Do You Really Need to Separate Laundry?

separate laundry

Yes! And here’s our easy laundry sorting guide to help you do it.

Growing up, I didn’t pay much attention to how my mom did laundry. When I went off to college, I simply put everything in the washer to maximize my quarters and minimize my time. Same when going to the neighborhood or apartment complex laundromat. But after a while, I noticed my whites were dingy and there was the occasional color bleed that relegated a favorite garment to the rag pile. I also found that some fabrics shed fuzz or lint while others seemed to be lint magnets. It was a nightmare to remove all the fluff! Additionally, some pieces of clothing got stretched out or shrank.

And so, I began sorting laundry.

Not a sorter? Here are the most common reasons given not to sort:

“I use only cold water.” Or “I’ve never had a problem before.”

Are you sure about this? Compare a new article of clothing to a used one and compare the wear and color because dinginess and fading creeps in over time. Washing different fabric types and densities together is hard on the fabrics and your washing machine, shortening the life of both.

“I have a super-efficient HE washing machine.”

Even HE machines have different fabric cycles on their machines. They are there for a reason.

“I use less water when I throw them all together.”

True. But if you’ve stuffed the machine to its tippy top, the clothes won’t have the room to move around so they can get their cleanest. Plus, there are still the issues pointed out in the answer to the first objection.

“I can just throw away what gets ruined. Clothes are cheap.”

The price of clothing can be cheap. But, the manufacture of new clothing siphons off and then pollutes precious water resources better used elsewhere. Furthermore, there’s no point in adding ruined clothing to our already crowded landfills. By making your clothes last longer, you’ll not only save some money but will be eco-friendly too.

Understanding fabrics

Why you need to sort is largely bound up with the wide variety of fabrics found in laundry. They should not all be treated the same. Fortunately, each laundry item has a label with its own washing and drying directions. Respect that label to prolong the item’s look, fit, and longevity.

Many of today’s labels many use symbols—without necessarily interpreting what they mean!

separate laundry clothing tag

Fortunately, in this example, the meanings of the symbols are repeated in English:

  • 40°C equals 104°F (Celsius is used as clothing tends to be sold internationally)
  • No bleach
  • Iron on low
  • Tumble dry on low heat
  • Do not dry clean

The label also suggests it be washed and ironed inside out as well as washed separately. It’s clear this garment should not be washed with those requiring hot water and bleach. Nor should it go in the dryer on high.

Here’s a chart with all the symbols—who knew there was so much fabric care science?

Once you are familiar with all the kinds of fabrics that make up your laundry loads, you’ll be able to wash like with like, using the correct washing cycle and water temperature for each load.

How to separate laundry


Prepping to sort

When you gather your laundry together, turn your clothes inside out. I learned that trick from a T-shirt silk-screener. This will protect the surface of silk-screened tees and other articles of clothing from unnecessary external wear caused by rubbing up against other items. It may also help stop the seams on your jeans from prematurely fading on dark clothes, and it may also prevent pilling. Empty pockets, unroll cuffs and socks, tie hoodies, remove pins, zip zippers, and snug VELCRO in place.

I’ve read mixed advice about buttons. Some say to fasten them. Others say don’t, as washing can stress the buttons and buttonholes. You may want to experiment to see what works best for you. And if you have a rip or tear and you don’t want it to get larger, mend it at this stage. It will only grow larger in the washer and dryer.

It’s at this stage you’ll also want to put delicates into mesh bags, so they won’t get tangled up with the rest of the laundry. And if something absolutely must be handwashed, set it aside. Same with dry clean-only garments.

The 3 basic steps of sorting

There are different methods of separating laundry. But this is the one I prefer.

  1. Sort first by color: Whites, lights, and darks. This is your most basic sort so you won’t have color migration and you can add whiteners without fear when appropriate.
  2. Subdivide each color by fabric type (keep those labels in mind) and weight. For example, don’t wash heavy towels and blankets with sheets, or sheets with lighter, smaller items. If you do, your washing machine won’t like it—and neither will your laundry. And if your towels and blankets shed, don’t wash them with other heavier items that will attract the lint or fluff—like microfiber or corduroy.

The provides these helpful recommendations on blended fabrics:

“Our rule of thumb for washing a blend is to follow the instructions for the fabric with the highest percentage. For example, if the label indicates that a shirt contains a blend of 70% cotton and 30% polyester, follow…washing instructions for cotton. If the item contains any amount of silk, follow the washing instructions for silk even if the silk percentage is small. The same rule applies to all woolens and cashmere. If an item contains both silk and wool, follow the washing instructions for wool.”

You will also want to keep active or performance wear separate.

  1. Subdivide the fabric types by how dirty they are. Dirt from very soiled clothing can float off and redeposit onto cleaner items—ick! Pretreatment, hot water, and longer wash cycles are generally required for badly soiled articles of clothing. But respect the limits of the clothing labels.

You’ll especially want to make sure bedding, towels, and undergarments are thoroughly cleaned. Reports show that, thanks to E. coli, Salmonella, and even COVID, bath and kitchen towels should be changed out every two days. So, I suggest adding a sanitizer—there are non-bleach types. If you are using a laundromat, adding sanitizer to every load is a good idea. You don’t want to take home other people’s microbes.

Obviously, undergarments are not as heavy as big towels and sheets, so consider washing smaller towels with undergarments.

Generally speaking (and again, respecting the fabric care label), hot water is used for whites, stains, and things that need to be sanitized. Cold water is for darks and anything bright that can bleed. Everything else is warm or cold, your choice.

Summarizing the benefits of sorting

  • Your washing machine will be happier and live longer. Stuffing a washer too full is mechanically bad for it. Not only will the clothes have less space to move around and get clean, but the spin cycle also doesn’t handle a combination of heavy and delicates very well. Regardless of the kind of washer, always leave at least a hand’s length of empty space at the top.
  • You’ll never have color transfer. True, synthetic materials aren’t as prone to color bleed or color transfer, but your jeans and cotton items are.
  • You’ll protect delicate fabrics and your favorite, more fragile garments from zippers and/or more harsh fabrics
  • You’ll keep items that need sanitizing together for a thorough cleaning
  • You’ll have things presorted by wash temperatures and washing cycles, as well as matching dryer settings, optimizing fabric care
  • All your clothes will look better and last longer—a win-win for your wallet as well as the environment

So, take the time to sort. Your washing machine, your clothes, and the environment will thank you for it.

If you’re in the market for a new washer, be sure to check out our blog on the Wet and Wild World of Washers.

And if you do get a new washer or need to replace the water inlet hoses on your existing one, Certified Appliance Accessories has you covered! Visit our page dedicated to washing machines to see all our options.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational and educational purposes only. Certified Appliance Accessories is not liable or responsible for any damages resulting from or related to your use of this information.