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Laundry Putting You Through the Wringer? Apparel Expert Has Tips

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By Beth Saulnier

For a lot of us, laundry is the weekly chore we love to hate. It just keeps piling up, day after day—but if we avoid it, we’re eventually going to run out of clean underwear. In the hope of making the process easier and more effective, Cornellians asked Fran Holmes Kozen ’72, MS ’77, to take us for a spin (cycle) with Laundry 101.

A senior lecturer in Fiber Science & Apparel Design in the College of Human Ecology (where she earned two degrees and also serves as director of undergraduate studies), Kozen is occasionally tapped to explain clothing-related issues in the national media.

Prof. Fran Kozen

Let’s get right to it: do we really need to sort our laundry?

People living alone often don’t have enough that they want to separate it, but yes—sorting is a good idea.

We’re very sorry to hear that. OK, how?

Obviously, color is a good place to start; until something dark has been washed multiple times, I wouldn’t wash it with light colors. If something is extremely dirty—say, you’ve been gardening or working on your car—it should be washed separately.

You may want to separate lighter-weight items, like underwear, from heavier ones, so you can use different washing and drying cycles. I always separate out towels and sheets and do them on a longer cycle; also, towels can leave lint on your clothing.

a pair of blue jeans
Be advised: dyes in dark colors like jeans could rub off on the wearer if they’re not washed first.

Is it true that we tend to use too much detergent?

Absolutely. People may think “the more the better.” But in fact, it’ll build up on your clothes, and your machine will run extra rinse cycles trying to get rid of it. You’ll end up with detergent left on the clothes—and over time, whites can turn grayish.

What’s better: powders, liquids, or pods?

I prefer liquid because it dissolves more easily. Pods are designed for a certain size laundry load; with liquid, you can adjust according to the size of your load.

Many detergents today are enzyme-based and labeled for use in cold water, which saves energy. Does that work just as well?

First off, “cold” is a relative term; in Ithaca, our cold water is colder in the winter than the summer. I do find it’s a lot more difficult to get stains out in cold, even if I pretreat. So I usually use warm on something stained. On whites and lights, I use warm, and occasionally even hot.

How much fabric softener should we be using?

I don’t use it at all. You don’t need it, because tumbling in a dryer will soften things. And you especially don’t want to use fabric softener on towels; you end up with a coating that builds up over time, and they won’t absorb as well.

Also, care tags on moisture-wicking clothing for athletes will often say not to use it; the same kind of residue could build up and reduce its effectiveness.

I do find it’s a lot more difficult to get stains out in cold, even if I pretreat.

What about reducing static cling?

I prefer dryer sheets for that—but I find that if I dry at low temperature, I don’t have much problem with static.

Do stain sprays really work—like, if you drop something greasy on your shirt and it’s a while until laundry day?

Generally, if something is stained you should wash it as soon as you can, but pretreatment can help. It will loosen up the stain so it’s not so embedded into the fibers and it won’t set as much.

a wool cardigan sweater
Good news: wool sweaters can often be washed by hand rather than dry cleaned.

What about those “oxygen bleaches”? Do they do anything?

They certainly do for pre-soak. It’s a great idea to pre-soak stained or really dirty items; you can pre-soak the whole thing or pre-treat particular spots.

And oxygen bleaches are much milder than chlorine bleach. We use them in the Cornell Fashion + Textile Collection for brightening up, say, old cottons and linens that have yellowed with age. They’re fairly gentle but effective.

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Overall, is it better to line-dry clothes rather than use a dryer?

The biggest reason for line drying is sustainability: it’s energy efficient. Some people don’t like the fact that things like towels and jeans are stiff if they’ve been line-dried. Others feel that if you hang white clothes in the sun, it will keep them bright. Some fibers, like silk, you don’t want to hang out for long, because ultraviolet rays will damage them.

So many clothes say “dry clean only”; do we always need to follow that?

It’s tricky. Sometimes I’ll see something that’s all polyester and think, “Why does it say ‘dry clean’?” Well, it’s because they didn’t do any testing, and they want to make sure nobody complains and they don’t get returns. Companies are not obliged to put all possible care instructions on a tag, so they protect themselves.

The biggest reason for line drying is sustainability: it’s energy efficient.

What are some things it’s OK not to dry clean?

Most wool sweaters can be hand-washed and dried flat. A lot of silk things can be hand-washed, but it depends on the dye. Say it has a floral print; I’d be cautious, because you don’t know how colorfast the dyes are, and they can bleed from one area to another.

Why have the care-and-content tags on garments gotten so long and complex?

Different countries have different regulations and symbols. Most brands are global now, so they have instructions for multiple countries and in multiple languages. In Europe, care tags often only have symbols; most U.S. brands use text. It may be microscopic, but Americans haven’t done well at memorizing the symbols.

What’s up with those giant, itchy tags, anyway?

Manufacturers would love to get rid of them. They have to be printed and sewn in during the assembly process, so they’re expensive—and of course, consumers complain about them.

The American Apparel & Footwear Association is lobbying to be allowed to use digital labels; you’d read a QR code to get information on fiber type, manufacture, and care. That sounds efficient for somebody who’s glued to their cell phone—but a lot of people still don’t want to use their phone in the laundry room.

A closeup of silk material with a bright pink floral pattern
Beware of colors on silk that could bleed.

Speaking of new clothes, is OK to wear them without laundering first?

Tags in things like jeans will often say “wash before wearing,” because excess dye may rub off. And if you buy something in a store, you have no idea who else has tried it on; even if you order online, it could have been returned. An awful lot of people handle garments during production, and you don’t know about cleanliness.

Also sometimes there’s “sizing,” which is essentially starch put on for the finishing process, or other chemicals that could rub off on you. So it’s a good idea to start with a clean slate.

In conclusion: given the huge variety of fabrics and cleaning methods, is doing the laundry more of a pain than ever?

It may be a little more confusing. But remember, decades ago, laundry was always hung out to dry, irons had to be heated in the fire, and women had to create their own laundry products. They’d make soaps and starches, use lye, and mix up bluing to keep their whites bright. Basically, they were household chemists.

Top: Illustration by Caitlin Cook / Cornell University. All photos provided; clothing images courtesy of Cornell Fashion + Textile Collection.

Published August 11, 2023


  1. james gregory, Class of 1969

    Kozen’s answers are insightful and right to the point. It’s as if she applied bluing to some muddled sheets.

  2. Michael Curran, Class of 1979

    Very practical advice. Maybe add a monthly laundry column called Dear Fran.

  3. Dan Brown

    Great article; I learned a lot from it and what little I did know already took years to figure out.

    The tip about washing heavily dyed clothing reminded me of ice rink rules. Ice rinks were few and far between in California’s Central Valley in the 1960s. But, they all had one rule in common: no skating allowed in unwashed blue jeans. Apparently, the long blue streaks on the ice left by falling skaters annoyed the better skaters. Hockey players, too, maybe?

  4. Jessica Rodriguez Falcon, Class of 1999

    This info will change how I wash my clothes. Huge thanks!

  5. Deborah J Skolnik, Class of 1989

    Thank you for the article I’ve been waiting for! Other than formulating calorie-negative chocolate, my mission in life is to figure out how to keep towels as soft as possible. What should we be doing for the wash cycle? My other big question is whether you need to wash towels, sheets, and underwear in hot water for disinfectant reasons.

  6. Matthew Tager

    Disappointed you did not cover the new detergent sheets becoming more popular. They avoid plastic and over packaging. How effective are they compared to traditional liquid and powder detergent? Seems like the wave of the future.

    • Amy Sefton

      Consumer Reports reviewed detergent sheets in comparison to liquid laundry detergents.

  7. Jane Haynes, Class of 1978

    I always use hot for towels, sheets and underwear. I want to get rid of any allergens that might get in there, and also disinfect. I have a hard time believing that cold water detergents can take care of that. Do the experts at Cornell have any insight/evidence on the effectiveness of cold water detergent in this capacity?

    I wash most of my regular clothing in cold and hang to dry , so it won’t shrink and will last longer. (Hang on a rack inside as our yard is filled with trees, leaves, pollen producers, etc.)

    I’ve had good luck washing (non-wool) sweaters in cold in the machine and then laying flat to dry.

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