Articles of clothing with a "Dry Clean Only" label really should be taken to a dry cleaner. Though you can sometimes machine wash dry clean only clothing without any problems, other times you can damage the fabric or cause the colors to bleed. Generally speaking, you can machine wash sturdy clothes that are all one color and made out of fabrics like cotton or linen as long as you turn them inside out, put the washer on a gentle cycle with cool water, and hang the clothes up to dry. It's a risk though, so you shouldn't try to machine wash any clothing you have that is expensive or has sentimental value.
What to Consider Before Machine Washing
The first thing to think about if you want to machine wash dry clean only clothing is the type of fabric the clothing is made out of. For instance, wool is notorious for shrinking and rayon can become wrinkled beyond repair. Suede and leather generally don't do well in a washing machine, since suede can be stained and damaged by water and leather may shrink and take on a distressed look. Materials like silk and linen may also recommend dry cleaning, since washing them in a machine can tear or shrink them or cause their dyes to bleed.
You should also consider the construction of the garment, and they way it's dyed. Garments that are delicate may get torn up in a normal washing machine, and can also be damaged by bleach. Additionally, many dry clean only garments are not colorfast, which means that their colors may run when washed or bleached. You can check to see if a garment is colorfast before washing by wetting a cotton ball and dabbing at a hidden part of the garment to see if any dye comes off. Fabric softener should be avoided as well, since it can damage the finish on some dry clean only garments or stain them.
You can look at the label too, for ideas as to whether something will wash well. If the care label says, “Dry Cleaning Suggested,” instead of “Dry Clean Only,” this usually means you can wash the garment. Manufacturers are required to put a method of cleaning, and they tend to put a safer one just in case.
Items to Always Dry Clean
You should not machine wash dry clean only clothing of certain types. For instance, suits or tuxedos should be taken to the cleaners, and never thrown in a washing machine. Anything you paid a lot of money for or that has sentimental value should not be washed if the label says "Dry Clean Only." Additionally, other items that most likely should not be washed in a machine include your wedding dress, formal gowns, winter coats, and the like. Fabrics with very delicate lace, beading, or special creases, stitching, or ruching probably won’t survive your washing machine either.
Tips for Cleaning
If you do decide to machine wash dry clean only fabric, always use a cool or cold water cycle and a mild detergent. Make sure to set your washing machine on a short, gentle cycle, and put any items that you're washing in a mesh bag. You should never dry the clothing in a dryer, since this can shrink and damage it. Instead, after you remove the items from the washing machine, gently shake the garments to remove some of the wrinkles and hang them up or lay them flat to air dry.
There are other ways to clean dry clean only clothing at home besides machine washing. You can handwash many dry clean only garments with cool water and a gentle detergent, and you can use a hand steamer to clean garments that you know are colorfast. Some companies also sell dry cleaning kits for use at home, which generally consist of a stain remover, a dryer activated cloth containing solvents and perfumes, and a dryer bag to protect the garments during the process. These kits aren't suitable for garments that can be damaged by steam, however, including non-colorfast garments, leather and suede, or fur.