by Jana Thevar
I’m not sure where this myth (that silk can’t be hand washed) came from. If one is careful and does it the right way, most natural silk can be hand washed with no damage to the fabric.
I wash my silk sarees with baby shampoo, then protect them with a good quality hair conditioner. That’s right – those regular hair products you put on your hair every day. In fact, most silk fabrics (not just sarees) can be washed safely this way.
How does this work? Just like hair, silk is a natural fibre and doesn’t require harsh detergents. Regular laundry detergent will strip silk of its natural sheen and weaken the fibres, leaving it more prone to damage. Dry-cleaning is harsh, because strong chemicals and solvents are often used. Besides being potentially damaging and leaving chemical residue on your sarees, dry-cleaning can also be expensive. I use Johnson’s Baby Conditioning Shampoo and some drugstore-brand Italian conditioner which I bought in bulk during a sale. I’ve also used Loreal Elseve and Tresemme shampoos and conditioners, with great results.
If you’d like to know why I started hand-washing my silk sarees, scroll down below for the full story.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I cannot guarantee that your silk saree won’t be damaged by hand washing, as I am unable to see and judge the fabric. This article is solely based on my personal experience and current practise of hand washing my personal collection of silk sarees. Please read the precautions below to avoid damaging your sarees if you choose to hand wash them. If your saree is very expensive, intricate, rare, old or has sentimental value, it may be better to have it professionally cleaned.
What You’ll Need:
• Baby shampoo (any variant)
• Good-quality hair conditioner
• A large pail
• An old towel
• Hot weather (or an indoor clothing drying device)
1. Fill your pail with plain water (warm or cool) up to ¾ full. Add roughly 1 tablespoon of baby shampoo into the water. Use your hands to the shampoo in mix well.
2. Immerse your silk saree into the shampoo solution. Submerge it completely. Gently stir it around in the water using your hands. You can squeeze, knead and lift the fabric if required as long as you’re gentle. Don’t be too worried; silk is stronger than it looks. The key is to always be gentle when handling wet silk. Never tug, pull or wring wet silk.
3. After 2 – 3 minutes of cleaning, it’s time for rinsing. Lift the entire saree out of the pail in a heap with both hands. Let the water drain from the silk naturally for a few seconds, then place it somewhere to continue draining (while still in a loose heap). Never, ever wring your silk saree.
4. Fill the pail again, but this time with plain water. Immerse the whole saree again, using your hands to work the fabric gently for about 10 seconds, then lift it out again and drain per Step 3. Note: You can rinse once or twice; it’s entirely up to you. I do it twice to get all traces of shampoo out.
5. Fill the pail for the last time, while the saree is drip-draining. Add 1 tablespoon of hair conditioner into the water and stir vigorously. Depending on what conditioner you use, you may work up a froth or foam – that’s fine. Ensure that the conditioner has dissolved well into the water. You can add the conditioner while the water is running to ensure it mixes better.
6. Dip the saree into the conditioner solution. Work it for a few seconds, then lift out and drain again. Allow the saree to dip-drain a little longer this time, about 5 minutes. For the final draining, I like to ‘pile’ the fabric over a bathroom rail so more water leaves the cloth. Don’t leave the silk wet for longer than 10 minutes – dry it as soon as possible.
7. If you live in a hot climate, line dry your saree in the shade and secure it with clothes pegs. It’s best to dry it during midday, between 11am and 2pm when the sun rays are strongest. It should be sufficiently dry in about 20 to 45 minutes.
8. If you’re using an indoor drying device (like a laundry-room drying closet), lay the saree over an old towel first. Then, roll the towel up from one edge with the saree inside it (like a Swiss roll) and squeeze so that the towel absorbs the water. After that, unroll the towel and hang the saree in the drying device. Keep the temperature on mild to medium heat to prevent fabric damage. Absolutely DO NOT tumble-dry or spin-dry silk sarees – the fabric will develop permanent creases, and possibly shrink or tear in the process.
9. Once your silk saree is dry, you may fold it up and store it as usual. Steam ironing is best for silk sarees. If you’re using a regular iron for your saree, it’s safer to iron over a thin piece of white cotton fabric (like muslin) to avoid burning the silk.
• Take note that not all silk can be hand washed safely. Most Indian sarees, such as kanchipuram and tussar, are sturdy fabrics and can usually be hand washed if one is gentle and careful. If in doubt, wash a small, hidden part of the inner corner and iron it while damp to see how the fabric is affected. Alternatively, you may cut off the blouse piece and wash that first to test how it stands up to hand washing.
• Deep colors, especially red shades, are HIGHLY likely to run. If you have made the decision to handwash your silk saree anyway, prepare for the fact that a lot of the color may bleed into the washing water. There’s no reason to panic; I find this is usually the excess dye coming out. If the saree is of good quality, handwashing will not fade the color. Just remember to wash it separately so the dye doesn’t stain other items. If your saree has many bright, contrasting colors (such as yellow and blue), it’s best not to hand wash it for the first wash as the colors may bleed into one another.
• If you have sarees of similar colors, they can be washed together if your pail is big enough. Use ample water when it comes to washing silk sarees to ensure any dye that bleeds into the water is diluted and less likely to stain.
• NEVER put pure silk sarees into a washing machine, not even in a laundry bag. Machine washing and drying is too rough for silk.
Why Hand Wash Silk Sarees?
• Hand washing is much gentler than dry-cleaning. The latter utilises chemicals and solvents which can be damaging to delicate silk fibres.
• Your sarees will last longer. When you add hair conditioner, you’re effectively adding a coat of protection over the silk fibres. This helps shield the fabric from wear and tear, sun damage and pollution. The hair conditioner also adds a natural sheen and body to the silk, keeping the fabric supple.
• Remove chemicals left over from the manufacturing process. I am severely allergic to many types of synthetic substances, hence why I wash anything that will come into contact with my skin. Even if you don’t have allergies, it’s always better to have less factory-manufactured chemicals involved in your daily life.
• Improves the fabric texture. Many Indian silk sarees are highly starched. This makes it look good for display in the showroom, but can be annoyingly stiff to drape. I personally prefer the soft feel of natural fabrics. I find that once washed and conditioned, silk sarees are easier to work with and hug the curves of the female figure beautifully.
• It’s good exercise. I’ll admit, it’s tough work – all that rinsing, draining and refilling. Not to mention the weight of heavy silk once wet! Washing one saree is alright – wash a few at once and you’ll realise how many calories you’re burning. I welcome the work: it makes me appreciate my sarees better and keeps me fit. Anyhow, I don’t trust my prized pieces in anyone else’s hands.
• It’s way cheaper than dry cleaning. All you need is shampoo and conditioner, sunlight (or a dryer) and some effort on your part.
My mum, sister and I jointly own a few hundred sarees – we lost count a few years ago. Many of those are made of silk. When I was little, mum thought nothing of sending her silk sarees for dry-cleaning regularly. It was such a hassle; she always had to travel back and forth between laundrettes, especially during wedding season.
I noticed how the texture of the silk changed after just the first cleaning: the silk often lost its natural sheen and sometimes changed color. Upon draping, it fell flat and ‘dead’. Not very nice, as silk fabrics should look and feel lustrous. I guess that’s what strong chemicals does to delicate fabrics.
The first silk saree I bought was a single-shade piece with a gold border. I was 18 years old and bored to death in a saree shop in Chennai. The shop workers were enthusiastically spreading out length after length of cloth all over the place, creating colourful heaps and mounds of cloth around the store. My mother was picking the pieces she wanted. I had a headache just looking at the colors; dazzling, vibrant reds, blues and greens in every imaginable combination.
Eventually, my mum had picked out a stack of sarees for herself and was ready to pay. The shop owner felt bad that I had chosen nothing for myself, so he came over with his workers to see if they could help me find something I liked. They must’ve felt sorry for me – an awkward teenager in jeans and a black heavy metal t-shirt, in a country where females wore feminine things and fresh flowers in their hair.
I told them I had only one thing I mind: I wanted a cream or white saree with a gold border. They were disappointed as they didn’t have it – they had every shade except what I wanted. I told them not to worry about it and was about to leave. Suddenly, the shop owner smiled and told me to wait a bit. He said he had a special piece that he was sure I would like. I was sceptical but I decided to see it anyway.
He disappeared into the warehouse, then came out with this lovely piece in his hands. It was shimmering gently under the lights, the color of fresh sandalwood paste. It had a simple frosted gold border. The saree wasn’t white, but I fell in love with it immediately. It was elegant and resplendent, with the natural sheen of new, untreated Indian silk. I wore it a few times, mainly for occasions like Janmasthami and also for a stage play I acted in, called Jaganatha Priya Nataka, during the years I was active in ISKCON.
After a couple of uses, I decided (unwillingly) to send my precious saree for dry-cleaning, simply because I didn’t know any better back then. The result? It wasn’t completely destroyed, but the fabric came back lacklustre and ‘dead’. It had lost its natural sheen and fell flat upon draping. I was heartbroken – it was a rare piece, both by color and design. That was the first and last time I ever sent a saree to the dry-cleaners. I have been hand-washing all my silk sarees ever since.