And other clothing care stories
“How often do you wash your jeans” was a question I asked on Instagram recently. And rarely has such a simple question created so much polarised discussion! The answers ranged from “every time I wear them” to “never”, with me falling somewhere in between and gaining a bit of paranoia about my somewhat cavalier attitude to bacteria.
But it’s a conversation I wanted to open because it’s not just the production of your clothes that has an impact on the environment. Once they’re in your care they use water, energy and (depending on the products you use) chemicals every time you wash them, with synthetics also releasing micro plastic particles, too. This, combined with the fact that the act of washing also contributes to the wear and tear of your garments, is why you’ll now find detailed care instructions with your new clothes when you buy from responsible fashion brands who want you to get as much use out of their designs as possible.
So are we all washing our clothes too much? And are there better ways of caring for our clothing that will make it last longer? The simple answer is, yes. I’m certainly not an expert in this area, but it’s something I’ve been rethinking and I wanted to share what I’ve been doing with you.
A figure you might have read a lot recently is that on average, a single pair of jeans uses 10,000 litres of water in its lifetime. This includes the water used to grow the cotton and during the dying processes (you can add more litres for methods like stone washing and distressing), the manufacturing, and finally the washing once they are with a customer.
(There are also many other issues surrounding the production of jeans, including the impact of harsh chemicals on both the environment and the garment workers, but that’s for another time)
Denim was originally designed to be a really hardwearing workwear fabric, so it can put up with a lot! And many – including the CEO of Levi’s, don’t believe they need washing at all. Of course, this all depends on what you are doing in your jeans, and what type of jeans you have. Anything with a stretch in it will behave differently; I personally prefer a really classic style – coincidentally most of mine are from Levi’s – which hold their shape better in my experience.
If you do need to wash your jeans, there are some things you can do to make them last longer. Turn them inside out to protect the colour – this is especially important with darker jeans. Don’t tumble dry your jeans – it’s best to let them air dry and hang them upside-down from the ankles. And if you do get a rip, consider a patch or some visible mending rather than giving up on your favourite pair.
Something else I don’t wash as often as I used to is knitwear, which is a double bonus because I have been known to shrink my favourite jumpers. It sounds obvious – but had to be pointed out to my husband – simply wearing a T-shirt under your jumper will save you a few washes because you won’t be wearing it right next to your skin (sometimes the simplest ideas are the best).
Natural fabrics really come into their own here, because wool has a thin waxy coating which gives it brilliant qualities. It’s antibacterial, stain resistant (spot washing works well because any dirt will be sitting on top of this wax) and temperature regulating, meaning it should keep you cool in summer and warm in winter (and therefore not sweat as much as you might in a synthetic fibre). It’s also really durable, so a 100% wool jumper is a win win – it doesn’t need much washing AND it should last much longer anyway.
The stuff you wear right next to your skin – underwear, socks and T-shirts – is obviously what you do still want to wash on a regular basis! And since washing will ultimately wear them out as much as wearing them does, it’s a good idea to invest in the best quality basics that your budget allows. Natural fibres are also great if you can manage it, but anything with a stretch will have synthetic fibres in so it’s a good idea to get a Guppyfriend bag which catches the micro fibres in the washing machine and prevents them entering the water system (many new washing machines now have filters that do this built in).
While we’re on the subject of washing, have a think about what you use to wash your clothes with. I switched to natural refills from my local zero waste shop but I have to say, I was a little disappointed with the lack of fragrance – I know that smells don’t make something clean, but I did miss it. I’ve since started using SMOL and I LOVE it! It’s all natural, the pouches are smaller (but they pack a big punch) so you’re putting less product down the drain, and they come on a subscription service. You sign up, tell them how often you do a wash, and then it arrives as it by magic in a recycled plastic packet that fits through your letterbox. Genius. I’ve also completely stopped using fabric conditioner because in my opinion, it’s completely pointless. It also often contains chemicals which are really damaging to the environment.
For those of you who remember pubs before the smoking ban, you’ll know that this law has made a real difference to how often you need to wash your clothes (and hair). But even 13 years later, if you’re washing less, you may well want a little refresh now and again. I started using a hand steamer a few years ago when I travelled a lot for fashion week, but I fell in love with it so much that we actually don’t own an ironing board anymore. Its added bonus is that it perks up clothes between washes, and helps with issues like seating. Mine is old now, but you can find similar ones for less than £30 easily online.
Of course, you might still pick up some smoke on your clothes, or food smells, so a spray before you steam will help with that. I’ve been using a lavender scented one from Norfolk Natural Living (which doubles as a moth repellent, so sometimes I’ll just spritz it over my entire wardrobe contents), or you could think about making your own.
For anyone worried about bacteria, a tried and tested trick is to put your jeans in the freezer (not tested by me yet I admit, but I had dozens of people message me to say they swear by it). Just pop them in a plastic bag in there overnight and you’ll kill off any nasties. Cashmere aficionados will also use this trick to kill moth eggs.
READ MORE: HOW TO LOAN YOUR WARDROBE
Of course, you can start caring for your clothes as soon as you get them by preventing certain things from happening to them at all. You’ve probably heard me harp on about spraying suede shoes but it’s really essential if you want to keep them looking good for as long as possible (you can read more about cleaning shoes here).
I’ve also had issues with moths in the past, but as well as the spray I mentioned earlier, I’ve invested in some cedar balls from Norfolk Natural Living. You could also try putting little bags of dried lavender in your drawers and wardrobes, which Monty Donn mentioned he remembered his grandmother doing when he was cutting back his lavender on Gardener’s World this week.
And something I hadn’t considered until very recently was the friction that happens inside your washing machine, which ultimately breaks down the fibres of your clothes. You can help reduce this by making sure you always have a full load – the less the clothes can move around, the less they will rub against each other.
I hope you find that useful! I’d love to know any tricks you use – leave comments below!