Ask a Clean Person: There’s No Laundry Care Tag. EVERYBODY PANIC.

My dear boyfriend just got back from Afghanistan (hooray!) and brought with him many fun presents. Among which was a burqa for me. It’s half-ly a keepsake gift, but is also very beautifully embroidered and I think it is wonderful and would like to keep it nearer to me than in the back of a drawer. However, it smells very strongly of sandalwood maybe? I really have no idea. Being that it was made for domestic consumption, it also lacks a laundering tag, and I have no idea what material it’s made out of. Definitely not cotton or silk. Maybe polyester? Again, no idea.

So, short question after a long explanation — do I really have to be that girl who brings a burqa to the dry cleaners or is there some way for me to de-scent it at home?

This is such a neat question! And actually, more common than you’d imagine, in that quite often we find ourselves with an item of clothing sorely lacking in a laundry instructions tag. And I have two answers for you, both of which are blessedly simple.

The first solution will serve to pull smell out of clothes that you don’t know how to wash; however, it will not actually clean the garment, so if you’re also interested in giving it a thorough washing skip straight ahead to solution #2. For those of you who are still with me, there are these really cool activated charcoal thingamabobs that work GREAT for pulling odors out of stuff that stinks.

In order to use it, place the burqa in an oversized ziploc bag or a sealable plastic container, along with the charcoal insert and leave it for a few days. When you take it out, the smell should be neutralized.

The second option is to handwash it in cool or cold water and a small amount of a gentle detergent; truth be told, there aren’t many fabrics that will balk at that sort of treatment. In the case of the item you’re working with, since smell is an issue, you may also want to add either baking soda or vinegar. PLEASE NOTE THE ‘OR’ IN THAT SENTENCE. While we do love ourselves some baking soda and vinegar volcanoes, in this scenario that’s not what you’re aiming for, so choose one or the other. If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion, white vinegar is a better choice here because you mentioned that the garment is embroidered, in which case the vinegar will also serve to set any dyes that may be tempted to run.

Okay so, our basic handwashing instructions go something like this:

Step 1. The best place to do your handwashing is in kitchen sink (CLEAN THE SINK FIRST), though the tub or bathroom sink will also work. Or a bucket. Mostly you just need a place where you can create a standing body of water. Do not, however, flood your kitchen while laundering items in your sink the way, ahem, I may or may not have done this week. (Ever wonder how I know how to do all this stuff? Because I am a disaster of a human being who NEEDS to know how to do all this stuff!)

Step 2. Plug the drain, begin filling the sink with cool water and a mild detergent of your choosing. You don’t need or want to use a lot of detergent; a teaspoon up to a tablespoon will do it. Now add in the item in need of washing and let it sit in its bubble bath for 10 or so minutes.

Step 3. Next, you’ll want to go in and gently press on it just a bit, while submerged, to help release any dirt trapped in the fabric. Then drain your wash water, plug the drain and refill the sink with clean water before re-submerging the garment and agitating it a bit to release the soap. You may find you need to do this twice.

Step 4. To dry, you’ll first want to gently squeeze out as much water as you can while the item is still in the sink, being careful not to wring or otherwise get too rough in your handling of the fabric. Then lay out a clean towel and place the wet item on it, then roll the towel up in order to squeeze more water out. The final step is to reshape the garment and allow to dry either flat or on a drying rack.

That’s it really! If a smell is particularly strong, you may choose to do a combination of the two processes, beginning with the charcoal insert followed by a handwashing. But! It’s up to you to use your good judgement on that one.

And finally, I speak for myself and the rest of the gang here at The Hairpin in saying that we’re so thrilled your boyfriend is home safe and sound! Hooray indeed!

In the process of following some (in hindsight, not-so-great) online tips for getting greasy lip balm off silk, I caused a huge, fairly noticeable water stain on a brand-new handmade silk cocktail dress. According to the dry cleaner to which I brought the dress, they can’t do anything, and the only thing to do is to soak the whole dress in water with a little non-bio detergent, rinse it, and let it dry. The dry cleaner cautioned, however, that this process might shrink the dress or change its texture by making it stiffer or less shiny.

I’m a bit terrified of further damaging the dress, especially its current beautiful lightness and sheen, by following these instructions, because the dress was handmade in Hanoi through a social enterprise student organization that works with several Vietnamese tailoring co-operatives. (The bespoke dresses help pay for a tailoring school for economically vulnerable women, which is awesome!)

There aren’t any manufacturer instructions to provide any hints as to what else I could do. How do I get rid of the water stain without further proving that I shouldn’t have nice things, especially beautiful ‘30s-inspired teal silk cocktail dresses? I feel horribly guilty for maybe already having permanently damaged the fanciest thing I’ve ever bought before I’ve even worn it once. Help!

Okay first of all hi hello may I also please have a bespoke ‘30s-inspired teal silk cocktail dress? Because I’m not actually even sure how I’ve managed to live this long without such a thing in my life.

But I have a job to do, and so it’s my pleasure to tell you that the dry cleaner gave you good advice. Yes, you might sacrifice a bit but overall the dress will still be wearable. (I do so love it when a question arrives in my inbox with information that can be useful to others. Plus: less work for me!)

I do, however, have a couple of li’l tips for you:

  • Only use a very, very, very small amount of detergent. Like, a teaspoon. If you can get your hands on a product made for silk, even better. Here’s one silk-specfic detergent that’s good; I’m not sure if you’ll be able to get it in the UK but is at least a good jumping off point.
  • When you’re ready to rinse the dress, add a tablespoon of white vinegar to the water, which will help to prevent the silk from taking on a matte finish.
  • Don’t soak the dress too long; you really want to make this a quick process. Also maintain a single water temp — either cold or lukewarm — as silk doesn’t react well to temperature changes.
  • You can use a steamer on a very low setting, held at a safe distance from the dress to prevent further water damage, to help restore the softness/feel.

Now then! Are any of you guys interested in learning more about the organization from which LW ordered her pretty dress? Because I sure was! So I asked her for a bit more which I’m sharing with you all.

The group is called Alora, and it’s run by students at Cambridge University. I think they have mostly or only sold gowns to Cambridge students, but maybe there are a few ‘Pinners here who might want to take advantage of it next year. To get a dress, you book a slot at a fitting — they hold several a year, in both Michaelmas [Fall] and Lent [Winter] term — to work out a design and get measured, the students develop a sketch and translate the measurements and design into Vietnamese, and then the pattern cutters, tailors, and embroiderers take over. About 40% of the price students pay goes toward the training school and/or funds the education of 3 trainee tailors. This page explains specifically where (and to whom!) the money goes. It’s a pretty brilliant idea, and it seems to be working out well so far — they sold about 60 gowns this spring, if I remember correctly!

Doesn’t that sound so fantastic?? (Also: MICHAELMAS *SHOVES FIST IN MOUTH TO STOP THE SCREAMING*) Do you all know of similar organizations Stateside? Let us know in the comments! (Oof. It’s the first time I’ve ever written that and now I feel dirty. Which is an unusual feeling for me?)

Previously: Cleaning Air Conditioners and Fans

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?