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Stella Mccartney, 2019.
Long read

First lesson in sustainability - how to extend the life of clothes

Tina Lončar

February 25, 2024

The first step to extend the life of the clothes we have in our closets, and thus slow down the cycle of buying and throwing them away, is to treat them with consideration and care, to think about the conditions in which we store them, how we wash and dry them and how often we do it.

Although I’ve always thought long and hard about the impact my habits have on the world around me, in my long career of independent dressing I’ve successfully finished countless items of clothing in my wardrobe. I systematically transformed sweaters into cute clothes for five-year-olds, transformed white t-shirts into dirty pink, constructed fine dresses and redesigned tights with an iron, turning parts into an amorphous mass of burned synthetics.

Yes, when we talk about individual contribution to a more sustainable world, we always list similar strategies, from turning to circular fashion that includes buying second hand and vintage clothes, giving preference to designers who follow a zero waste philosophy, as opposed to fast fashion brands, and creating a capsule wardrobe based on quality and timelessness classics, without following trends whose appeal too quickly swallows too short a shelf life. We also advocate against consumerist, natural accumulation that is not accompanied by a real need but a simple whim based on the eternal seduction of “new”, and the choice of eco-friendly materials that, at the end of their lifetime, will not become an additional burden on a system that is already struggling to swallow everything we are. so far used and discarded. And these are all commendable tactics, but what we often do is, before we start with bigger steps, we ignore the small ones that seem insignificant to us or we don’t think about them at all.

True, it is important what we buy, how and in what quantities, but what is perhaps even more important is how we treat it. To understand that each material in our closet follows some other laws when it comes to maintenance and that we adhere to those rules. In a super-fast world, where we no longer do anything slowly, most will probably brush off these tips and conclude that there is simply no time for them. They will conclude that there is no point in putting extra effort into something that seems expendable and easily replaceable, and therefore almost worthless. However, what is important to us always requires effort, time, and even putting aside our commotion for a moment. Because, in the end, things are worth as much as we value them.

The maintenance instructions on the label are not there just like that. Their role is to introduce us to the composition of the material and to educate us on how you can extend the life of a piece of clothing. Although it is sometimes required, too often we turn on the washing machine unnecessarily. The average washing machine consumes more water in a year than we will use for drinking in our entire lifetime, and what is important to note is that each wash damages the fabric to some extent. Airing or treating the fabric with a steamer iron will sometimes be quite enough. However, if washing is necessary, it is important that it is carried out in the correct way.


For more delicate fabrics, the best solution is to not turn on the washing machine. Although dry cleaning is often recommended to maintain fine silk dresses or blouses, silk is best washed by hand in cold water, dried on a towel so that the piece does not lose its shape, and avoid drying in direct light, which will fade the fabric.


Wool, which is naturally resistant to odors, should be washed less often. Most often, it is enough to just air it well or put it in the freezer overnight. Yes, this advice sounds like something your grandmother would whisper to you after Sunday lunch after you tell her you don’t know how to wash clothes, but it’s also one of those tips worth listening to. However, if the knitting really needs the help of water and detergent, and sometimes it really does, let it be delicate and the water lukewarm. This will prevent your favorite sweater from coming out of the washer/dryer the size of a Barbie sweater, and drying on a towel instead of a dryer will prevent stretching and loss of shape. The same rule applies to those fine turtlenecks made of cashmere, and considering that the fabric is obtained from goat’s undercoat, hair shampoo works great instead of detergent.


Unlike silk and wool, cotton clothing should be washed more often. If you’re not wearing them directly on your skin, lukewarm water in the washing machine will do a pretty solid job of preventing color fading and material shrinkage, and avoiding the dryer is also a good way to reduce the same risk. Sometimes stain removers will suffice.


Linen is one of the most durable and resistant natural materials, the maintenance of which does not require too much effort, but the service life will certainly be extended by washing in lukewarm or cold water, keeping away from fabric softeners, and avoiding high temperatures during drying, which will accelerate fiber breakage and possible shrinkage .


Given that synthetic fabrics occupy the largest part of our wardrobes today, it is also important to note how to treat polyester. Although it can tolerate temperatures up to 60 degrees, it is best to stay at 30-40 degrees and avoid a dryer because the material itself dries quickly. Polyester’s worst enemy is heat, so it should not be exposed to high iron temperatures because it will literally melt it. Yes, I’ve learned it by burning tights. However, what should be kept in mind is that washing polyester releases microplastic particles that greatly contribute to pollution, and it does so more than all the other synthetic materials. The way to control this at least to some extent is to use specially designed washing bags that should prevent microplastics from floating down the drain.

In addition to washing, when it comes to caring for clothes, there are other things to keep in mind. Already worn silk, for example, does not like contact with deodorants, nor with metal jewelry, which always seems to be on a mission to stretch the delicate fibers of our favorite dress. The dearest (and most expensive) pieces in the wardrobe are usually the targets of moths. Given that they feed on keratin from natural fibers, they like to feast on silk blouses, warm woolen sweaters and soft cashmere dresses. Fortunately, there are many products on the market today that should drive away tireless predators, but you can also prevent them from redesigning your wardrobe with the help of cedar wood or a few bags of lavender. Moths could also perch on leather jackets, but if you prevent them from doing so, the job of maintaining the leather is still not over. Although it is a very durable material, like our skin and leather garments, it requires hydration to keep the collagen fibers strong. Exposure of leather to conditions such as dry air or sunlight can damage it, but careful treatment with steam (from a safe distance) and specially designed balms will certainly extend its life and prevent cracking. And while leather jackets are best kept on hangers, knitted ones, so that they do not lose their shape, are better placed on shelves, and in order for everything hanging in the closet to retain its original shape, instead of plastic and metal hangers, wooden ones are recommended.

How to take good care of your clothes requires some research, time and effort, but it will definitely pay off. Extending the life of the clothes we already have is a step we must take before any bigger and more drastic changes we plan to make. Only then does our effort to do something good on an individual level begin to make sense.