How to clean a suit without dry cleaning

July 26th, 2013

Appliance Talk Laundry

Sometimes a man wants to look his very best, and when this mood strikes, it’s time to bring out the suit.

mad men suitsClassic style from the cast of Mad Men

A staple of men’s fashion for more than 100 years, the suit comes in a range of different colours and styles to suit different occasions, from the formal to the casual.

archer and burtSterling Archer and Burt Reynolds compare fashions

Though it doesn’t do wonders for everyone:

Appliances Online
I like suit, is nice…

And the suit isn’t just for men.  Ladies can equally rock the look, doing so gloriously…

robin suitRobin Scherbatsky shows Barney Stinson how it’s done

…or terrifyingly.

Carpet-shampooers-reviewsPatsy Stone embraces the suit with the same enthusiasm she does liquor

To ensure that your suits always keep you looking fabulous rather than frightening, here’s our guide to basic suit care at home:

What is a suit?

For clarity’s sake, generally when we refer to a suit, we’re talking about the sharp-looking suit jacket.  Possibly a vest or waistcoat as well.

doctor henry jones juniorLooking good, Doctor Jones…

The shirt and trousers are typically (but not always) fairly straightforward to take care of in comparison to the jacket, which is often made from several different materials that all react differently to cleaning with soap and water (which is why dry cleaning is recommended by manufacturers to stay on the safe side).

iron shirt collar

Always read the labels (if you want to know why, I’ve a pair of shrunken dress trousers at home to show you), and take care to wash and iron these items properly, following our laundry tips.  Keep the jacket separate so you can give it some special attention.

Don’t you just dry clean the things?

While your first instinct when it comes to cleaning a suit is often to drop it off at your local dry cleaner’s, it may be the equivalent of peeling an onion with a chainsaw – it gets the job done, but there may be collateral damage.

dry cleaner

After all, dry cleaning often makes use of some pretty powerful chemicals and industrial-grade equipment, which can quickly wear out and even damage your suits, especially after repeated dry-cleaning treatments.

Cleaning your suits at home is not only less expensive than dragging them down to the dry cleaner with each wear, but it’s often a gentler way of extending their lifespan, so you can look better for longer.

FUN SUIT FACT: It’s recommended that you hang a suit back up on the rack for an airing-out after each wear for at least 24 hours (or three days, or a week) before pressing it back into service, as this give the materialsa chance to breathe and relax, which in turn helps to extend their lifespan.

Steam is your friend

If your suit jacket isn’t stained, but is rather just a bit dusty and/or crinkled, it may only need a bit of a freshen-up rather than a full-on clean.

As mentioned in our previous blog on how to iron, steam is great for this sort of thing, as it combines water and gentle heat to change the consistency of the fibre polymers without damaging them.

If you have access to a garment steamer (such as this model from Tefal), you can get your suit jacket looking pretty great simply by hanging it up and running steam over it. The warm steam relaxes the fibres, and gravity pulls them back into shape, leaving you with a much fresher suit.  The steam’s moisture should also loosen up any lint or small grots on the jacket’s surface, making them much easier to brush away with a lint brush.

vertical steamingA demonstration of vertical steaming some curtains

Even without a specialised steamer, a regular iron can usually do a decent job of vertical steaming – just keep the hot surface well away from your garment to prevent damage.  An iron with a steam generator tank is especially useful for ensuring a powerful and long-lasting supply of steam.

Skip ahead to 4:43 to see some vertical steaming in action on a suit jacket

Another method some people swear by is giving the suit jacket the sauna treatment by hanging it in the bathroom while showering, allowing it to be suffused with steam.  You could probably achieve a similar effect by hanging a jacket in a small laundry room while an un-vented clothes dryer is operating – those things can sometimes pump out a LOT of steam!

Ironing/pressing at home

The reason why we don’t just stick our suit jacket down over the ironing board and give them a good going-over with the steam iron is that this is a great way to damage them.

While we may think of the suit as a rugged garment for manly men, they’re actually pretty delicate things, often made from various soft fabrics that don’t handle rough treatment well (though no-one told James Bond about this – I’d hate to be his tailor).

daniel craig suit
Sir, I’m afraid gunpowder residue is very difficult to get out of cotton…

When a hot iron is pressed to a suit jacket, this can often damage its fibres, giving it a shiny appearance that will certainly stand out at that next meeting.

But if there’s a tough crease in your suit that steam alone won’t shift, there are ways to deal with this without taking them to the cleaner’s to be pressed (or investing in a presser yourself).

Spread out your suit jacket like you would any other garment you iron.  Until you’ve mastered your technique, it may be worth starting on the inside, so if you make any mistakes, the damage won’t show on the outside.

ironing suit

Take a damp tea towel and place it over the first area.  Start with your iron set to a low setting, and press on the towel a few times – do not slide the iron like you would normally.  If necessary, gently increase the heat until you start seeing some results.

Spot cleaning

Let’s say that at the last business lunch or wedding you attended in your suit, you got a bit of wine splashed on your suit, through no fault of your own.

shaun of the dead tuxOr maybe you end up with some red on you from some other source…

How is that coming out when you can’t stick your suit in the washing machine along with the rest of your laundry?

Before you rush out in search of cleaning chemicals, try water first – it’s the universal solvent!  Don’t rub it in, as that could mark or wear out the fabric.  Instead, just dab it on the area, blotting it and letting it work its magic.

blot stain

If water’s not working, add a touch of soap, though be sure to test the mixture on a similar piece of material to ensure you’re not going to be accidentally creating more mess.  White wine, white vinegar, soda, salt, and other household substances have all also seen use as makeshift stain-removers, though these should also be tested first.

Only if you’re still having no luck should you reach for the chemical cleaners.

Stick it in the washing machine

“Whoa, whoa, WHOA!” I hear you howl.  “Are you CRAZY?  You CAN’T put a suit jacket in the washing machine!  That’s the whole POINT of this article!”

Clothes washer

Except… you can.  Sometimes.  It’s not always the best idea, but it CAN be done.  Under controlled conditions.  Which I will now tell you all about.

The dangers of throwing a suit jacket into the washing machine along with your tracky dacks, undies and other laundry are many.  As suits tend to be made from several different layers of materials, they reach to washing in unpredictable ways.  Sometimes hot water can shrink some or all of the material; sometimes detergents can react with the fabrics; and rough tumbling or spinning tends not to be good for their delicate stitching.

But if you stick to a cold water cycle, minimise you use of detergent (or leave it out altogether), and place the suit jacket in a delicates bag before placing it on a gentle cycle, you can give your suit a more thorough clean than would typically be possible without professional-grade equipment and expertise.

If your machine-wash is successful, you may be tempted to ride you sense of accomplishment into drying the jacket with your clothes dryer, but I’d advise against that.  After all, if your jacket is soaked in water, heating this water up in the dryer may do the same kind of damage you were trying to avoid by washing it in the cold stuff.  Stick to line drying in this case, hanging it on a coat hanger to maintain the shape.

delicates bag

If you REALLY want to get some extra use out of your dryer, you may be able to toss in your suit jacket along with a commercially-available dry cleaning sheet.  These little squares of material are infused with similar chemicals to those used down at the dry-cleaners.  Place the jacket in the delicates bag along with the sheet and place it in the dryer on a tumble-only (no heat) cycle.  Always read the cleaning sheet manufacturer’s instructions, and check the fabric makeup of your suits to prevent potential disasters before they occur!

When in doubt, call a professional

Always read your labels before you clean anything, including suits.  If you need more information or advice, check with the manufacturer, a professional cleaner, or even a tailor – they should have the knowledge and experience required to fill any gaps that your dedicated appliance blogger may have missed out on.

tailor of panamaYou don’t even have to go as far as Panama…

Good luck, and when in doubt, SUIT UP!

Mark joined Appliances Online in November 2011 and has since learned more than he ever expected to know about appliances. He enjoys looking for new and unusual ways for to solve everyday problems using typical household appliances. When he’s not toiling at the desks of Appliances Online and Big Brown Box, he tries to find time to write the next big bestseller and draw satirical cartoons, but is too easily distracted by TV, music and video games. Mark’s favourite appliance is the Dyson Groom Tool, as he loves the concept of vacuuming your dog. Google+

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