Clothing Care: How To Clean Cotton, Linen & Silk Sustainably (2024)


What do cotton, linen and silk have in common? They’re prized during the warmer months. They’re naturally derived fibers comprising the most sumptuous of textiles. And clothing made of all three fabrics is likely hanging in your wardrobe at this very moment.

Clothing care may be your least favorite chore, but when you think about how much time you spend in your pieces (24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year), it makes sense to prioritize cleaning them. Cotton, linen and silk clothing endures an enormous amount of wear and tear, leading many of us to forget about, toss or give away pieces with insurmountable wrinkles, small stains or excessive fading. Greenpeace states that “95% of trashed clothing could be re-worn, recycled or re-used.” The right clothing care —plus consignment when you feel like it’s time for something new — can help bring that number down. Not cool with the chemicals that accompany heavy-duty cleaning? We aren’t either, and we’ve got sustainable options with items that may be hiding in plain sight, whether it’s on the kitchen counter or lurking in a cabinet.

If you find yourself with extra time on your hands, revitalize those silk Hermès scarves, linen Brunello Cucinelli jackets and organic cotton Stella McCartney dresses. Get the scoop on cotton, linen and silk’s environmental impact, learn how to make your own detergent and become a master of sustainable clothing care with tips from Fashion Valuation Manager Alex Mitchell.

Clothing Care: How To Make Sustainable Detergent

Sustainability is always at the forefront of our minds, but many traditional detergents are loaded with synthetic chemicals. Replacing store-bought detergent with a home-made, sustainable detergent is an easy swap.

“Most laundry detergents on the market are not biodegradable, and some can be harsh on natural fabrics like cotton, linen and silk,” says Mitchell. “A more environmentally friendly alternative can be made at home with 14 cups hot water, 1 cup baking soda, ½ cup salt and 1 cup unscented castile soap. A scent can be added using essential oils such as lavender. Combine all the ingredients and stir until the mixture is clear. Store your detergent in a large gallon jug, and when you are ready to wash your clothes, shake the jug to ensure all ingredients are evenly distributed. Add ½ cup of the detergent to your load, and voilà!”

Clothing Care: How To Clean Cotton

There’s nothing quite like breezy, breathable cotton… but the unfortunate truth is it’s one of the most environmentally unsustainable fabrics to produce. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, it takes about 20,000 liters of water to harvest the cotton for one T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Yes, your typical weekend ensemble sucks up an enormous amount of water before it even reaches your washing machine. The big takeaway: extending the life of your cotton clothing through proper care (and, eventually, consignment) is essential.

How To Wash Cotton Clothing

Cotton is a perfect fabric for the dog days of summer, and cleaning it can be as effortless as wearing it. Use cold or lukewarm water to wash your cotton clothing, but never hot water, as cotton is notorious for shrinking. “It’s best to spot-clean cotton garments with a little white distilled vinegar before giving them a full wash so that a gentle cycle and cold or lukewarm water will be enough to clean the garment,” advises Mitchell. Looking to whiten your whites? Add a cup of lemon juice to your load of white cotton pieces as a chemical-free alternative to bleach.

How To Dry Cotton Clothing

When it comes to drying cotton clothes, heat is still the enemy. “Avoid tumble drying a cotton garment to limit shrinkage,” says Mitchell. “It’s better to lay cotton clothing flat to dry or to air-dry rather than using a machine.” If you hang your clothing to dry, however, beware of direct sunlight. Sun can make white clothes whiter, but it can also cause colorful cotton clothing to fade. And if your cotton is a little wrinkled, iron your clothing with a piece of cloth between the iron and garment to avoid scorching the fibers.

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Borgo De Nor Cotton Dress; Chanel Cotton Denim Jacket; Calvin Klein 205W39NYC Shirt

When you’ve worn, re-worn and fallen out of love with your clothes, avoid the landfill and sell them to reduce your fashion footprint. Selling a denim Chanel jacket, for example, could save 400 liters of water and 1.89 kilograms of carbon (and earn you $1,677).

Clothing Care: How To Clean Linen

Linen is another spring and summer-friendly fabric, but in contrast to its thirsty cotton counterpart, linen is one of the market’s most sustainable fabrics. “If linen is left undyed, unbleached and untreated, it is completely biodegradable,” says Mitchell. Linen is moth-resistant and naturally wicks moisture away from the body, making the case for you to store your linen pieces in the back of the closet all winter and wear them through the warmer months. Linen is made from the flax plant, and according to brand sustainability rating organization Good On You, every part of the plant is used, leaving no waste (and production is cost-effective to boot).

How To Wash Linen Clothing

Linen clothing that’s only wrinkled or lightly soiled can be refreshed with your iron’s steam setting, but if you’re looking for a deeper clean, rest assured that your linen will be safe in the washer. “Linen can be machine washed in cold or lukewarm water on a gentle setting, and actually grows softer and stronger with time and cleaning,” notes Mitchell. Any stains on linen clothing can be spot-treated with a little dish soap before being placed in the wash.

How To Dry Linen Clothing

“If you would like to machine dry your linen, just make sure to do so on low heat,” explains Mitchell. “Linen tends to hold wrinkles more than other materials and a short, low-heat dry cycle can help alleviate that.” Hang your linen clothing to dry after a low-heat cycle to finish drying and avoid creasing. If pesky wrinkles persist, iron linen clothing using the steam setting while the clothing is still damp, or after misting with a spray bottle.

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Gucci Linen Floral Dress; Martine Rose Graphic Print Linen Shirt; Celine Linen Halter Dress

When you’re ready to keep the “make well, buy well, re-sell” cycle going by consigning your linen pieces, don’t forget that you’re making an impact. If you sell your linen Gucci dress, you could save 30.36 liters of water and 2.38 kilograms of carbon… plus, you could earn $1,560.

Clothing Care: How To Clean Silk

Light, airy and luxurious, silk is an ideal fabric to wear when you’re looking to dress up and feel professional, even at home. While it doesn’t breathe as easily as linen and cotton, the upside is it’s versatile enough to wear all year round. Silk is made of silkworm cocoons, and though production methods can be low-waste and sustainable, according to Good On You some producers treat silk with chemicals to clean the cocoon. When possible, buy clothing that lists undyed or naturally dyed silk as its material, or shop consigned silk items to help keep them in circulation, as eco-conscious alternatives.

How To Wash Silk Clothing

While you should always check the care instructions on any garment, many silk pieces labeled “dry clean only” can actually be hand-washed or washed on the gentlest setting in your washing machine. Before washing silk items for the first time, however, remember to check for colorfastness. If your silk clothing bleeds onto a white, damp cloth, you should consider taking it to the dry cleaners.

“If your silk clothing has an oil-based stain, do not apply water to the spot,” warns Mitchell. “Spot-clean it by trying to scrape off any remaining oil or residue, and apply a small amount of talcum powder to the stain. Afterwards, gently brush the powder away and proceed with gentle washing.” If your silks have sequins, beading, appliqués or other delicate embellishments, be sure to handle with care and take them to the dry cleaners (or spot-clean and hand-wash if necessary).

How To Dry Silk Clothing

The first thing to remember about drying silk clothing: never toss it into the dryer, and never expose it to direct sunlight. Heat can shrink silk pieces, and direct sunlight can cause fading (similarly to cotton fabrics). Lay silk clothing flat to dry or hang-dry, and remove any wrinkles with a steamer or iron.

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Saint Laurent Silk Embellished Jacket; Off-White Silk Jumpsuit; Louis Vuitton Silk Floral Shirt

Keep your silk clothing part of fashion’s circular economy by consigning. Consign a Saint Laurent silk bomber jacket and you could save 91.21 liters of water and 15.81 kilograms of carbon. You could also net $5,397. Being green has never been more stylish.

Clothing Care: How To Store Your Pieces Properly

Storing your clothes properly can elongate their lives, not to mention reduce the work of ironing or steaming when you want to wear them. “Because knits like T-shirts, cardigans and fitted dresses stretch, they can lose their shape over time when hung on a hanger,” explains Mitchell. “The looser the knit, the more susceptible it is to warping. For this reason, knits are best stored folded in a drawer. This also means that knits should ideally be laid flat to dry in order to help maintain their shape.” When putting away knitwear, limit the amount of delicate sweaters and shirts in one drawer to avoid creases.

“Woven clothing, on the other hand, holds its shape and is better stored on a hanger, especially to avoid wrinkling,” adds Mitchell. “Due to its durability, woven clothing can also be hung to dry.” When it comes to woven pieces, select the best hanger for the job by considering your fabrics. Choose velvet hangers for silk items that are prone to slipping off the hanger, and opt for wooden hangers when hanging structured cotton and silk clothes.

Wear, Care, Sell

Spending the additional effort to clean, dry and store your pieces correctly will pay off in the long run, especially when you’re ready to sell the pieces you no longer love. Clothing care can not only maximize resale value, but also increase the chances of selling faster. “Women’s clothing in excellent condition (showing no signs of wear) sells 31% faster than clothing in very good or good condition,” says Associate Merchandising Manager Hayley Purse. And don’t write off the clothing at the back of your closet with the tags still attached — pristine pieces sell 30% faster than all other conditions combined, and are priced 8% higher on average. “The better the condition, the better the sell-through and resale value.”

Men’s clothing is no exception to the rule. “Men’s clothing in pristine condition sells 10% faster than any items in excellent, very good and good condition combined, with pristine items priced 20% higher on average,” adds Senior Men’s Merchandising Manager Aaron McWilliams. “Items in excellent condition (that show no signs of wear) sell 15% faster than items in very good or good condition and are priced 10% higher on average.” Wear your pieces, give them the proper care and repeat… until you want to consign.

Clothing Care: How To Clean Cotton, Linen & Silk Sustainably (2024)


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