Washing Silk Labeled ‘Dry Clean Only’: A Viable Option?

As a lover of fine silk clothing, I’ve faced the dry clean only conundrum many times.

I adore my silk blouses, dresses, and scarves, but cringe at the recurring cost and chemical exposure of frequent dry cleaning.

This led me to extensively research the delicate art of washing silk at home.

In this article, I’ll provide clear advice on safely hand washing silk pieces labeled as dry clean only.

You’ll learn silk fabric care basics, hand-washing techniques, detergent recommendations, drying methods, and more.

With the right approach, you can keep your silk garments looking beautiful while saving time and money.

gentle hand rubbing of beige silk

The Delicate Nature of Silk Fabric

Silk has unique properties that require special care when washing. Here’s a quick overview:

  • Extremely fine fibers – Silk threads are very thin and delicate. Vigorous agitation can damage fibers.
  • Prone to snags/runs – Snags easily catch on jewelry or nails and can spread into bigger holes.
  • Dyes may bleed – The dyes used in silk are more prone to run than cotton or synthetics.
  • Weak when wet – Silk fibers become weak when saturated. Excess handling or squeezing while wet can cause tearing.
  • Shrinks at high heat – High temperatures from dryers or irons can cause silk to shrink irreversibly.

With proper precautions, these issues can be prevented. But it’s important to note that silk requires more delicate handling than fabrics like cotton.

Risks of Hand Washing ‘Dry Clean Only’ Silk

So why does silk often have a dry clean only label? There are risks to hand washing it:

  • Fiber damage from friction and agitation in the wash.
  • Shrinkage if exposed to high heat while washing or drying.
  • Dye transfer where the color bleeds onto other garments.
  • Loss of shape if handled roughly when wet.
  • Snags and holes from jewelry or rough surfaces.
silk fabric stain blotting method

However, with a gentle approach, these risks can be minimized. The key is following silk-friendly practices at every step.

Deciding Between Dry Cleaning and Hand Washing Silk

Here are some general guidelines on when to dry clean vs hand wash silk:

Dry Cleaning Recommended For:

  • Formalwear (e.g. wedding dresses, tuxedos)
  • Heavily beaded/embellished silk
  • Antique or highly delicate silk
  • Previously dry-cleaned garments
  • Severely stained/soiled silk

Hand Washing Viable For:

  • Plain woven silk (e.g. blouses, scarves)
  • Lightly embellished silk
  • Newer garments without prior dry cleaning
  • Garments with light staining
  • People with chemical sensitivities
beige silk cloth spread on table

Other factors like garment construction and fabric delicacy also influence the best cleaning method. Here’s a handy comparison table:

Dry CleaningHand Washing
ProsDeep cleaning for tough stainsPreserves construction of delicately assembled garmentsLower risk of shrinkageProfessionally handledGently cleans with no chemicalsSaves money compared to dry cleaningTotal control over processMaintain garment shape if dried flat
ConsPossible chemical damage or discolorationExpensive over timeExposure to chemicalsPossible shape loss if pinned or over driedNot as powerful on severe stainsRisk of damage if done improperlyLabor intensivePotential shrinkage if heat dried

So hand washing silk is a good option for many garments if executed properly. But delicate pieces still do best with professional dry cleaning.

Take into account the overall wear and delicacy of your silk pieces when deciding on the best method.

Discover the effects on silk when it’s not dry cleaned in my detailed post on silk care.

Safe Hand Washing Techniques for Silk

Once you’ve decided to hand wash, use these tips for keeping your silk pieces damage-free:

1. Pretreat any stains

  • For oil-based stains, dab with a bit of diluted clear dish soap using a soft cloth.
  • For food or makeup stains, gently blot the area with a damp cloth. Avoid rubbing.
visible stain on silk textile
blot removal technique on silk

2. Fill a basin with cool water and add a mild detergent

  • Lukewarm or cool water is gentlest on silk. Avoid hot water that can shrink fibers.
  • Use the smallest amount of a gentle detergent like Woolite, Silk & Fine Fabric Detergent, or Eucalan.
filling basin with water

3. Allow the garment to soak for 3-5 minutes

  • Soaking helps loosen dirt without needing vigorous scrubbing.
  • For heavier soiling, extend soaking time. But avoid soaking too long to prevent dye bleeding.
soaking beige silk in hand wash

4. Swish gently in wash water

  • Make a large, gentle figure 8 motions with the garment. No wringing or twisting.
  • Let the water do the cleaning – no need to rub, scrub, or agitate vigorously.
hand wash technique for beige silk

5. Drain wash water and rinse

  • Change the water to rinse away all soap residue that can leave residue.
  • Rinse by allowing clean water to flow through while gently moving the garment. Repeat rinses as needed.

6. Roll in a towel to absorb moisture

  • Avoid wringing, twisting, or bunching the wet garment.
  • Instead, roll it up inside an absorbent towel to press out moisture.
silk garment drying with absorbent towel
towel wrap for drying silk material

7. Dry flat on a towel

  • Refrain from hanging silk garments to dry – the weight can stretch the fabric.
  • Lay flat on a fresh dry towel and reshape the garment to its proper dimensions.

8. Iron inside out on low heat

  • Set your iron to the silk setting, or use a press cloth.
  • Iron inside out to avoid damage to embellishments or prints.
silk clothes ironing technique

By following these bath-like washing and drying steps, you can keep silk looking beautiful between trips to the dry cleaner. The key is always to handle wet silk very gently.

Explore the different kinds of silk in my post about which types of silk are washable.

Choosing the Right Detergent

Picking an appropriate detergent helps prevent damage and fading when hand-washing silk. Here are the top options:

  • Silk and fine fabric detergents – Formulas designed specifically for delicates like silk, cashmere, and wool. E.g. Woolite or Soak Silk & Fine Fabric Wash.
  • Liquid castile soap – Made from vegetable oils, castile soap is very mild. Dr. Bronner’s and other brands make liquid versions ideal for silk.
  • Hair shampoo – Look for a gentle shampoo without added colors or perfumes. Dove Sensitive Skin and Davines Love Shampoo work well.
  • Marseille/Castile bar soap – Traditional olive oil soaps like Savon de Marseille are ideal for delicate fabrics. Grate it into wash water for a zero-waste option.

I always recommend Heritage Park Laundry Detergent (link to Amazon) for silk items. It’s amazing how it preserves the fabric’s softness and color, making my silks look as good as new.

heritage park detergent wash for silk fabrics

No matter what detergent you choose, avoid options with added whiteners, brighteners, perfumes, or dyes that can damage the silk.

Stick to scent-free formulas gentle enough for skin or hair.

Alternatives to Dry Cleaning

If you prefer not to dry clean or hand wash, here are some other options:

  • At-home dry cleaning kits – These use dry cleaning solvents inside a small machine designed for home use. Helpful for formal wear or tricky stains.
  • Handheld steamers – Thorough steaming can freshen silk between washes and release odors and wrinkles.
  • Spot cleaning – Use a clean damp cloth to dab stains, then gently clear water. Let air dry fully.
  • Air out the garment – Hanging outdoors in fresh air can remove some odors from silk. Just avoid direct sunlight.
  • Freeze for odor removal – Place the silk garment in a plastic bag in the freezer for 1-2 days to kill odor-causing bacteria.

Machine Washing Silk: A Viable Option?

While hand washing is best, machine washing silk is possible if done carefully:

  • Use a mesh wash bag – This prevents friction and entanglement.
  • Wash on a delicate cycle in cool water with a gentle detergent.
  • Skip the agitation cycle – Select a setting without constant motion.
  • Line dry only – Never put silk in the tumble dryer, even on low. The motion can destroy silk.
laundry mesh bag silk washing in machine
silk washing technique using mesh bag in machine
delicate cycle for silk in washing machine

I’ve successfully machine-washed plain silk shirts and scarves this way. But for embellished, beaded, or lace-trimmed silk, the hand wash method is safest.

Evaluate your garment and only machine wash very durable silks.

Drying Silk After Hand Washing

Proper drying is key to maintaining the feel and look of silk:


  • Lay flat to dry on a towel
  • Reshape while damp
  • Dry in the shade
  • Use a low iron on the inside-out garment


  • Hang or line dry – gravity can stretch out the fibers
  • Dry in direct sunlight – can fade colors
  • Put in the dryer – always air-dry silk!
  • Vigorously twist or wring – causes damage
  • Leave balled up while drying – can wrinkle

Here are some other silk drying tips:

  • For shaped garments like blouses, lay right side down on a towel and gently smooth into shape. Let fully dry.
  • Wrap scarves in a towel and press to absorb moisture. Then lay flat to dry.
  • Use rustproof pins to hold delicate laces or straps in place as the garment dries.
  • To speed drying, use a fan blowing horizontally across the surface – avoid direct downward heat.
  • For stubborn wrinkles, iron the inside out using the silk setting and light steam.

Always handle silk gently when damp and allow it to fully dry before wearing it again. This helps the fibers stay strong and keeps the beautiful drape of the fabric.

silk clothes drying in open air

Emergency Measures: Dealing with Accidents

Even seasoned silk washers experience the occasional mishap! Here are my tips for silk-washing emergencies:

If dye bleeds:

  • Soak the garment ASAP in cold water to dilute the dye.
  • Wash by hand with mild detergent and a half cup of white vinegar to help stabilize colors.
  • Avoid drying until the bleeding stops – heat can set stains.

If the white vinegar smell lingers:

  • Rinse again in cold water with a spoonful of baking soda.
  • Let soak for 10 minutes, then rinse clean.
washing silk with baking soda mix

If silk shrinks:

  • Try stretching it back gently while damp.
  • Soak in cool water mixed with hair conditioner to relax fibers.
  • While still wet, reshape the garment and allow it to fully dry flat.

If snags or holes form:

  • For small snags, use a needle to push fibers back in place.
  • Utilize fine clear nail polish to prevent a run from spreading.
  • Patch larger holes by hand-sewing or fusing a silk patch behind the fabric.

With some creative problem-solving, minor mishaps can often be remedied. But prevention is always preferable – handle your silk with care from start to finish for the best results.

showcasing beige silk on table


To summarize, hand washing fine silk does require gentleness and caution.

However, armed with the right techniques and supplies, laundering your silk at home is an effective way to cut dry cleaning costs and extend the life of your pieces.

Here are the key tips to remember:

  • Always use a mild detergent formulated for delicates.
  • Soak rather than vigorously wash, and handle silk gently when wet.
  • Dry flat away from direct heat to prevent shrinking.
  • Look for signs of wear, fading, or damage needing professional cleaning.
  • Clean stains quickly to avoid setting them permanently.

With some practice and patience, you can keep your favorite silk clothing looking its best. 

Ignoring dry clean-only labels opens up more sustainable, budget-friendly silk garment care. Give it a try – both your silk and your wallet will thank you!

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