These Handy Guides Take The Guesswork Out Of Clothing Care

woman's hands holding out clothing label/laundry care symbols pdf's hanging on wall behind folded towels

These Guides To Clothing Care Symbols Make Laundry Easier

Looking for my printable guides to laundry care symbols? Look for the yellow download box at the bottom of this post!

Years ago, I bought a sweater for Dave at Costco that quickly became one of his favorites. So when it came time to wash it, he wanted to make sure he followed the laundry symbol “instructions” on the label, hoping to avoid repeating a recent “shirt shrinking” episode.

He showed me the washing instructions icons on the tag of the sweater and asked me what they meant. I hadn’t really given it a lot of thought at that point, so I had no idea! They may as well have been hieroglyphics for all I could understand them.

Related: Here’s Exactly How To Wash Silk (And It’s Surprisingly Simple)

But after doing a good amount of research on the subject, I now have a much better grasp on the “language of laundry” and am ready to pass the knowledge along to you. Trust me—you’re going to be glad to know this stuff!

blond woman in red sweater lookiong at laundry care symbols on the tag of a striped shirt

Where Do Clothing Care Symbols Come From?

Way back in 1971, the FTC started requiring manufacturers to tag their clothing with at least one safe cleaning method. At this stage, these were generally words indicating whether a garment was suitable for the washing machine, hand wash, or dry cleaning.

In 1997, they came up with a system of symbols that could be used in place of words on labels. The universal symbols were developed by the American Society for Testing and Materials and are used by the detergent, textile, apparel, and appliance industries around the world.

Today, clothing labels carry up to five care symbols, which means it’s a good idea to know what they mean if we want to get the most “life” out of our clothing (or at least avoid their early demise!)

laundry care symbols pdf's hanging on white tiled wall behind folded towels

What Do The Symbols On Clothes Tags Mean?

While I was thoroughly confused when I first tried to decipher the symbols on Dave’s sweater label… I have since realized it’s a very simple system once you get familiar with it. (Or if you have the printable guides I’ve made available for you to download at the end of this post!) :-)

Laundry care symbols fall into one of 4 categories, which are:

  1. Washing
  2. Drying
  3. Bleaching
  4. Ironing
blond woman putting laundry into washing machine

1. Washing Symbols

Wash symbols can be broken down into three sections: method of washing, water temperature, and recommended cycle.

As an example, a sweater that requires a low-heat machine wash on a gentle cycle will have a label showing one spot inside the washtub, with two lines underneath. Likewise, a white dress cotton shirt is likely to need a high-heat machine wash on a permanent press cycle, so you’d see the three spots in the washtub, with two lines underneath.

blond woman holding up a red gingham shirt in a laundry room

2. Drying Symbols

Beware—the drying stage of the washing process is often where shrinkage occurs! As such, it’s important to fully understand the symbols you’re looking at. There will be at least one symbol on the label that tells you which drying methods you can use – and sometimes which you need to avoid.

For instance, some fabrics will need to drip dry or dry flat, where others will be perfectly suitable for the tumble dryer. Drying symbols use the same number of dots as washing symbols, indicating low, medium, and high heat settings.

hand pouring Clorox bleach into washing machine

3. Bleaching Symbols

Bleaching symbols on a piece of clothing are easy to read. An empty triangle means you can use bleach, and a crossed-out triangle means you can’t.

If there are two diagonal lines breaking the triangle into three sections, this means you can use a non-chlorine bleach – a gentler product that’s less harmful to your skin, clothes, and the environment.

blond woman smiling while ironing a white shirt

4. Ironing Symbols

Finally, the care tag will give you advice about ironing. Ironing symbols use the same heat indicators you’ll see on washing and dryer symbols, so you can decide whether to go for a high, low, or medium heat temperature setting.

If the iron symbol is crossed out, then the garment is not suitable for ironing. If the iron’s steam is crossed out, you can iron the garment with the steam setting turned off.

How To Read Clothing Care Symbols

Now that you have a good idea of what the individual symbols look like, it’s useful to get a feel for what they look like together.

closeup of woman's hands holding out the tag in a striped shirt

They might look intimidating at first glance, but you’ll be surprised how quickly you pick this laundry language up! When you do, you’ll avoid a range of garment-ruining issues, including shrinking, damage, misshapen clothes, fading colors, and pilling.

It’s also worth considering how much it costs financially when you don’t understand laundry care labels. Sure, you might not be too upset if an old t-shirt needs to be retired to the trash, but what about shrinking brand-new jeans or a winter sweater? What happens if your favorite party dress loses its color because you use the wrong laundry detergent?

a rainbow of cardigans, slacks, and shirts hanging on a double-bar clothing rack

There’s an old saying about how “a dollar saved is a dollar earned”, and it couldn’t be more true than with our clothes. I’m not saying it isn’t nice to treat yourself at the store, but you’ll be able to treat yourself much more frequently if you don’t have to keep replacing items that are damaged by the wash!

Download My 2 Guides To Laundry Symbols

Laundry Symbols Cheat Sheet & Guide

I’ve got 2 free printable guides to laundry symbols for you. The first page is a “cheat sheet” that can help you learn the basics, and the second is a complete guide to every symbol.

A handy laundry symbols cheat sheet with a shortcode for quick access during demonstrations.


I hope you all find these as helpful as I did! I feel like I “cracked the code” and now I am no longer intimidated by those cryptic-looking symbols on my clothes! Time to go buy some more to celebrate! ;-)

Did the meanings of any of the clothing care symbols surprise you?

Read This Next

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Jill Nystul (aka Jillee)

Jill Nystul is an accomplished writer and author who founded the blog One Good Thing by Jillee in 2011. With over 30 years of experience in homemaking, she has become a trusted resource for contemporary homemakers by offering practical solutions to everyday household challenges.I share creative homemaking and lifestyle solutions that make your life easier and more enjoyable!

About Jillee

Jill Nystul

Jill’s 30 years of homemaking experience, make her the trusted source for practical household solutions.

About Jillee


Bright Ideas

  • I love the laundry care symbol help! But some of my clothing tags have wash temperatures on them. How is anyone supposed to know what temperature a washer uses? A front loader uses very little water and it is hard to stick a thermometer in the wash water.

  • I was frustrated by the amount of time it takes to look at each tag and figure out what to do with the item of clothing. So now as soon as I get new clothes the first thing I do it look at the tag. I make a colored dot (with puffy paint or fabric paint) on the label. Green for cold water, red for warm water, orange for hand wash only and so on. Now when the clothes come off, I put them in the hamper according the the color on the label. This trick has saved me hours of looking at each tag every time I wash. :)

  • Jilee
    thank you so much for this info (and so much more that you give to us). I printed and taped them to the wall in my laundry room. Have printed so many tips of yours and scattered them throughout my home – inside kitchen cabinets, computer area, etc. etc.
    so thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • That refers to a temperature! In this case, you should wash the item around 30 degrees celsius/86 degrees fahrenheit. This falls right between the high end of the “cold” setting and the low end of the “warm” setting, so in winter/spring/fall you’ll want to use the warm setting and in the heat of summer you’ll likely want to use the cold setting! :-)

    • If the temperatures in my area is above 40 degrees, I wash everything in cool or cold water.
      In the winter, and temps are below 40, the pipes coming into the house can freeze, and I wash everything in warm water. If it cannot be washed in warm water, due to shrinkage, I will not purchase that item or not use it until I can wash it in cool or cold water, or wash it by hand with cool water as I have an “On Demand” water heater and the first minute of water is cool.
      I use Tide for Sensitive Skin and Seventh Generation Bleach, which uses Hydrogen Peroxide, as it will not re.
      I have bought Seventh Generation Detergent, too, and that is great for those of us with sensitive skin

      • This went into cyberspace too soon. Seventh Generation Bleach will not fade or remove colors, but it does disinfect clothes and remove sweaty odors.

    • Oh darn I didn’t think to print in color. Oh well, tax season coming up and my spouse (also my accountant, financial advisor and all things money-related) told me not to use up all the ink. So I’ll have to stick with the B&W version for now

  • Great to see you back to your roots. I was ready to unsubscribe you because of all the shopping ads you were sending out. I subscribed for all your cleaning ideas and the occasional cooking tip, not where to by stuff.

    • Not to be critical, Mrs. B and I certainly don’t mean to offend, but I’m getting all my info free on this site. Ads are jilee’s means of keeping a free site for those of us who are unable, unwilling or, admittedly, in my case, too cheap to pay for her premium site. Ive learned to scroll past most of the ads, read some, and have even ordered a couple of the products advertised. At any rate, again, I hope you don’t take offense – I’m just giving my opinion. Please stay happy, healthy and safe from this horrid pandemic.

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