Fashion in a spin: Are we washing our clothes all wrong?
As Stella McCartney admits to sparingly using her Whirlpool, Tanya Sweeney asks how much damage are we causing to the environment and our garments when we clean them
Safe to say that Stella McCartney knows a thing or two about clothes and, as an environmentally conscious fashion designer, has her eye on sustainability too. Even so, her recent comments about clothing care raised some eyebrows.
"The rule on a bespoke suit is you do not clean it," she suggests. "You do not touch it. You let the dirt dry and you brush it off. Basically, in life, rule of thumb: if you don't absolutely have to clean anything, don't clean it.
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"I wouldn't change my bra every day and I don't just chuck stuff into a washing machine because it's been worn," she added. "I am incredibly hygienic myself, but I'm not a fan of dry-cleaning or any cleaning, really."
McCartney has long spoken out against the "wasteful, harmful" fashion industry, which already makes up three per cent of the global carbon footprint. With each machine wash, synthetic fabrics shed thousands of plastic particles, leading to broad-scale contamination of waterways. Now it appears we're drinking that plastic, with a significant study of tap water in various countries finding 83pc of samples were contaminated with plastic fibres.
McCartney's clarion call about not cleaning clothes until necessary is a piece of advice that echoes Vivienne Westwood's famous suggestion that one never need buy a new T-shirt. But in the current age, where people are obsessed with cleanliness and fast fashion, McCartney's comment, bordering on the pure radical, has picked up a lot of attention this week. Is there a kernel of truth in what she says though? Research from the University of Bonn suggests that in the UK, people do an average of 4.8 laundry loads a week (younger people under 29 do an average of 4.9 loads, while older people manage 3.2 loads).
Helen Maguire is a lecturer in home economics at St Angela's College, Co Sligo, and is undertaking PhD research in everyday clothing practices.
"How we launder our clothes and how often has long been an aspect of home economics, but now, the focus on sustainability is very important," she observes. "The 'use' phase of clothes is the most demanding phase, resource-wise."
The rise of fast fashion has certainly changed our attitudes to clothing care, adds Maguire.
"If you buy something for €10, you simply won't have the same emotional attachment to it," she explains. "If you have an attachment to an item of clothing or see it as an investment, it's likely you'll handwash and treat it very carefully."
Yet even with the best will in the world, people are at a loss as to how to prolong the life of a garment.
Up to 25pc of each garment's carbon footprint comes from the way we wash and care for it, according to global movement Fashion Revolution. And nine out of 10 pieces of clothing end up in landfill long before they should, often because over-washing has caused colour fading, shrinkage and misshaping.
"People don't tend to think too much about it, and will probably just unconsciously go, 'I've worn it now, it'll have to go in the wash', without hanging it up, airing it or spot cleaning it," says Maguire.
"A lot of people will use a cotton programme 60pc of the time, which are usually between 40˚ and 60˚. Often, there's no need for that heat - in fact, they've proved that 30˚ washes can be more effective."
Other clothes don't go in the washing machine, yet still need due care and attention.
"A bespoke suit will get dirty, the same as any other suit, and it's very important to go to a reputable dry-cleaners that knows how to handle good clothes," says menswear designer Louis Copeland. "I often recommend sponge or spot-cleaning on a stain. Sometimes people get clothes cleaned too often and dry-cleaned too often, and it's not the best thing for them. You're putting them through liquid detergents that aren't necessarily all that gentle on clothes. A good dry-cleaners will gladly spot dry a stain out and freshen them."
Designer Delphine Grandjouan also endorses the use of a good dry-cleaner, who "doesn't over-clean".
"I've seen bridal dresses dry-cleaned and the quality disappears, and the materials bunch up," she observes. "You have to find the right balance between treating dirt and keeping the quality of fabric alive. Natural fabrics like silk, wool and linen keep people cool or warm as needs be. This is why I line my cocktail and bridal wear with 100pc silk lining - you perspire less in them because they are breathable fabrics so investing in a well designed and made piece in a natural fabric means it will weather better and need less cleaning."
Lingerie designer Susan Hunter echoes this sentiment: "I'm not a great fan of dry-cleaning as it strips a layer off everything. My attitude is, if it can't survive a 30˚ wash, it's not worth having."
She also notes that some natural fibres are more hardy than we might think.
"I find a lot of people ask, 'how do you wash silk?'" she says. "They're very nervous about it, but silk is stronger than steel. It doesn't like certain things, like water or soap and detergents. In washing powders, there is bleach that makes things whiter than white, which is why I wash everything at 30˚ and use a liquid for silk on any item of clothing I like. You're not going down a coal-mine so things won't be that dirty - it they are, just wash it again.
"The trick for silk is the minute it comes out, you iron the inside with a hot iron," she adds.
Manufacturers and experts suggest a couple of rules of thumb for laundry and clothing care. Eco-friendly washing detergents have natural surfactants in them and are kinder to clothes. Underwear, gym-wear and swimwear obviously should be washed after one wear, but tops and dresses can be left between one to two wears. Sleepwear and bras can usually last for up to four wears. And jeans, coats and jackets can survive without a wash for at least five washes (or many, many more, depending on the item). Some even prefer to stick their jeans in the freezer to kill off bacteria, rather than expose them to a wash that will affect their cut and colour.
Bargains abound for pocket-friendly washing machines, but James O'Shea, Product/Marketing Manager for major home appliances at Harvey Norman, suggests looking beyond the most affordable model if you want to extend the lifespan of your clothes.
"Machines start at €179 and can last for five or six years, but they're not going to give you the great results," he advises. "It's good to look at the value of clothes you put into a machine - some people put €300 worth in with every load.
"You don't have to buy the most expensive one, but the AEG 9000 series machine has great technology. It can present the results of a 60˚ wash with a 30˚ programme, weigh each load and determine the right detergent amount. Over its lifespan, it's a piece that's likely to pay you back."