What's the best way to extend the life of your favorite leotard or piece of workout wear? Aside from fabric quality, it largely comes down to what you do on laundry day.
We spoke with Erin Rollins, costume shop manager at BalletMet, for her top tips on keeping your beloved dancewear in rotation for years to come. (Spoiler alert: No, washing and drying everything on the same setting isn't advised.)
Keep it cool
"Cold water is always the best option with stretch fabrics," says Rollins. "Warm is okay, but hot water should be avoided." Why? It can damage the fabric's elasticity over time. Plus, if your clothing has bright or deep colors, opt for cold—heat can have adverse affects on color fastness.
Regular versus delicate cycles
The majority of leotards, sports bras and activewear can be laundered on a regular cycle, says Rollins. Tights, leotards and anything that's delicate (like lace or lightweight mesh) should be set aside for a delicate cycle or hand-washing.
Be mindful of anything with hooks, which can damage other items. Rollins recommends washing your tights in a lingerie bag to avoid snags.
The drying debate
When it comes to using a dryer, "there's a lot of debate about this in wardrobe land," says Rollins. "Many wardrobe managers will avoid drying garments because it elongates the life." But she points out that company costumes have a very high value and often need to last at least 10 to 20 years. "Most dancers don't need their rehearsal wear to last like that, so drying really isn't that big of a deal."
In fact, if your leotard is looking saggy, the dryer's heat can help the elastic in stretch wear "spring back." And if it's a synthetic fabric, shrinking usually isn't an issue.
One exception to using a dryer: If the tag lists more than 5 to 7 percent cotton. With cotton, colors fade and the surface of the fabric can develop a fuzzy white layer. Using a dryer speeds up that process.
Caring for your favorite pieces
A washing machine is never foolproof, warns Rollins. "There is always the potential for 'laundry disasters': snags, tangles, shrinkage, dye stains from other clothing, etc." That said, clothing made from heavier fabrics, like sports bras, activewear and some leotards, will generally hold up fine.
"But if the item is made from a super-lightweight fabric, or has lace, or if I really love it and want it to last forever, I might hand-wash it, so I'm certain it stays intact," she says.
How to hand-wash
Fill a sink or tub with cold water, add a very small amount of clothes detergent and swish it so suds start to form. Soak your item for 30 minutes, then rinse it in clean, cold water. Roll the clothing in a towel to remove excess moisture, and let it air dry on a plastic hanger or rack. (Avoid wire hangers, which can rust, says Rollins.)
About those stinky, sweaty clothes...
"Odor in clothing is usually due to bacteria, and bacteria will only grow if you give it time to get started," says Rollins. Post-class, don't throw your damp clothes in your hamper, or let them sit in your dance bag or a locker for more than a few hours. "That's a great recipe for gross."
Salt from sweat can also wear down stretch materials, notes Rollins, so wash promptly if you can.
If you're not doing a load right away, let your clothes dry before you add them to the basket. And if you're worried about the lingering stench, soak it in cold water for 30 minutes before washing it with warm water and putting it in the dryer.
What she wishes dancers would stop doing
"Don't ever wash your tights with anything that has color," says Rollins, recalling a dancer whose tights had turned grayish pink because she'd washed them with her leotards. "The majority of dance tights are made with nylon—a magnet for dye. If there's anything else in the washer that has color, and even a tiny bit of that color escapes, the tights will grab that color and never let it go."
When buying new dancewear, consider fabric, weight and weave
Aside from how you wash your dance clothes, Rollins says these three factors can shorten their lifespan:
- Fabric: "Natural fibers like silk, cotton and bamboo break down more quickly and show holes."
- Weight: "If a fabric is super-light, sheer or thin, it will wear down more quickly."
- Weave: "If the weave has large holes that you can see—like mesh or lace—it will be more likely to snag."