Every garment will wear out after repeated wearing and washing. On average, an item of clothing lasts around five years before being thrown away.
However, disposing of clothing, both used and unworn, usually carries an environmental cost. The global fashion industry is estimated to generate 92 million tonnes of textile waste each year, and the UK alone dumps 350,000 tonnes of clothing into landfill. Textile deterioration in landfill sites releases greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
Much of this waste could be prevented if we wore our clothes for longer. There is no way to make your clothes last forever, and their durability does to a degree depend on the quality of their fabric and how well they are made. But, if you want your wardrobe to last as long as possible, looking after your clothes properly can make a difference. One study found, for example, that with the correct care, you can double the lifespan of a jumper from seven years, on average, to almost 15.
This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.
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Clothes come with various care instructions on labels sewn into the garment. These symbols tell you all you need to know about how to wash, dry, bleach and iron your clothes. Understanding them will allow you to clean and care for your clothing correctly.
So, here’s how to decode your clothing care labels.
1. Washing care
The washing care label includes symbols that indicate whether you should machine wash, hand wash or dry clean the garment.
The machine wash symbol – a washtub – specifies the recommended maximum wash temperature as a number within the symbol. This is usually 30, 40, 50 or 60℃. If the washtub symbol has a cross through it, don’t put the garment in the washing machine.
A symbol of a hand reaching into the washtub indicates that the garment is delicate and should be hand-washed only. Hand washing is typically gentler than machine washing, so avoids agitating and stretching fragile fibres. But it is still essential to use a mild detergent and cold water when washing by hand, to avoid damaging the garment.
Many hand-washed garments will also have a twisted knot symbol with a cross over it. This indicates that you should not wring or twist the washed item, to prevent the fabric’s fibres from becoming stretched or distorted.
Dry cleaning is a specialised cleaning process that uses chemical solvents to remove dirt and stains from fabrics. It is important to dry clean some fabrics, such as silks, as they may shrink, fade or become damaged if machine- or hand-washed.
The most common dry clean symbol is shown as a circle with a P inside. This indicates that your dry cleaner must not use Trichloroethylene in the cleaning process. Trichloroethylene is a toxic chemical that can cause health problems including headaches, nausea, liver damage and even death.
2. Bleaching care
Triangular symbols tell you whether you can use bleach when cleaning the garment. Bleach is a powerful chemical that can cause discoloration or permanent damage to some fabrics.
An empty triangle means you can use any bleach (including chlorine) to clean the garment. A triangle intersected by two diagonal lines means use only non-chlorine bleach.
A cross over the triangle means that no bleach should be used on the garment. If this is the case and the garment has stains that cannot be removed with regular washing, you could apply a pre-wash stain remover – but check first that this stain remover is safe for the fabric.
3. Drying care
Drying your clothes incorrectly can increase the risk of shrinking, stretching or damaging their fabric – shortening the lifetime of your clothes. One study found that fabric breakdown was responsible for 29% of physical failure in clothes discarded by their owners.
So before you toss all of your clothes into the tumble drier together, consult the drying care symbols. A circle within a square tells you it’s okay to dry the garment in a tumble drier. If there is a cross through this symbol, then don’t tumble dry the item.
There are several other drying options for when tumble drying is not appropriate. A square with a curved line at the top, for example, says you can hang the garment on a line to dry. But if the square has a line inside, you should lay the garment flat to dry.
4. Ironing care
Clothes are ironed to remove creases. Some fabrics require a specific iron temperature or technique, so you should always check the clothing label for any specific ironing instructions.
The ironing care icons are the most intuitive of all the clothing care symbols. They are the outline of a clothing iron, and indicate the maximum ironing temperature via dots.
An iron with one dot means you should iron the garment at a low temperature, and applies to garments made with synthetic acetate and acrylic fabrics. Two dots mean you should iron the garment on a medium heat, and suits garments made from polyester, satin and wool. Three dots indicate that it is safe to iron the garment at a high temperature, and applies to fabrics including linen, cotton and denim.
Understanding how to care for your clothes can improve the longevity of your wardrobe. By carefully following the instructions on the labels, you’ll not only save yourself money, but also help to minimise the fashion industry’s environmental footprint.