Get the lowdown on what you must dry-clean—and what you can fudge.

Just ‘cause the tag decrees “dry clean” doesn’t mean you have to drop a week’s salary at the Press-n-Go. With a little sleuthing, you’ll find you can handle many items yourself. If your laundry loads are literally taking you to the cleaners, read on for the real deal on what you can wash and what should go to a pro.

Look Before You Wash

Grab your magnifying glass: Those sometimes-itchy, always-tough-to-read clothing labels are your best source for care and washing instructions. The agency ASTM International governs the little laundry icons, meant to communicate washing directions without words. Still, if you don’t know whether it’s the circle or the square that refers to drying (and what’s that striped triangle, anyway?), print out a symbol key to keep in the laundry room.

What to Dry-Clean

If the tag reads, “dry clean only,” stop right there: You do have to bring the garment to the cleaners. But if it just says, “dry clean,” that’s a recommendation; you can consider laundering it yourself. Garments made of silk, wool, tweed, velvet, leather, suede and taffeta simply don’t mix with water, so always take those to a dry cleaner. And as a rule, anything with appliques, sequins and beading should be cleaned by a professional.

What to Machine-Wash

Make no mistake: Washing machines are heavy-duty beasts, and intense detergents can damage many fabrics. So think twice before you load. Use the machine for your really dirty work: sheets, towels, socks, T-shirts, kids’ clothes and grimy gym duds—and only if the tag says that machine washing is safe. Cottons are almost always machine-washable, as are synthetics like nylon, acrylic and spandex. Wash everything aside from stained items inside-out using the gentlest cycle and coldest water possible.

What to Hand-Wash

Because your to-do list just isn’t long enough, most clothing benefits from a good, old-fashioned hand-washing: It’s your safest (if not the quickest) bet for clean clothes that still fit. Sweaters, collared shirts, flouncy blouses, hosiery and lingerie should always be hand-washed, as well as anything made from delicate fabrics like rayon, linen, thin jersey and cashmere. Fill a basin with cold water and a tiny amount of gentle detergent or baby shampoo, then swirl each garment around for five minutes—and never wring!

Drying and Pressing

Look to the tags again for notes on drying and ironing options, but make air-drying your default method. Dryers are godsends for sheets and towels, but clothing fibers aren’t meant to take that much heat. Sandwich each garment between two clean towels and gently blot out excess water, then reshape it and lay flat to dry.