PRACTICAL VIEW : Sorting Out Symbols of Label Lingo

Confused by those strange hieroglyphics on clothing labels? The universal symbols for fabric care seemed like a great idea when the Federal Trade Commission adopted the current Care Label Rule in 1984. Somewhere along the line, though, good intentions were lost in the translation.

A care information tag is required in most clothing sold in the United States. The instructions give only one care method for the garment; using others may pose some risk.

The symbols that tell you what methods to use in cleaning the garment have become a study in complications.

American- and European-made garments may contain any of the following:

WASHING--U-shaped symbol with a wavy line in the center. A two-digit number inside the U indicates the maximum water temperature, in Celsius. A silhouette of a hand means wash by hand. An X through the U means do not wash. In fact, an X through anything means don’t . A line under the U means wash on the gentle cycle.

BLEACHING--A triangle. It may have the letters CL inside, meaning that you can use chlorine bleach. An X through a triangle means nix the bleach.


DRYING--A square. A circle within the square means tumble dry and dots indicate appropriate heat settings--two dots mean high heat, one means low. Three variations on the square theme indicate if your garment should be hung up wet to drip-dry; wrung out and then hung up to dry, or laid out flat.

IRONING--An outline of an iron. The dots inside the silhouette indicate the maximum temperature setting, in Celsius. A single dot means cool; two dots, medium, and three dots, hot. The familiar X through the silhouette means--you guessed it--do not iron.

DRY-CLEANING--A circle. Often with a letter indicating the solvents that should or should not be used. An X through a circle means do not dry-clean.

Japanese clothing manufacturers use slightly different symbols. Machine wash is a rectangle with a horizontal line through the top third; numbers detail maximum water temperature, in Celsius. The square-cornered U indicates hand-wash. An outline of a beaker is used instead of a triangle, for bleach. The ironing and dry-cleaning symbols are the same as those on European and American labels.

Sometimes the symbols are stitched or printed in color. Red means do not use (as in, do not dry-clean this garment), yellow means caution (often with temperature guidelines), and green is the go ahead.

Professional cleaners may be able to provide a complete list of symbols. And establishments that are members of the International Fabricare Institute may order an international symbol guide for their customers for $1 each, says the institute’s spokeswoman, Alice Laban.