There are basically two kinds of fabric: synthetics are man made and fabrics made from natural fibers like cotton, silk, linen, and wool. This guide covers basic information on how to launder the most common synthetic and natural fiber fabrics.
Acetate- This fabric is synthetic and usually requires dry-cleaning. If the fabric tag says it is washable, wash it in cold water and use only a mild detergent designed for delicate fabrics (like Woolite). Don't soak this fabric and definitely don't wring or twist it. This fabric should be air dried only by laying it out flat on terry cloth towels. Iron it inside out while the garment is still damp.
Acrylic- This is a man-made fabric that resembles wool. Usually, it can be dry cleaned, hand-washed, or machine washed using warm water on the delicate setting. Acrylic likes to "pill" which means it will develop tiny little balls of fabric. To avoid pills, wash the garment inside out. After washing, gently squeeze water from the fabric, then gently shake it to smooth it. Lay sweaters on a terry cloth towel on a flat surface to dry. Acrylic garments other than sweaters can be hung on rust proof hangers. If the care label allows machine drying, use a low temperature and remove the garment as soon as it's dry.
Cotton- This is a natural fiber fabric that is made from cotton plants. Cotton tends to wrinkle easily, lose its color (called bleeding in wash-woman lingo) in the water, and it also shrinks. Cotton garments should always be washed in cold water unless they say "pre-shrunk" on the packaging when you buy it, otherwise, it will come out of the washer Lilliputian-ized. Make sure to wash these garments with similar colors. Use chlorine bleach on white cottons and color safe bleach on colorized cotton. The dryer setting for 100 percent cotton should very low.
Cotton Blends-Many manufacturers blend the cotton with some other material to make it more wrinkle resistant. Cotton blends should be washed and dried on the permanent press cycle, keeping similar colors together. Cotton blends may develop pills, so turn them inside out to avoid this.
Linen-This fabric is similar to cotton, but isn't quite as durable. Before washing colored linen, remember that, like cotton, it also will not hold dye well, so you will want to test it for colorfastness before washing and definitely wash it separately or with like colors. Linen is often blended with other fabrics to make it more stain and wrinkle resistant.
Nylon- This fabric is a strong synthetic material that is very lightweight. Nylon should be hand or machine washed on the gentle cycle and only with similarly colored garments and fibers. Nylon is famous for attracting static electricity, so use a fabric sheet if you machine dry and a fabric softener in the rinse cycle if you air dry.
Polyester (and polyester blends)- Is a synthetic fabric that is resistant to wrinkles and shrinking, but it does tend to "pill," and it also stains easily. Turning it inside out before washing will help with this. Most of the time, the care label will call for hand or machine washing using the gentle cycle. Dry these garments using the dryer's lowest setting or air dry using rust free hangers.
Rayon- This is a lightweight fabric that is prone to wrinkling. Most often, the care label will recommend that the garment be drycleaned. If it allows machine washing, be sure to use the gentle setting and air dry all garments except sweaters which should lay flat to dry. Be sure and use rust free hangers.
Silk- Surprisingly, silk is one of sturdiest of the natural fibers. It is often labeled for dry-cleaning, because silk dyes tend to bleed. Depending on the color, some silk items will be hand or machine washable on the gentle cycle. Use a very mild soap, like Woolite, always air dry, and NEVER use bleach on silk.
Spandex(aka Lycra)- Spandex is a fabric that has an elastic quality, which is why it is often used for bathing suits, underwear, sportswear --- anything physical. Most of the time the care label on Spandex will call for hand or machine washing using the gentle cycle, and you should always use a mild detergent. Spandex garments should be drip-dryed or dried using your dryer's lowest setting. NEVER use chlorine bleach products on spandex.
Triacetate- This is a shrink resistant, easy care fabric that hardly needs touch up ironing. Most often it is used on pleated sportswear (like tennis skirts) and other pleated items. All pleated triacetate items are usually handwashed, non-pleated can usually be machine washed.
Wool- This is a great natural fiber that resists water and stains. All wool garments can be drycleaned. If your care label says machine washable, make sure to turn the garment inside out and use only mild soap and cold water. Never wring out a wool item. Instead, lay it out on a terrycloth towel then roll it up in the towel. Then unroll the towel and lay the garment and towel on a flat surface to dry. Machine washable wool should be washed on the gentle cycle with a mild detergent and layed flat to dry.