‘Wash and wear’ is always a hot topic on the Sustainability in Style social media. Following on from the questions raised by yesterdays discussions about the ‘clothing killer’ washing machine I have trawled around the web to provide the answers based on science and some of my own personal experiences with washing regimes, odour retention and fabric selection.

How often should I wash my clothing?

Well this question is an interesting one, of which the answer is determined by two factors:

  • What is the fabric composition of the garment?
  • How visibly dirty and/or smelly is the garment?

When shopping for clothing there are a few of us that shop based on fabric composition. Having worked frontline retail sales my experience has lead me to believe not many people really understand the importance of fabric selection in relation to wearability. Some of the most common fabrics you will find in fashion retail (this is the ‘off the shelf’ mass produced stuff) are;

You may also come across the following, but they aren’t used as often due to cheaper alternatives;

There are of course loads of other fabrics out there on the market but these are a few I have personally come across in fast fashion retail over the past two years. Like fast fashion designs, fabrics go through ‘fad’ phases so different fabric phases come and go (it looks like Tencel is on its way back in?). Studies have shown that yes, fabric can indeed emanate our body odours, these odours can be emitted from the garment long after they have been removed from the body. We have all had those moments where we take off a shirt and get a good ‘whiff’ of underarm smell from it that just doesn’t seem to go away.

But why do some garments get stinky as soon as we put them on while others stay fresh as a daisy for dozens of wears?  

This is down to fabric selection. Studies have proven that there is a strong correlation between the levels of stinky-ness in your clothing and the fibre type, and knit structure of the garment.

So who is the worst fabric offender?

Sorry people, its polyester. Perhaps I am traumatised from past experiences but I can’t possibly think of a worse fabric to wear than polyester as it retains heat and sweat, collects static electricity, and is scientifically proven to be seriously stinky! Lighter weight polyester fabrics seemed to fair better in the stink status than their heavier friends (heavy weight interlock and 1×1 rib) but they are all great at retaining odour. Wool and cotton, the other contenders in this study, faired far better than their polyester friend. Wool in fact managed to stay pretty neutral on the odour causing bacteria front for 28 days! I can personally vouch for the wonders of wool and most of my basics are superfine merino and some are lucky to have EVER been washed (should I admit this in public?).

What about these other fabrics? 

From what I understand of the review of the science papers of odour retention studies, and from personal experience is that the more breathable or absorbent a fabric is  (fibre hygroscopicity) the less problems you will have with odour. Generally speaking synthetics trap the heat and sweat on your skin, giving all those odour causing bacteria a nice damp home while the natural fibres give the heat and sweat an out. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, one being Rayon/Viscose, a man made regenerated cellulose fibre that is quite breathable and comfortable to wear. It does have its downfalls but we can talk about these later!

So when should I wash?

There is no strict rules about this but the suggestions are that one should wash when their clothing looks or smells dirty. If it doesn’t look or smell dirty then leave it. A nice way to ‘freshen’ things up is to hang your clothing out of a windy/sunny day for an airing. The sun will kill a lot of bacteria and the wind will give it a fresh smell.

If you happen to live in areas of high humidity you may find that your unwashed clothing will start growing some nice colonies of mould, so your washing regime may be a little more regular. Mould loves natural fibres because, as you would expect, natural fibres are natural, like mould! Humidity is the mortal enemy of leather. From experience I have found that keeping your clothing in the least humid spot of your home, wiping things down regularly (especially leather) and airing things out on a windy day, can help keep mould at bay and allow you to continue to wear natural fibres.

Another factor to consider in your washing regime is how long you would like to keep your garment for. Washing is a clothing killer especially for natural fibres. It all makes perfect sense when you think about it. Natural fabrics come from nature, sure they don’t look anything like their original form, but most things made from natural fabric (depending on what they are treated with) will eventually disintegrate. This is excellent news for landfill world wide! What we want to do as responsible consumers is buy what we love and get as much wear out of it as possible. Buying natural fibres is a responsible decision as we know they will eventually disintegrate, leaving no trace.

Synthetic fibres are here to stay! Most of these are made from polyethylene terephthalate (the same thing many of your plastic water bottles are made from) which never really disappears, but in sunlight (i.e. floating around the ocean) can break down to smaller pieces (that look particularly tasty to marine life). This inability to fully biodegrade can be a a positive if we were to take all the unwanted polyester in the world and recycle it into new garments. But until this closed loop system exists, we continue to pump out loads of ‘cheap and nasty’ polyester fast fashion numbers that fall apart in weeks, are no use to thrift stores as no one wants cheap falling-part at clothing, and aren’t even absorbent enough to use as cleaning cloths.

After all that what fabric should I buy?

Unfortunately there is no easy answer to that question. You will have to ask yourself a few questions;

  • What climate do I live in?

If you are somewhere cooler you may find polyester perfectly comfortable and stink free. If you are in a warmer climate breathability is essential so cotton my be your choice. Other man made fibres such as viscose and rayon are great for warmer climates, but aren’t usually the longest lasting options (which is an important factor as those in hot climates usually was more frequently) and aren’t the most stable options (viscose shrinks A-LOT in the spin cycle while washing).

  • How often do I want to wear and wash this item?

Despite being a strict and passionate wearer of natural breathable fabrics all my gym pants are made from a nylon blend. This blend mimics cotton really well but unlike cotton will last the distance. Having attempted cotton leggings for the gym I was bitterly disappointed on several occasions to see them fade, wear thin, and bag out in under six months. Living in a sweaty environment means my gym pants are washed after every second wear (or sometimes every wear depending on the stink factor) so they have to survive a regular wash. With a nylon blend I can get four years out of one pair with an average of two washes a week. So if you are planning to give your items a serious wash and wear regime take your fabric choice into account. Synthetics = colour retention and everlasting lifespan. Natural fibres = serious comfort, breathability and biodegradable. If you plan to wash lots synthetics are going to  survive a little longer.

  • What are my purchasing ethics?

Its all well and fair for me to carry on about the joys of wearing wool, but if you are vegan then this isn’t an option. Your personal buying ethics are the best decider for your final purchase. For me comfort, breathability, biodegradability come first. This needs to be combined with a company that has ethical manufacturing standards and sustainability ethics. Obviously it is difficult to find all of these things in one garment, but the closest I can get is the best option. When shopping secondhand be sure to check garment labels before purchase. Believe it or not you will already have a preference for specific fabrics. If you look through your closet at care labels you will find a bit of a theme. Mine is cotton.

One final tip while we are looking at the care labels of clothing is to follow the washing instructions. There was nothing more frustrating working in fashion retail than having garments returned because customers hadn’t followed the care labels. If it says to cold hand wash, cold hand wash! The more you get to understand and identify with the fabrics you own the more confident you will feel with breaking the care label washing instructions. Sometimes things that say ‘dry clean only’ can be hand washed. However my advice is unless you are 98% confident don’t do it! The best thing to do is check the care label instructions before buying, if it says hand wash and you are a mother of 12 with no time for hand washing, don’t buy it.

It has been quite a long time since I officially studied textiles (oh goodness, eleven years) but science is current for me. If you have any additional information you would like to add to the discussion feel free to add whatever you like in the comments section below. Textiles gurus are welcome!!! Would also love to hear any personal experiences you have had with certain textiles or washing regimens.

ps. If you like reading academic journal articles here are some good ones.

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