, what exactly is viscose? Or spandex? Or linen? And how do I clean it? You might wear these fabrics every day, but have no idea what they are—much less how to care for them.

That last point is key, because even good fabric is worthless if you don't know how to clean or maintain it. So, let's go alphabetically through the most common types of fabric—from acrylic to wool—and talk about the right way to care for each of them.

As a general rule, always check the care tags on your clothing before washing. If that dress shirt is made of linen, look at the tag before tossing it in the wash, and plan lots of time for ironing. And if you don't know how to read those crazy laundry symbols on the tag, don't worry, we have a guide for that too.

1. Acrylic

Acrylic_sweaters
Credit: Getty Images / Oleg_Ermak

I know what you're thinking: "Acrylic? Like... acrylic nails?" No, not like acrylic nails, although acrylic fiber is made from the same basic stuff—namely, acrylic acid. This fabric has been around since the 1940s, and you can often find it in winter sweaters, either alone or mixed with wool.

Acrylic is machine washable in warm water, but since it's often paired with other fibers, it's essential to check the tag before you toss it in the wash. And yes, you can iron acrylic clothing if needed, with a medium heat setting. Handle acrylic garments with care—they have a tendency to pill. Those balls of fiber that show up on some clothes are harmless, but they can shorten their useful lives, just because they look so bad. If you have lots of acrylic sweaters, you might need a lint shaver.

2. Cashmere

J.Crew-cashmere-sweater
Credit: J. Crew

Cashmere makes for some of the softest, finest, most comfortable scarfs and sweaters you'll ever experience. Cashmere is made from the silky undercoat of the cashmere goat. One reason cashmere garments are expensive is that, as goat farmer Pam Haendle told HuffPost, it's a laborious process to comb the hair off the goats, and it takes about four goats to make a single sweater.

Because cashmere sweaters are such a luxury, some people are afraid to ruin them, and always send them out to the dry cleaners. It's actually not that complicated to clean them yourself. According to The Laundress you can usually clean them on the Delicates or Wool cycle of your washer, as long as you place them in a mesh lingerie bag. To hand wash a cashmere sweater, use cold water and a couple of capfuls of baby shampoo or one of the products made to wash wool and cashmere. Soak for a half hour, then rinse, but don't wring. It's best for sweaters to dry flat, and we've heard of folks using a salad spinner to remove some of the moisture before laying the sweater down.

By the way, it's better to fold rather than hang a cashmere sweater, so it doesn't lose its shape.

3. Cotton

Cotton is the world's favorite natural fiber. It's the standard-bearer of clothing materials and the fabric of our lives. Made from the small tufts of fiber found in a certain family of seedpods, cotton is understandably the most popular fabric in the world. It's inexpensive, durable, and easy to manufacture.

Your cotton sheets and shirts are machine washable and dryable, and you can iron the wrinkles out. Check the label and be sure to match the right water temperature to the color. You can usually wash white cottons in hot water, and warm or cool water is fine for colors. Be careful not to over-dry cottons, because they tend to shrink.

Denim is generally made from cotton or a blend of cotton and another fiber. Its twill weave makes it tough, and you don't have to wash a pair of jeans every time you wear it. Although most denim can be washed in cold water in the washing machine, lots of people don't like to wash their jeans. That may surprise you, but it's true.

4. Leather/Suede

Leather-jacket
Credit: Getty Images/ kcastagnola

There's nothing quite as cool as a leather jacket, but although it looks great when it's perfectly worn out, you should clean it now and then. Suede can be even cooler, like Elvis Presley's blue suede shoes, but needs a good brushing from time to time. Both materials are vulnerable to dirt and dehydration. According to leather maker David Morgan, there are four things that can cause leather to deteriorate: chemical damage from oils or compounds in the air, oxidation, chafing, and abrasion.

There's nothing quite as cool as a leather jacket. But you should clean it now and then.

There are professionals who clean leather and suede. To space out the need for that kind of cleaning, use a leather dressing to help keep the leather soft and fresh. You can also wipe the leather with mild soap and warm water for a good clean. As for suede, we highly recommend using a suede protector to keep your boots water repellant. Keep leather out of the washing machine. Don't hesitate to toss suede UGGs in the washer—we've discovered that you can clean them at home.

5. Linen

Linen_shirts
Credit: Getty Images / Olga_Makina

Elegant linen is an ancient fiber derived from the flax plant. Though some labels may insist on dry cleaning only, a lot of linen can be washed. The DIY network advises against overcrowding linen clothes in the washer, as linen absorbs more water than other fibers. Use cold water and leave it some room.

Linen does an amazing job keeping you cool in hot weather, but it wrinkles like crazy. To restore its crisp good looks, turn the garment inside out, and use a hot iron with a steam setting.

6. Nylon

Nylon-underwear
Credit: Getty Images /DorupFoto

Nylon is another synthetic (plastic-based) fabric, and it's made from one of the most commonly used polymers in the world. When it was first invented in the 1940s, nylon was used to make toothbrushes and stockings. Now it can be found in everything from parachutes to guitar strings. If your underwear isn't cotton, it's probably nylon.

As with many synthetic materials, caring for nylon is pretty easy. It's rugged, machine-washable, moisture-resistant, and washable in either warm or cold water (although cold is recommended for white fabrics). That said, you should line dry or use a low heat setting in the dryer if you're concerned about nylon wrinkling.

7. Polyester

polyester_fleece
Credit: Getty Images / Hermera Techology

Polyester, like nylon, is a synthetic fabric. It's often made from recycled soda bottles. Polyester is less durable than nylon, but still plenty strong. Its low cost and wrinkle resistance make it one of the most commonly used fabrics in the world—the cozy fleece you're wearing is most likely made of polyester.

Polyester is often used with cotton to make shirts. Always check the label, but you can usually clean clothing made with polyester in the washer, and a warm wash cycle is ideal. If your dryer has one, be sure to use a low heat setting.

8. Rayon/Viscose

Viscose
Credit: Getty Images / Beeldbewerking

Viscose is a type of rayon, a synthetic fiber derived from wood pulp—you know, the same stuff used to make paper. Cleaning it is tricky. It's often mixed with other fibers. And viscose rayon can shrink badly, and the dye tends to fade. If you want to clean rayon fabrics, you are either going to have to get it dry-cleaned or wash it by hand in cold water and let it air dry. Smooth out wet garments—it's really hard to get the wrinkles out of viscose.

9. Silk

Silk-fabrics
Credit: Getty Images / idmanjoe

Lustrous silk is one of the most luxurious fabrics, and for good reason. Few materials—natural or synthetic—can match the fiber that comes from silkworm cocoons. If the label tells you to dry clean only, you should probably do so. But no less an authority than Martha Stewart says you can clean it at home.

Lustrous silk is one of the most luxurious fabrics on earth, and for good reason.

The main issue with washing silk is that it has a tendency to fade. Check for color fastness in an inconspicuous area of the garment by patting it with a damp white washcloth before hand washing in a mild shampoo or gentle detergent. It doesn't take long to wash silk—it gives up dirt quickly. Roll the garment in a dry towel to remove some moisture, then air dry it. Still, dark and brightly colored silk items are best sent out for cleaning.

10. Spandex

What would your workout be without this super-stretchy synthetic fabric? Spandex is used in everything from compression bands to swimsuits, and helps athletes reach new heights. In fact, according to Spandex World, the material can be stretched up to five times its length.

Wash your spandex workout gear every time you wear it. Since the fabric tends to hold on to odors, you may want to use a sports detergent to clean your workout clothes. It may do a better job removing the stink. It's also a good idea to separate light and dark spandex, since the colors can bleed.

11. Wool

Wool-yarn-and-sweater
Credit: Getty Images / LightFieldStudios

Wool is a staple in the world of natural fabrics. It's sustainable (sheared off a sheep), durable, and makes great warm clothes like sweaters, socks, and hats. You shouldn't have to wash a wool garment every time you wear it, but it helps if you wear a T-shirt underneath your sweater, and air out any wool clothing before you put it away. Many wool fabrics are machine washable, although you should probably use the Delicates or Wool cycle if your washer has one. Always use a gentle detergent on wool, whether you hand-wash or machine wash. Popular detergents often have enzymes that remove stains, but they can be hard on wool.

Always read the label

Remember, whatever you're wearing, always refer to those laundry symbols for the best cleaning practices. Your clothes will look better, and they might even last longer.

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.

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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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