Ask a Clean Person: Laundry School Is In Session!

Get out your notebooks, sharpen your pencils, hone your note-passing skills: Laundry School is in session! We’re devoting the entire month of May to the subject of laundry. And what fun would Laundry School be if you couldn’t backtalk the teacher, right? So! The Twitter hashtag for this is #LAUNDRYSCHOOL. If you follow me on Twitter (@joliekerr) you can holler at me when you do your laundry! Or lemme see those beautiful piles of folded clothes! Or ask questions! Or tweet at me in emergency situations! Or maybe you just really, really, really need to talk to me about how folding a fitted sheet sends you into fits of rage. This is me, being here for you. And because I try to be here for you in as many ways as possible, I’ve started a pinboard devoted entirely to laundry to serve as a reference source. Most importantly: got questions? Ask away!

This is painfully 101-level, but would you be willing to go through the basics of what can and cannot be washed and/or dried with what? After years of sending my laundry out I’m going to be moving to a place where I can take charge of my laundry situation, which is weirdly exciting and also a little daunting. I know you’re supposed to separate the bejesus out of everything, but who reaaaally has the time? Can towels be washed with certain types of clothes, or absolutely never? In which situations is cold/hot water preferable? So many questions!

I would be more than willing to go through the basics of laundry, of course! I mean, who loves gabbing about laundry more than me? Maybe the Maytag Man, but we all know that guy’s a close-talking pervert. Plus I’ve got wine.

Right then, the basics of “how?????” go like this:


Separate the laundry into lights and darks; in general, you’ll want to wash them separately so that the darks don’t bleed onto the lights, and also because darks will take cold water, which helps to reduce fading. In terms of what items can be washed together, here’s a basic overview of what needs special handling and what things don’t play nicely together:

  • Towels can be washed with anything cotton — so t-shirts, socks, cotton or flannel PJs, sweats, sheets and so on are all fair game.
  • Gym clothes — anything with lycra or spandex — hate towels and fleece, so don’t mix those things if you can avoid it. Similarly, if you wash your hosiery (nylons, tights, leggings, etc.) do so separately from towels and other lint-heavy items.
  • Jeans can be turned inside out to help protect the integrity of the color.
  • Delicates — bras, your finer panties, fancy nighties, etc. — shouldn’t go in the dryer. If you must put them in the dryer, use a lingerie bag and the lowest heat setting available.
  • Hosiery can be machine washed and dried, though handwashing is preferable, in a protective mesh bag.


Put a load of laundry into the machine and add the detergent of your choice. Most detergents come with a cup designed to serve as a measure of how much to use, as well as instructions about the circumstances under which you should use different amounts, so you’ll want to check those out before proceeding. You might be tempted to use extra detergent to get things “extra” clean. Do not do this. Terrible things happen to people who use too much detergent. Don’t believe me? Go on, try it out. I dare you.

Cycle Selection

Once the detergent is in, you need to select your cycle and your water temperature. Unless you’re doing a special load, the “regular cycle” will work just fine. As for water temperature, in general you want to use cold water for darks and hot or warm water for lights, though increasingly there’s a movement toward using cold water for everything. They’re even making special cold water detergents! My rule of thumb, for whatever it’s worth, is this: hot for my whites because my whites are my sheets and towels and if I could boil them in a cauldron I would, and cold for my clothes, which are mostly on the darker side. (I throw my white clothes — mostly tanks that I sleep or exercise in — in with the sheets and towels.)


When the wash cycle is complete, you’ll transfer your laundry from the washer to the dryer, removing anything that you want to let drip dry. If you’re a person who likes dryer sheets, go ahead and toss one in. Just don’t use them with your towels because they create a coating that makes towels less absorbent. (I abhor liquid fabric softener in a profound way and so I will not speak of it here. If you like it, fine. Let’s just treat it like religion and politics and agree not to discuss it at the dinner table.) If you’re worried that your towels won’t get properly fluffed without the aid of fabric softener, I would suggest investing in a set of dryer balls. I have these and I absolutely adore them. Turn the dryer on to the appropriate setting — use medium or low for your darks because of the fading properties of heat — and time. 30 minutes should about do it for a normal-sized load of laundry, but every machine is different, and you may need some trial and error. Bulkier and heavier-weight items will need more drying time.


You should fold your clothes as quickly as possible post-dryer removal to help prevent wrinkling. I find that taking a minute to separate my clothes by type (underpants, gym clothes, tees, etc.) before I begin my folding process makes things go so much faster because all like-things are folded together, and then also those like-things are stacked together in the laundry bag, making life a lot easier come putting-away time.

Okay so those are the basics! But would you like to learn some lingo? Yeah, I bet you would. Okay:

Top loader: these are the washing machines with the lids on top that flip upwards. You’ll add the detergent directly into the machine, either before you put the clothes in or on top of them (the former is recommended but the latter is fine). If you’re really persnickety and have time to kill, you can wait to add the detergent when the tub begins to fill up with water. I am really persnickety and have time to kill and even I don’t do this, but you should have all the facts before making such an important personal choice.

Front loader: these are the ones with the see-through door on the frontface of the machine that opens outward. There’s a compartment, usually on the top of the machine, into which you’ll put the detergent.

Hand washing: washing that you do by hand. It’s a good thing you have me here to explain that!

Hot water: best for whites.

Warm water: fair game for all, good for the wishy washy among us.

Cold water: best for darks.

Tumble dry: a no-heat dry cycle, good for delicates or items that are prone to shrinking.

Delicate or low-heat dry: best for items with spandex or other forms of elastic, as well as for delicate cotton and wool.

Permanent press: a medium-heat dry cycle with a cool down period at the end designed to reduce wrinkling.

Regular: the highest heat setting, best reserved for hearty items like jeans, sheets, and towels.

Got other terms you want explained? Email or tweet at me and I’ll make sure I get to them.

I am A Terrible Person who doesn’t always sort her darks and whites. (I will never, ever have a full load of whites. Does anyone else have this problem?) So, of course, the three articles of light-colored clothing I own are dingy and gross. Any tips for un-dinging?

And I promise (PROMISE!) that from now on I’ll only ever hand-wash my three white things or carpool (washing machine-pool?) with a friend.

May the Lord have mercy on your soul. (I have it on good authority that the Lord does not take kindly to those who don’t separate their darks and whites.)

Naw, I’m just kidding, you’ll be just fine. Just go ahead and give your dingy whites a handwashing with a product intended to brighten them. A few things to try out: there’s always our old pal OxiClean, a scoop of which can get tossed into a sink with warm water, to provide a lovely soaking bath for your clothes that need un-dinging. A 30 minute soak will go a long way in brightening things up. Similarly, you could treat your whites to a short soak in some bluing, which will give whites an ever-so-slight blue cast that makes them appear whiter. You can also give them a bleach solution bath! A small capful of bleach to a sinkful of water will be enough.

Going forward, if you can’t manage to washing machine-pool with a friend (which I actually do! But my bestie lives across the hall from me so it’s a little easier to just holler at him, “Maaaatt! Do you have any whites that need doing? I’m bleaching today!”) there are two things you might want to try out. The first is vinegar, which helps to set dye, which in turn will help prevent color from leeching out of your darker clothes onto your lighter ones. Then there’s this nifty Shout product called Color Catcher, which comes highly recommended by friends of mine who have used it. It traps loose dye before it can get all up into other fabrics.

In my apartment, we throw dirty dishtowels and napkins into a wire basket where they sit and fester until someone does laundry. Today, that someone was me, and the dirty kitchen cloths were exceptionally foul. I obviously don’t feel TOO strongly about this, since I have been throwing these foul towels in with my sheets and other items that touch my body for a while now, but I am wondering if there is a better system that could be put in place? Washing them separately is not an option, the closest laundromat also happens to be the most expensive one in the world. Should I rinse the gunk off before the towels go in the basket? My guess is no, because then they’ll sit in a wet pile and become stinkier. Should I rinse them before adding them with my laundry? That sounds like a lot of (gross) work. Please help me to not feel like my clothes are being covered in coffee grounds and cleaning spray.

GOD YES THE DEALING WITH CLEANING RAGS WHEN ONE DOESN’T HAVE A WASHING MACHINE OF ONES OWN AHHHHHHHHH. It’s really so, so frustrating! I totally hear you; I’ve survived every possible washing machine situation — shared, my own, basement coin-ops, laundromat — and absolutely feel you on the question of how to handle filthy rags when you can’t dedicate an entire wash cycle to horribly grimy things. The good news here is that after spending time (and money!) exploring different methods, including just chucking nasty rags in with my towels and such, I’ve found one that works pretty well for me and will hopefully work well for you too.

But first: it’s worth saying off the bat that when it comes right down to it, it’s not the worst thing in the world to wash cleaning rags along with your clothes. Machine washing is pretty serious business, with multiple suds-ing and rinsing cycles — more or less no matter what you put in, dirt-wise, things are going to come out clean. With that said, it’s also not the worst thing in the world to not wash cleaning rags along with your clothes, or at least not without a little bit of TLC first. There are two reasons for this (1) that’s a lot of narsty dirt rubbin’ up on your things and (2) those rags are holding on to whatever cleaning solutions you used to, um, clean and that will come out, as they say, in the wash. Which isn’t always a super great thing, especially if you’ve used anything containing bleach or wax (like furniture spray).

But enough preambling! Let’s talk answers. The happy medium I’ve set upon between just chucking my rags in with the rest of the wash and treating them to their very own pay-to-play bath is this: plug the kitchen sink, fill it up with SUPER HOT water and a splurt of dishwashing soap, toss those rags in and swirl to create bubbles/agitate some of the grime out of the towels. Then leave them to soak for ten or so minutes — go ahead and use this time to sort your laundry and pull out your detergents and spot treat various and sundry protein stains and such — before going back in and giving everything a good underwater smooshing to release more dirt. Then drain the sink and rinse the rags with clean water. You don’t need to be overly precious with this process since you’re going to launder them again in the machine. We’re really just looking to rinse them of loose dirt and excess cleaning products. Wring them out, toss them in your laundry heap and proceed as you usually would.

Hi Joles, a blue sweater I was washing bled onto my whites. What do I do to fix this? XXX, Mom

Mostly I threw this in because I know you like it when Mother of Clean Person makes an appearance. (She likes it too! Happy Mother’s Day, Mommy!!)

But also this is a thing that happens to the best of us (red sock hiding up in the corners of a fitted sheet whaaaa???) and if/when it does, here’s what to do: fill the sink with cold water, put all the whites in with a bunch of OxiClean and sort of swirl/agitate it then let it soak. If there are stained splotches rub the areas that are splotched (“Splotched, Jolie?” “Uch, you know what I mean. Do you want to get the stain out or do you want to stand here giving me lip?”) with a little extra Oxi. As long as you don’t dry anything you should be able to get the color out without too much problem.

The same technique will also work with regular old laundry detergent and even with dishsoap, if that’s all you’ve got on hand. The key here is really just to get the stained item into a soaking tub as soon as you can and for the love of Billy Mays DO NOT PUT STAINED ITEMS IN THE DRYER.

When one of you writes to me that you woke up in a sweat because you had a nightmare in which you put stained items in the dryer, I’ll know my work here is done. Until then….

Previously: Dude, Where’s My Coach?

Jolie Kerr is not paid to endorse any of the products mentioned in this column, but she sure would be very happy to accept any free samples the manufacturers care to send her way! Are you curious to know if she’s answered a question you have? Do check out the archives, listed by topic. More importantly: is anything you own dirty?