10 Laundry Must-Knows Before You Start

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Use this handy checklist to make sure your laundry turns out perfectly every time.

Gather Laundry

  • Read care label sewn into most garments. Label will specify at least one safe cleaning method for the garment. Label should also address how to handle buttons, lining, and/or decorative trim.
  • Separate items according to care instructions.
  • Remove items with "dry-clean only" labels. Set aside to take to a professional dry cleaner. Items labeled "hand-wash" should be washed by hand unless your washing machine includes a hand-wash cycle. (A delicates cycle is not the same as a hand-wash cycle.) Protect hand-wash items in a mesh bag.

Check for Colorfastness

  • The care label may address colorfastness. If not, test new items before washing to see if fabric color will bleed in the wash.
  • Find an inconspicuous seam or spot on the garment to test.
  • Moisten the test spot with water.
  • Rub the dampened area with a white cloth or cotton ball.
  • If color transfers, the item is not colorfast. Wash it separately or with like colors.
  • If color does not transfer, the item is safe to wash.

Sort by Color & Fabric

Sort clothes into categories by color, soil level, and fabric content. Each sorted pile becomes a wash load. As you’re sorting, note which items need to be mended or pretreated for stains. Use these suggested categories:

  • Whites and light colors
  • Bright colors (e.g. reds, pinks, oranges)
  • Dark colors
  • Extra-dirty garments
  • Lint-producing items (e.g. terry cloth towels)
  • Heavyweight clothes (e.g. denim jeans, sweatshirts)
  • Lightweight clothes
  • Permanent-press clothes

Prep Clothes to Prevent Problems

  • Check and empty all pockets, especially in children’s clothing. Turn pockets inside out.
  • Zip up all zippers. Fasten hooks. Tie drawstrings. Unroll cuffs. Unbutton buttons.
  • Turn corduroy garments, T-shirts with decals, and embroidered garments inside out to preserve appearance.
  • Repair split seams, sagging hems, loose buttons, and other problems that water and agitation will worsen.

Pretreat Stains

  • Check the care labels for information.
  • Identify sources of stains as best you can.
  • Treat stains according to their source using laundry detergent or an appropriate stain remover, following package instructions. For smart tips and techniques for getting rid of specific stains, refer to our handy stain-removal chart, available below.
  • Soak really dirty clothes for 20-30 minutes in soapy water before washing.

Get our free stain-removal chart.

Measure & Add Detergent

Note that traditional agitator washers and detergents are designed to clean clothes using high volumes of water. High-efficiency washers use low water volumes and, therefore, need high-efficiency detergents. Consult detergent packages for general guidelines. Measure accurately.

  • Hard water requires a bit more detergent than soft water.
  • The dirtier the clothes, the more detergent is needed, but don't overdo it.
  • You are using too much detergent if soap suds remain at the end of the cycle. Add an extra rinse cycle to help get rid of detergent residue. Use only half as much detergent for the next load. If clothes are not clean enough, increase the amount of detergent per load a little at a time until you are satisfied with the results. Mark the measuring cup for future loads.
  • Dispense bleach appropriately to prevent clothing damage. For a standard top-load washer, add bleach and detergent to wash water; add laundry. For high-efficiency, front-loading washers, fill dispenser before adding laundry and water. 

Adding Detergent by Machine-Type

  • For top-load machines: Pour in detergent first, before adding clothes and filling with water.
  • For front-load machines: Only use detergents and fabric softeners that are compatible with front-loaders. Add liquid detergent before loading clothes and filling with water. Pour to the fill line of the detergent receptacle, or use the recommended detergent amount. Handle the fabric-softener compartment and bleach dispenser in the same manner.

Load the Machine

  • Loosely spread laundry evenly around the tub, placing heavier objects on bottom and lighter ones on top (if load contains both).
  • Add laundry no higher than the top of the agitator in a top-loader.
  • Add laundry until the tub is full (as long as clothes are only minimally compressed) in a front-loader.
  • Close the lid or door. 

Determine the Time & Cycle

Most loads of laundry can be satisfactorily cleaned with a wash time of about six minutes. Dirtier clothes require a longer wash cycle. Consult the owner’s manual for specific instructions on how to set dials or electronic controls on your washing machine. If you do not have access to specific instructions, use these basic guidelines:

  • Use the delicate wash cycle for washing lingerie, loose-woven fabrics, silks, wool, embroidered and embellished fabrics, lace curtains, and baby items.
  • Use the permanent-press wash cycle if you want to combine a basic wash with a delicate spin cycle. This choice works well for knits and heavier fabrics, such as polyester or flannel.
  • Use the regular wash cycle for cottons, T-shirts, denim, sweat suits, towels, and other soiled items that require a strong cleaning routine. 

Determine the Temperature

Consult the owner’s manual for specific instructions on setting water temperature. If you do not have access to specific instructions, use these basic guidelines:

  • Hot water (120 degrees F): Choose hot water to kill bacteria and keep whites bright.
  • Warm water (90-110 degrees F): Choose warm water to keep colors bright while protecting fabrics.
  • Cold water (below 85 degrees F): Choose cold water for dark colors, delicate fabrics, and the final rinse cycle.

Start the machine. Let it complete the wash, rinse, and spin cycles before opening the lid or door and unloading clothing. Shake clothing before hanging to air-dry or drying in a clothes dryer.

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