What Happens if You Don’t Dry Clean Silk?

Silk is one of the most luxurious and delicate fabrics out there.

While its smooth texture and elegant drape make it perfect for fancy clothing and accessories, silk requires special care to maintain its beauty.

Most silk garments are labeled “dry clean only” – but what exactly happens if you don’t follow this instruction?

In this article, we’ll explore:

  • The necessity of dry cleaning silk.
  • The potential damage to silk when it’s not dry-cleaned.
  • Alternatives like hand washing, and best practices for keeping your silk items looking their best.

I’ll provide plenty of examples from my personal experience washing and caring for silk.

My goal is to help you understand the risks of improper silk care so you can make informed decisions. Let’s get started!

beige silk material laid out on table

The Necessity of Dry Cleaning Silk

Silk has a very smooth, delicate protein fiber that can easily be damaged by heat, moisture, and agitation. Here’s why dry cleaning is typically recommended:

  • Removes oil-based stains: Silk naturally repels water but can be stained by oil-based substances. The chemical solvents used in dry cleaning help lift oil-based stains that water can’t tackle.
  • Heat control: The heat used in dry cleaning is very controlled, while home laundry often exposes silk to high heat during washing and drying cycles.
  • Limits agitation: The tumbling of a washing machine and dryer can damage silk fibers and cause pilling. Dry cleaning limits agitation.
  • Prevents shrinkage: Silk is very prone to shrinking when washed in hot water. Dry cleaning maintains the garment’s original size and shape.
  • Retains color: The dyes used on silk can easily bleed or fade with washing. Dry cleaning is less likely to diminish color vibrancy.
  • Maintains texture: The friction of regular laundering can diminish silk’s luxurious drape and sheen over time. Dry cleaning is gentler on the fibers.

For example, I purchased a 100% silk dress last year that was clearly labeled “dry clean only.” 

I followed the instructions and have been extremely satisfied with how well the vibrant blue color and smooth texture have held up over multiple dry cleanings so far.

gentle hand washing of silk in basin

Potential Damages to Silk When Not Dry Cleaned

If you don’t follow the “dry clean only” instructions on a silk garment, here are some of the damages that could occur:

  • Shrinkage: One of the biggest risks of laundering silk in water is irreversible shrinkage. I accidentally shrunk a beloved silk blouse by thinking I could gently hand wash it – it shrunk nearly two sizes!
  • Color loss: The dyes used on silk fabric can bleed or fade very easily when washed, especially vibrant colors like reds, blacks, and blues. One wash can leave you with a faded, splotchy garment.
  • Snags and tears: Silk is a very delicate, lightweight fabric. The agitation of a washing machine or dryer can cause snags and small tears throughout the material.
  • Loss of sheen and texture: Over time, washing silk diminishes its prized luminosity and buttery smooth feel. Dry cleaning does a better job of preserving these qualities.
  • Mold or mildew: Silk items left to air dry may develop mold or mildew if they stay damp for too long. Dry cleaning thoroughly dries fabrics.
  • Stains: Oil-based stains may set into the silk fibers rather than lift during a wash cycle. Stain removal solvents used in dry cleaning can tackle these better.

Find out if it’s possible with my guide on washing silk that’s labeled as dry clean only.

visible stain on silk textile

Let’s examine the specific risks for different types of silk garments:

ItemRisks if Not Dry Cleaned
Silk blousesDiscoloration, shrinking, snags around buttons
Silk shirtsCollar and cuff fraying, loss of sheen, shrinking
Silk pantsHemline fraying, dye transfer, shape distortion
Silk dressesSeam splitting, color bleeding, shredding
Silk jacketsPilling, fraying at edges, loss of structure

As you can see, each type of silk garment is prone to damage if not gently dry-cleaned. Follow care instructions closely for the best results!

Hand Washing and Machine Washing Silk

What if a silk garment’s tag doesn’t specify “dry clean only” – is it ok to hand wash or machine wash? Let’s explore both methods:

Hand Washing

Delicate silk items may be hand-washed if done carefully. Here are some tips:

  • Use a very gentle detergent meant for silks and woolens, never regular laundry detergent
  • Fill a basin with cool water and gently submerge the item
  • Avoid twisting, wringing, or scrubbing the material
  • Rinse thoroughly with cool water to remove all soap
  • Blot excess water with towels, do not wring
  • Lay the item flat on a towel to air dry, smoothing out the shape

My article explains the potential risks of not hand washing silk fabrics.

filling basin with water
hand laundering beige silk cloth
hand wash care for beige silk items
gently patting silk with towel to dry

For anyone with silk garments, Heritage Park Laundry Detergent (link to Amazon) is a must-try. It’s gentle on the fabric, yet powerful enough to remove any dirt or stains.

manually washing silk fabrics in basin

Even with these precautions, hand washing can still cause some wear and tear over time.

I like to hand wash very lightly soiled silk accessories like scarves, but would not risk hand washing my silk blouses.

Machine Washing

This is extremely risky for silk! Even the gentlest wash cycle with cool water can damage silk. Here’s what may happen:

  • The machine agitation can easily cause snags, pulls, and tears on delicate silk
  • Detergents and bleach can fade dyes instantly
  • Load balancing and spinning can distort the shape
  • The heat from the dryer, even on low, can shrink silk considerably

I know from experience – I ruined a silk camisole by attempting to machine wash and dry it once.

Unless the garment tag specifically says “machine washable silk,” I would not attempt this.

red silk fabric washing machine care

The Debate Over Dry Cleaning Silk

Given the risks of water-based washing, most experts strongly recommend dry cleaning as the best way to clean silk garments and maintain their quality over time.

However, some argue that dry cleaning isn’t always necessary and even has some downsides.

The case for dry cleaning:

  • Most effective and safest method for cleaning silk
  • Maintains texture, sheen, and color vibrancy
  • Lifts out oil-based stains
  • No risk of shrinkage, distortion, or tearing
  • Professionally done to a high standard

The case against dry cleaning:

  • Chemical solvents can weaken silk fibers over time
  • Trace solvents remain in the fabric and build up
  • Risk of yellowing or discoloration
  • Not an eco-friendly process, produces toxic waste
  • Home dry cleaning kits are not as effective
beige silk cloth spread on table

So, to simplify things, I’ve put together a handy comparison table of when dry cleaning is really best versus when gentle hand washing could work:

When to Dry CleanWhen Hand Washing May Be Possible
The garment is heavily soiledThe garment has light soil or stains
Fabric has oil-based stainsThe fabric has water-based stains
Dyes have faded or lost vibrancyColor remains bright and unfaded
Sheen and texture are diminishedThe original sheen and texture are intact
Shrinkage or distortion has occurredThe garment remains its original size and shape
“Dry Clean Only” labelNo cleaning label or “Washable Silk” label
Worn frequentlyWorn infrequently
Heavy use areas are very soiledSoil is evenly distributed
Unsure of the fiber content100% silk fibers confirmed
When in doubtOnly when confident in the approach

The Downsides of Dry Cleaning Silk

While dry cleaning is the consensus recommendation for silk care, it’s good to be aware of the potential downsides:

  • Fading of bright dyes – solvents can draw out vibrancy over time
  • Loss of softness – chemicals damage smooth protein fibers
  • Yellowing – thinner silk items in particular
  • Exposure to chemical fumes – risks to silk and wearer
  • Wrinkling when pressed – heavy ironing can damage the luster
  • Environmental impact – toxic solvents and byproducts
  • Cost – far more expensive than home washing
silk fabric stain blotting method

Not all dry cleaners are equal in skill and care. Ask them how they clean silk specifically:

  • Do they use perchloroethylene or a “green” alternative?
  • Do they have experience with silks and delicate fabrics?
  • Do they hand press or finish silk pieces?

I’ve stopped taking my silk to cleaners that pressed my garments with heavy steam and pressure, as this damaged the texture.

It pays to find a cleaner who knows how to handle silk properly.

Silk Care Best Practices

To keep your silk items in top condition, follow these best practices:

  • Have garments professionally dry cleaned 1-2 times per year, according to frequency of use
  • Ask the dry cleaner how they specifically handle silks
  • For heavy soiling in between, spot clean stains gently with a damp cloth and mild detergent
  • Store silk in a breathable garment bag, not plastic
  • Hang silk pieces on padded hangers to avoid hanger marks
  • Avoid direct sunlight to prevent fading
  • Steam silks gently as needed using the lowest setting
  • Have silk garments repaired immediately if damaged – don’t wait!
  • Hand wash select accessories very gently and lay them flat to dry
  • Never machine wash or bleach silk items

With proper daily care between dry cleanings, your treasured silk pieces can last and retain their splendor for many years.

While dry cleaning isn’t cheap, it’s the best way to get them deeply clean while avoiding damage.

showcasing beige silk on table


Silk may be delicate, but it can last when cared for properly. To avoid permanent damage, follow the recommended care instructions.

While “dry clean only” is common, you don’t have to dry clean every time. With care, some pieces can occasionally be hand-washed at home.

But for deep cleaning, dry cleaning is best – find an experienced cleaner. Store silk properly between wears and cleanings to avoid sun, heat, and friction.

With a bit of extra attention, your silk investment pieces will retain their beauty for many seasons. The effort is well worth it.

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