How to machine wash your parka at home properly

spot clean, illegal in Canada, @trucnguyen

For many of us, our winter coat is the one garment we're wearing every day during the cold-weather months; and often, it's also one of the priciest pieces in our wardrobes. So while the typical coat doesn't need to be laundered very often, to keep your parka looking great for many years you'll want to address any stains immediately, and then give it a proper clean before storing it away at the end of winter. 

Most dry cleaners now offer specialty cleaning services for insulated outerwear, but this convenient option can be pricey, and the maintenance costs do quickly add up if you're looking to clean your parka more than once per year, like mid-season or after a particularly messy outing. Luckily, it's possible to safely machine wash most parkas (and puffer coats and snowsuits) on your own — it's simply a matter of reading labels closely and approaching the task with care.

For expert advice on the topic, we talked to Jacqueline Sava, a laundry pro and the founder of Toronto-based Soak Wash Inc., about everything from general best practices to the common laundry mistakes to avoid. Here are her top tips for safely machine washing (and drying) parkas and other insulated outerwear. 

Wash it sparingly

Even if your parka is being worn daily, you likely don't need to fully wash it more than once or twice a year. Sava says that as an outer layer, parkas rarely get super sweaty; oftentimes, you're simply dealing with surface dirt from things like bad weather or slush puddles. “Parkas are a bit like sweaters in that they don't actually get that dirty, even if they look dirty, because it's just sitting on the surface,” she said.

And you can always spot clean as necessary. “If you actually spill coffee on your parka or something like that, it's just as easy to just clean the parts that have a stain,” Sava said. “You don't necessarily have to wash the whole thing on a regular basis.” Just be sure to work on removing any stains as soon as possible, ideally before they set. 

Read labels with care

“The number one mistake is just stuffing your coat in the washer and dryer with everything else and just hoping for the best,” Sava cautioned. She recommends the first thing you should do is review the manufacturer's care instructions and note the fibre contents of the parka (including any trim and findings). Styles that feature things like leather insets or non-removable fur trim or wood buttons would be tricky to launder yourself, and Sava recommends always using cold water to wash coats made out of wool and/or down, because shrinkage can be an issue with both materials. 

A tricky thing is that even if a coat's care label says it's dry clean only, you might still be able to safely launder it at home with some precautions. “Technically, it's illegal in Canada for you to put 'dry clean only' on something that is washable, but many, many brands…do [that] because the washing process is harder,” says Sava. Or, a parka that requires hand washing or is dry clean only might actually become machine washable once you make certain adjustments, such as removing a delicate trim entirely before you put the parka into the dryer.  

Still, if you're not entirely sure whether your coat is machine washable, you may want to contact the manufacturer for more specific guidance — some outerwear companies provide detailed laundry instructions on their websites, while others strictly recommend dry cleaning for certain designs (beware: in some cases, not following the proper cleaning method could actually void the product warranty).

Go gentle and low

Once you've determined that your coat is indeed machine washable, you'll want to empty the pockets, remove any real fur trim, and wash it on a gentle cycle with a mild detergent and cold water, says Sava. “You don't need whiteners and brighteners and harsh abrasives,” she said. In fact, a too-strong detergent might strip off a coat's wind-resistant or rain-resistant coating. 

If you have the option to do so, use a front-loading machine for more delicate parkas that would benefit from an extra gentle wash cycle. “A top loader has the agitator in the middle…and you don't want to agitate a wool coat,” says Sava.

Then, put your parka in the dryer on the coolest, gentlest setting available. Just be sure to remove any faux fur trim at this stage, says Sava. “Most faux fur is washable and not dryable … because if there's any polyester content, it can melt in the dryer. And then you lose the look and feel of your fur trim.” You can also throw in a few dryer balls or clean tennis balls to help fluff up the insulation and prevent clumping, but what Sava highly recommends is checking in on your parka frequently as it dries. “Go check it out every 15 minutes or so to re-fluff it and make sure it hasn't rolled itself into a ball,” she said. She also recommends turning the coat inside out halfway through the drying cycle, to ensure that the inside gets fully dried.

Allow for movement

While some outerwear manufacturers recommend zipping up or closing your parka before laundering, Sava prefers to leave it open so that there is “more room for things to move and flow.” And ideally, you'll want to wash and dry coats on their own, and not with a bunch of other things. You want to give the water and detergent room in the washing machine to do their jobs well, and also minimize surface abrasions and the total drying time for your parka. “Definitely don't try to wash a parka with everything else in your laundry,” Sava said.  

Do an end-of-season wash

At the end of every winter, be sure to wash your parka well before putting it away for the season, says Sava.  

“Especially if there's wool or down, because moths and other bugs are attracted to the oils from your skin — it's not about the actual coat,” she said. “You always want to put things away clean.”

Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.

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