“Basically, in life, rule of thumb: if you don’t absolutely have to clean anything, don’t clean it.” This is what British designer Stella McCartney, well known for her environment-friendly fashion choices, declared in an interview with the Observer,thus sparking up the debate on whether we really need to wash our clothes, or not. McCartney explained she took a cue from the legendary tailors on London’s Savile Row she used to work for as a young girl. In their prestigious workshops, the rule was: “let the dirt dry and you brush it off”.
Her words resonated with many British readers, especially with the fondest fans of washing machines. What if McCartney was right? This is not the first time that the designer has recommended not washing our clothes. She has actually been fighting against the use of washing machines for years, both to improve the longevity of clothes and to avoid catastrophic environmental impacts.BBC also spoke to Laura Díaz Sánchez, from the Plastic Soup Foundation, who agrees with McCartney, especially when garments to be machine-washed come from big fast fashion chains, and contain more synthetic materials such as polyester and acrylic. “Every time we wash our clothes an average of nine million plastic microfibers are released into the environment”, she told BBC News. “The way we wash our clothes affects this, as well as the way our clothes are made – but the more we wash our clothes, the more microfibers are released.”
Díaz Sánchez recommends using low-temperature programs and liquid detergents. “Powder detergent creates more friction between the clothes during washing, so more fibers are released, whereas liquid is smoother. The less friction there is in general, the fewer fibers are released.” For the same reason, it is better not to overload the drum. But this is not just a matter of plastic microfibers. Washing items of clothing can often shorten their lifespan too.
Professor Andrew Groves, head of the fashion design course at the University of Westminster, told BBC that friction in washing machines removes stains, but also changes clothes colors and shapes. “I have garments in my wardrobe that I’ve had for decades that look brand new, simply because I know how to care for them,” he explained, adding that the same applies both to luxury and high-street fashion. The better you care for your clothes, the longer they last, he added, and the more sustainable fashion is.
This is especially true of lingerie. “Iwouldn’t change my bra every day”, McCartney told the Observer. And lingerie designer Naomi De Haan agrees. Ms De Haan’s official advice to her brand’s customers is to wash their bras in lukewarm water with mild liquid detergents after wearing them for five times. As De Haan explained, this rule can often apply to low-cost bras as well, but not to sports bras, which need to be washed more often. “Machine washing can destroy things like delicate lace or silks. It can also make the wires pop out, it can make the colors fade, and if it’s got a molded cup it can make it go all misshapen.”
If machine washing cannot be avoided, “always do up the hook and eyes to stop any snagging, use a lingerie bag, don’t wash with too much heat, and reshape when it’s out and hang it to dry or lie it on a flat surface.” Most importantly, never tumble dry bras.
Jeans are a whole other story, and many experts believe they should not be washed. Sarah Clayton, from the Wrap environment charity, recommends airing them instead between wears. “If they have a stain you could try spot-cleaning them with water rather than washing the whole garment.”
Not washing your jeans might sound vaguely disturbing, but a great expert promises it is nothing of the kind: in May 2014, Chip Bergh, the CEO of Levi’s, dumbfounded the world by stating that the jeans he was wearing at the moment had never been washed. Last March, five years later, he told CNN that he still had not washed them, despite them being now ten years old. Groves agrees with Bergh, and recommends putting jeans in the freezer to kill germs instead. “Most people I know, when it comes to their denim, don’t wash it at all. Which might seem strange – it’s a pair of jeans that they might wear every day,” he admitted. But it is an attitude we should apply to all our clothes, he added.