dear annie

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What is it with dry-clean only labels? Why the epidemic? Is it laziness or fear of litigation that makes so many manufacturers slap them on even perfectly washable fabrics? Or are they shareholders in the dry-cleaning industry? Is it a sales ploy to make us feel pampered? In any case, they're making a big mistake. I refuse to buy everyday separates which claim to require professional dry-cleaning, unless common sense tells me I can wash them, which it often does. However, I have just bought a beige, dry-clean only microfibre mac which I'd dearly love to wash but daren't. It's 100 per cent polyester and the lining is 100 per cent acetate. My friend has a microfibre coat she throws into the washing machine. Surely you can't get more washable than pure polyester - or can you? Is there an independent advisory body or person I could ask? Or do you know the answer? And will someone please persuade manufacturers to tell the truth about their fabrics so we can make our own minds up about how to damn well clean them?

C Mohr (Ms), London

There isn't an independent advisory body you can ask. It's down to common sense and trial and error, I'm afraid. I have long suspected that manufacturers stick "dry clean" instructions in willy nilly but trying to get anyone to admit to it impossible. I turned to Mr Tebbs who is MD of the Fabric Care Research Association for a bit of advice. He said that whether a garment can be dry-cleaned or washed will very much depend on its total make-up, which must include not only the outer fabric and the lining, but any interlining, any adornments such as buttons or trims, and the appropriate dyestuffs that have been used. (This is why one thing made out of polyester might be washable and another not.) He advised looking for proper care labels (ie not just "dry clean only"). Believe it or not, the use of care labelling in the UK remains voluntary, so we are actually lucky to get anything at all. Some things of course do have to be dry cleaned, either because of the fabric or because of the structure (tailored items, things with linings or shoulder pads etc). But while few people mind getting special occasion clothes dry-cleaned it is particularly annoying when you buy something that you plan to wear extensively - a slip dress or unlined pair of trousers for example - only to find it has to be dry cleaned. I dry clean nothing other than coats or posh stuff and refuse, like you, to buy anything that is dry clean. Of course you can wash lots of dry-clean only garments successfully - I have - but the risk is ours. (Be careful with garments listing rayon or viscose in them. They can seem perfectly washable but often shrink, so follow the label instructions carefully here.) I wouldn't wash your mac, because it's not as simple as saying that this or that fibre is washable (and polyester is a fibre not a fabric) because it depends on lots of scientific stuff. And anything with a lining does not tend to take well to water - you may find the outer fabric washes well and the lining shrinks, for example. If everyone avoided dry-clean clothes wherever possible and wrote to the shops and manufacturers to make their point, things might change. As my renowned colleague Ms Barbieri wrote a few weeks ago: "It's our money, make them work for it."

My friend and I are planning on coming to London to shop with a capital pounds . Our problem is that although we are both groovy young single women with fab arty-type jobs, we are both size 26. We find it difficult to buy individual, well-made, groovy clothes and often have to resort to Evans - oh, my God - but then we risk the horror of everyone knowing where we bought our clothes. We are planning to drive out to Dawn French's shop but I find the designs there a bit shapeless. I shop a lot at Hennes, but where else can I go? My friend is desperate for an outfit for a wedding and I just love clothes. Any advice would be so appreciated.

Claire, West Jesmond

Thank you for the spotty dog card and don't worry, the lavender envelope was just fine. My long-term advice is to get things made for you, which may seem like a pain initially but once you get into the swing of things it will be ideal: you can choose the fabric, you can choose exactly what you want to wear and not be dictated to and of course there is no chance of anyone else wearing the same thing or knowing where it came from. In a few months we are going to be doing a feature on dressmakers, which has been several months in the planning. We shall also be producing a nationwide guide to dressmakers. So please look out for this. In the meantime, I think you might be a bit unfair to 1647 (Dawn French's shop) and Evans, but you're not mad keen on them so that's fine. If you are planning to drive out to 1647 however, you might also like to visit a shop called Harrington Surprises (129 The Broadway, NW7, tel: 0181 959 2312) which stocks sizes 20-32 and also does mail order. There is another shop called Base (55 Monmouth Street, WC2, tel: 0171 240 8914) which stocks sizes 16-28 which is worth a look. I get lots of letters from readers who are bigger or smaller than the so-called average. If there are any shops out there catering for them, please, please get in touch.

In reply to a plea for stylish slippers (Dear Annie, 16 June), a nice lady called Kirsty has written to me from Auckland, New Zealand, telling me that her company makes slippers. They look jolly splendid from the photographs she sent - kid suede uppers, gold embroidery and pigskin lining. There isn't a stockist here but any readers wanting more info can write to me sending an SAE and I shall put you in touch.

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