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Laundry School: Getting To Know Your Machines

I’m totally overwhelmed, in the best way possible, by the response to last week’s Laundry School column. I mean, I figured it would be a good thing to do and that you would certainly have questions; I just didn’t expect anywhere near the number of comments, emails, and tweets I got! Holy cow! You really and truly are my people.

In fact, after sifting through the pile of queries, it looks like we’re going to have to make this a month-long course. There’s a lot of ground to cover! I’ve sorted your questions into four general categories: machines, products, stains & smells, and potpourri. I’ll take them on in that order, so that the series will build on itself.


A few more notes on form before we begin: Generally, Ask a Clean Person does a deep dive into one question, providing what is almost always an overly thorough explanation of why and how the cleaning conundrum at hand occurred, several techniques and products you can use to correct the problem, and tips for preventing something similar from happening in the future.

Laundry School will be much less in-depth on each subject, in order to allow us to get through more of your questions on the aforementioned broader topics. When necessary or available, I’ll provide links to further reading for those of you who crave the traditional AaCP experience.

Onward to your questions. Oh my God, I’m so excited.

I have a question about hand-washing, particularly for those of us in apartments: how? Medical-grade compression garments and Mom-made sweaters are the two important items for me.


Yes! One of my friends, who is also one of my editors, recently asked me this very thing when we were out: “Jolie, where is this hand-washing taking place?” I’ll tell you what I told her: I prefer the kitchen sink for hand washing, but it is largely a matter of what is convenient for you given your living situation. The bathtub, bathroom sink (if large enough), a utility sink, or a utility bucket are also good options. This is also true of pre-soaking heavily soiled items, which we’ll talk about in greater detail in the third installment of Laundry School, with one addition: If you have your own washing machine, you can do pre-soaking right in the drum by stopping the cycle after the machine fills with water, and then restarting after your soaking time is up.

Once you’ve hit upon the right place for your hand washing, the steps are fairly straightforward. Quick version: Fill your washing bin with water, add detergent and/or laundry boosters, agitate and soak the item, rinse, air dry. The longer, more detailed version of this process was included in the post on laundering a beloved stuffed animal.


Since you specifically mentioned your medical-grade compression garments, here’s a recent post on washing slings and braces for you to check out. For more on sweater care, check out this OG AaCP on The Hairpin and this one from my Jezebel days.

Is it ever okay to hand wash or gentle cycle, cold-water wash something with care instructions that say “dry clean only”? If so, how can I tell? I have two grey cotton T-shirts that say “dry clean only,” and dry cleaning just seems like way too much work for cotton T-shirts.


Oh yes, it sure is okay! Most items labeled “dry clean only” can be safely hand washed, or machine washed using a gentle cycle. This is even true of silks, though those are usually so pesty that I think most people just send them to the dry cleaners for the sake of ease, and that is absolutely fine to do.

Two recommendations if you’re going to hand- or machine-wash dry-clean-only items. First, look into some specialty detergents: In the case of your fine cottons, a product made for use on delicates is recommended. The Laundress makes a great (if insanely expensive) one; Caldrea is another good option, as is Eucalan. And secondly: Avoid the dryer and opt instead to air-dry your dry-clean-only items.

What do I do with things I can’t machine wash? I’m totally lost without modern laundry technology. I specifically have a baseball cap that has some sweat stains on it. How would I wash it? Thanks!


You can either hand wash or dry clean items that can’t go into the machine. Easy peasy! Follow those hand-washing instructions I mentioned and linked to upcolumn. In terms of your specific question, check out this older post for the options available to you when it comes to washing a ballcap. (Don’t skip the comments! Lots of additional tips down thar.)

Is it bad to leave my stuff wet in the washing machine during the day, then throw it into the dryer when I get home from work? I do this all the time, but suspect this is not healthy for my clothes.


This is fine! I mean, look, it’s not ideal, but I live here in the real world with the rest of you, and as long as you’re not noticing a mildew smell developing, if you need to leave the clothes in the washing machine for a few hours in the interest of time management, go for it. If you do start to get a whiff of mildew, don’t sweat it—just rewash the load with a cup of white vinegar (no detergent), which will remove the smell from your laundry, as well as your machine.

I have some towels that I suspect were wet and left in a pile of laundry too long. They smell like mold and mildew. I have washed them several times, but I can’t get the stench out. How can I get this awful smell out of these items?


Oh sure, same thing as I told the fellow who came right before you: Rewash the towels with a cup of white vinegar and without detergent, preferably using hot water, which will be fine, since we’re talking about towels.

Now then, I included this question even though it’s pretty close to the one preceding it because I also want to say that it may be that the machine itself has taken on a mildew odor that’s causing the towels to come out of the wash smelling funky. If that’s the case, you should give the machine a cleaning by running a cup or two of white vinegar through an empty hot-water wash cycle. Which brings us nicely to ...

I bought a brand-new front-load washing machine a couple months ago, and I am already getting the bad smell that is common in front loaders. What is the best way and/or products to use to clean the tub and the drainage tubes?


Ah yes, the dreaded HE smell. For the uninitiated, High Efficiency (HE) washing machines are prone to developing a sour, mildew-y smell, which is generally caused by the use of too much detergent. Because HE machines use significantly less water than standard washers, overdosing your detergent will leave soap residue, particularly in the rubber gasket that seals the door shut, which will in turn lead to mildew. To get rid of it, wipe the gasket down thoroughly using a rag soaked in white vinegar. Then dry it very well, and leave the door ajar to allow air to circulate. (Some cleaning experts recommend the use of bleach, though I prefer that you not use it, lest residue come in contact with your clothes and cause color loss. But! You can make that choice for yourself.)

To cut back on the recurrence of smells, reduce the amount of detergent you’re using in each load and be sure that you’re using a detergent made for HE machines. The American Cleaning Institute warns us to be careful of detergents claiming to be “HE Compatible,” which are regular sudsing detergents that are different from products that can correctly be called HE detergents.


It’s also crucial, when it comes to HE washers that are smell-prone, to leave the door ajar after each wash to allow the machine to dry out.

Thank you for explaining permanent press on the dryer cycle! Could you also explain what permanent press means on the washer cycle?


Sure thing! There are three separate cycle-type things to consider when it comes to washing cycles: water temperature, cycle length, and cycle speed.

Water temperature refers to your basic cold, warm, and hot options. We talked about that last week, so I won’t revisit.


Cycle length is just what it sounds like: how long the machine is going to be on. Heavily soiled and bulkier items should get a longer cycle, while less soiled and delicate clothing should get a shorter cycle.

Cycle speed is what things like regular, permanent press, and delicate cycles refer to, and have to do with the speed and force at which your clothes are agitated in the wash. A regular cycle is fast/fast, meaning that both the washing and the spin cycle, which extrudes water from the clothes post-rinsing, are fast. Permanent press is a fast/slow cycle, meaning that the wash cycle is fast, but the spin cycle is slow, which is the best choice for fabrics like rayon or polyester. Much like its dryer counterpart, permanent press on a washing machine will reduce wrinkles because of the slower spin cycle. The delicate cycle is a slow/slow cycle, and the one that should be used for fine or delicate fabrics, or items with embellishments.


For more on washing-machine cycle and setting definitions—especially for the specialty settings like Steam Treatment or Sanitary Cycles that are found on newer machines—this post on Mama’s Laundry Talk is well organized and thorough without being overwhelming.

What is your stance on putting in the detergent first (at the bottom) versus last (on top of the clothes)? I use liquid detergent, if that makes a difference.


The use of liquid detergent does make a difference, so thank you for mentioning that. It does not, however, make the difference! The difference you really need to think about when it comes to when and how detergent is added to the machine has to do with what kind of machine you have.

A top-loader, which is what I already know you have based on your question, has a lid on top of the machine and (usually!) a center agitator. In the case of a top-loader, the best practice is to put the detergent in first, then the clothes. If you use a powdered detergent, you may also want to start the cycle before you add the clothes, so that the water can begin to fill and dissolve the detergent, which will prevent soap buildup from forming on your clothes. This is far less of a concern with liquid detergents. Also, if you have a top-loader and your habit is to add the detergent on top of the clothes, I want to assure you that you’re not going to be whisked away by the Laundry Police or anything. It’s not that great a crime.


If you have a front-loading machine, on the other hand, there will be a compartment for adding detergent and laundry boosters like oxygenated bleach or bluing, and you should use that. If you use detergent pods in a front-loading situation, however, the pods can go directly into the drum of the machine.

That’ll do it on our discussion of washers and dryers, though you should of course feel free to ask me more questions about your machines, as I can always get to them in future columns. If you have questions related to the three upcoming topics (products, stains & smells, potpourri), please email them to me at using the subject line LAUNDRY SCHOOL.


Class dismissed!

Jolie Kerr is Deadspin’s resident cleaning expert and the author of the book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (Plume). Follow her onTwitter, or email her:


Illustration by Sam Woolley.

Adequate Man is Deadspin’s new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.


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