Laundry Basics: How to Sort Clothes

Through coaching many, many readers on how to successfully wash their laundry, I noticed that there was a significant lack of laundry know-how.

Every day, I receive emails from people that had no clue how to wash their clothes – from college students to professional business men and women to stay-at-home moms.

This lack of laundry skills that I’ve observed over the years has nothing to do with age or profession or socioeconomic status.  It seems that a whole generation of people just didn’t learn how to wash clothes properly.

So I’m thrilled to help you here at Mama’s Laundry Talk!

In this 4-part series on Laundry Basics, you’ll find simple step-by-step help on getting your clothes clean and folded in your drawers.

First up on the Laundry Basics list: How to Sort Clothes!

How to Sort Clothes for Laundry

Make sure you don’t miss the other posts in this series!


How to Sort Clothes – Do I even need to sort laundry?

Interestingly enough, you’ll find several different opinions when it comes to sorting clothes.  Mama’s Method is certainly not the only way.  If you have a method that is working for you, then by all means stick with it!

But if you are getting a failing grade in the Sorting Department, then read on.

First of all, what is the reason to sort clothes in the first place? Do you need to sort clothes at all?

A very good question.

In my personal opinion, you do.

Sorting clothes allows you to use different washing cycles (‘delicate’ versus ‘normal’) and also allows for washing in different temperatures.

Most importantly, sorting clothes decreases the chances that a garment is going to bleed onto another when you control cycle type and water temperature.

If you do choose to sort your clothes prior to washing them, keep reading for Mama’s best tips.

Sorting Clothes by Color

There are several distinct piles in which to sort clothes: whites, darks, lights, jeans, and delicates.  You could sub-divide even further, but these categories are the most used.

Whites: White t-shirts, white underwear, white socks and other similar items fall into this category.  This pile is for white sturdy cottons that can withstand normal agitation in the washer on a warm or hot wash cycle.

Darks: Grays, blacks, navies, reds, dark purples and similar colors are sorted into this load.

Lights: More pastel-type colors such as pinks, lavenders, light blues, lights greens and yellows are placed in this pile of laundry.

Jeans: All items with denim material are washed together in this load.

Delicates: This category includes several types of clothing – lingerie, pantyhose, washable silks, and any clothing you’d like to keep from the harsh agitation of the washer.


Sorting Clothes by Fabric Weight

Please note that color is not the only consideration when sorting clothes. The weight of the garment should be considered as well.

For example, if you have several pairs of heavy cotton pants, then you don’t want to wash those with thin t-shirts.  Washing clothes with ‘heavy’ material can possibly tear or rip clothes that are thin and light-weight while enduring the agitation of the washer.

{Ask me how I know.  Sigh.}

If they are placed in the dryer together, they obviously won’t dry at the same rate since one fabric is much heavier than another.

It’s best just to separate these types of garments from the start and wash them in two separate loads.


Dealing with Stains While Sorting

While I am sorting clothes, I also make a pile for items that need stain removal attention.

As soon as I am finished sorting the other clothes, I go through and sort the stained items.  If they need a quick spray with stain remover, I do so and then put them in whichever sorting category they fall into.

If it’s a bad stain, I put it in the bucket for the Stain Removal Soak.

Sorting Doesn’t Have to Take a Long Time!

Sorting clothes doesn’t have to be laborious.  Consider it to be part of your laundry routine.

You can sort clothes as you put them in the dirty hamper using a laundry sorter.  This method works well in that you can easily look at the ‘whites’ basket and see that it’s full and needs to be dealt with.

Alternatively, if you only wash clothes once (or twice) a week, you can dump all of your clothes in one big laundry basket and then sort just prior to washing.

Different methods work for different people in various stages of life.

What works for an empty-nester couple might be drastically different than what works for a young mother.


Other Sorting Tips

I find when I have a newborn, I tend to wash all of their clothes together.  Newborn outfits are mostly pastel in color, so they easily wash in the same load without issues.

And it seems that newborn clothes all make it back to the nursery if they are washed together – not in various loads.  I seem to have trouble getting them all back to the baby’s room if they are washed here and there.  This might just be my experience. 😉

But what about washing towels and sheets?  Washing towels and sheets deserves its own post, so make sure you click over and read those details.

Lastly, I know that there are many of you out there who do not sort clothes at all since you wash all of your loads on the ‘cold’ temperature setting.

Again, do what works best for you in your laundry routine!



Make sure you don’t miss the entire Back to Basics Laundry Series!


  1. I love these back to basics posts. I’m a fairly good launderer but I’m not all that confident. It helps to get some reassurance that I’m doing things OK and get some idea about how to do things better. Especially since adding a new baby recently and going through potty training right now, I feel like I’m up to my eye balls in smelly laundry.

    • mamalaundry says:

      Oh I can so relate to the copious amounts of smelly laundry! 😉

      Glad it’s helpful! Thanks for the comment –


  2. Thanks for this back to basics post. I love to learn new things and if it’s something I already know it’s nice to know that I’m doing it “right”. 😉

  3. Somehow I missed this post yesterday! Laundry basics have been on my mind lately, so your series comes at the perfect time for me. I actually did a laundry post on my own blog yesterday and was thinking about sending you a link to request your advice. My questions revolve around stain removal and shrinkage. Perhaps you could point me to some of your past posts that might answer my questions, or perhaps you will be including these topics later in this Back to Basics series! Either way, I would love your input. Here is the link to the post:

    Thanks for your blog! I never would have thought I could enjoy a laundry blog so much! 😉


  4. Thank you I really needed this.

  5. Charlotte says:

    Thank you for the great back to basics advice! What pile would you sort khaki shorts in and also black pants? Also, what do you do when a garment says to use the permanent press cycle? My front loader doesn’t have that as an option.

    Thank you

    • mamalaundry says:

      Hi Charlotte,

      I sort khakis into my colored pile usually. However, I’ve also been known to wash them with whites (as long as I’m not using bleach) and they are a lighter, summer-weight khaki.

      What kind of black pants? If just a regular cotton, they can go with your colored pile as long as you know they won’t fade. If they are a nicer pair of dress pants, they need to be washed on the delicate cycle.

      I don’t have a ‘Permanent Press’ cycle either, unfortunately. Choose the cycle that gives you a fast agitation (7-10 minutes) and a slow spin-out. If you aren’t sure, you can always take the safe route and just use the delicate cycle.

  6. One thing has always puzzled me – so many ppl seem to want to categorise a lot with sorting yet the most separators you get with hampers is usually 3? I can’t figure out which is the best sorting & hamper solution for me – I like the idea of sorting by person but even using those colour catcher sheets I get bleeds so am binning that. Can anyone share their hamper secrets.

    • mamalaundry says:

      Gael, I couldn’t agree more about the laundry hamper. The design of most hampers is just not practical, imo. Have you seen the single hampers? For a long while, I used these and just sat them side by side so they functioned as one large hamper. You can use as many as you need to sort your clothes in whatever way works for you. Here’s an example: Sorting Dirty Laundry

  7. Have you heard of Bacteria, that redistributes all over the wash, in Cold? It’s nasty to think some would throw all their clothes, sometimes ever overstuffing the machine, with tea towels and underwear in the same cycle.

    Lookup Cold Wash Bacteria, on Google when you have a chance. It’s disgusting.

    • Lauren Hill says:

      Yeah, I’m not a fan of tea towels and underwear in the same wash load, even if it’s washed on hot. 😉

  8. I just have to say, as a nineteen year old male, and a first time university dorm resident you’ve just about saved my life. I forgot to ask about this sort of stuff before I flew the coop. Thanks for the tips!

    • Lauren Hill says:

      Austen, that comment just made me smile. Thank you so much for taking the time to write it!

      Yes, that’s the whole reason I write this blog and it thrills me to pieces that those old posts could help you!

      Blessings to you –

  9. I usually separate by temperature and disgustingness. Underwear is always extra, always at 40°C or 60°C (the latter actually being too hot according to some labels, probably because of the rubber bands). T-shirts and pullovers are sorted by a sophisticated color separation system which basically comes down to “red or not red”. Pants are sometimes extra, sometimes together with thicker t-shirts. I don’t have completely white shirts and I certainly don’t have white underwear because I’m not lame.

    So far I have fared rather okay with that system! But one problem I have is that finer cotton things are very smooth and nice at the beginning, but get rougher by time, with the texture somehow looking wound up. I don’t know why that is, it’s usually in a cottom washing program. Maybe I need a water softener? I usually don’t mix heavier laundry with those cloths.

  10. Larry Lewis says:

    I sort loads once they are in the laundry room. I have several piles going at once.

    I know you said that laundry sorting could be expanded, so I will add two points that I consider to be important.

    First, make sure to launder towels based on color (and together). Like you said, heavy items have different drying requirements. Towels create lots of lint and should not be washed with other fabrics. In addition, mixing towel colors can ruin towels! Always separate lights from darks.

    My guest bedroom is “French Cottage” style. As such, the towels are bright yellow. My bedroom towels are dark gray and purple. I mistakenly threw a yellow hand towel in the load with my bedroom towel set, and it ruined my towels! There were many yellow fuzzies, unfortunately. It was an expensive mistake.

    My second recommendation is to wash red fabrics separately. I notice they bleed profusely and make my water red. I can observe this both when opening the washer during the cycle, and also when the wash cycle drains into my utility sink. It is very noticeable. I do separate the reds from the other darks.

    Finally, I do not wash anything with cold water, and I run my rinse cycles on warm. Living in Ohio, winter cold water is near freezing. I find it does not adequately wash the clothes. Even in summer, the water is pretty cold. Putting the “warm” setting on winter clothing is a must! It is at best lukewarm.

    These are my additional laundry tips, Mama Laundry. Wishing you the best.


  11. I agree with the previous poster. So glad this old post is still up, because I was looking for helpful advice online about this very thing and found your site. It’s been great. 🙂

    I am a totally blind husband of a physically disabled woman. My wife has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. We have an aid on weekday mornings, but most of the time I am her caregiver, as well as taking care of many of the domestic needs around the house. She is always so appreciative, but I sure had to learn how to keep a house in a quickness. But anyway…

    I sort laundry pretty similarly to what is descried in this post, except that since there are only two of us, there are some steps I leave out. My loads are usually jeans, darks, lights/whites (I combine those two since we don’t really have many of each), towels and bed linens when needed. Some things are arbitrary and I feel can be put in either the darks or the lights. For instance, I think light gray can go either way and therefore will put it wherever there needs to be more clothes to make a full load. My question is, what the heck do I do with clothes that are light yet have dark prints or stripes on them? For instance, my wife has a pair of lavender sleeper pants with dark purple polka dots on them. My instinct is to put them with the lights/whites if it weren’t for the dark polka dots. What to do in that situation? Also, what about a light gray shirt with black stripes, red and white striped shirt? Any help would be appreciated. My wife is sighted, so she helps me sort usually, but we are both pretty stumped in this particular area.

  12. What about super bright colored stuff. Hot pinks, neon/hot greens/blues/purples

    • Lauren Hill says:

      Tiff, you can probably wash the hot pinks and greens together, but I would definitely do dark green/blue/purple in the same load. Those colors REALLY like to fade (especially if it’s cotton material), so be super careful and try washing on cold the first few times just as a precaution.

  13. Hi
    Im a student how do wash different coloured sweaters with white stripes surely you dont have to wash them individually

    • Lauren Hill says:

      Hi Graeme,

      I would wash those sweaters on a cool/cold laundry temperature on the gentle setting. That’s the best way to prevent the colors from bleeding on the white stripes.


  14. Thanks for these tips altho I have a couple questions is it a good idea to add light grey clothes to the dark clothes? or do I put all of the grey clothes whether they’re light or dark with my dark

    • Lauren Hill says:


      It’s usually safe to add light gray clothes to darks without any problems. I definitely wouldn’t wash them with a new pair of black cotton pants (for example), for fear the black would bleed, but you should typically be safe.

      It’s always good to make sure clothes (new ones, especially), aren’t going to bleed on your regular laundry.


  15. Wow. Have to say I was delighted to find this site as I recently lost my spouse, and today was first laundry experience (front to back) in around thirty years.
    Wow, Lauren, many websites could learn much from your example. The data is family friendly, precise and complete.


    • Lauren Hill says:

      John, I am so very sorry for your loss. Thank you for such kind comments! I’m thrilled this site has blessed you and your laundry efforts!


  16. February says:

    How do you wash multi color clothing? Clothes that are black and white patterned or black and light blue or white t shirts with silk screening on them.
    Thank you

    • Lauren Hill says:


      Assuming they’re the same weight and are compatible in the machine together, I wash those on ‘darks’ or ‘colors’.

      If I have a pile of light colored clothing – light blue, light pink, etc – I tend to wash all of those together. I have a lot of kids, so I often have big piles of just one type of laundry. I realize that when you’re only washing clothes for 1-2 people, the wash loads aren’t as large.


  17. My 40+ year old sister in law lives in my basement and regularly hogs my washer and dryer for the entire weekend because she subdivides her clothes into a dozen loads of different cycles and temperatures. She washes almost every thing with the extra hot water setting. The sanitizing cycles takes almost 3 hours. She’s only doing her own laundry as a single person so some of her “loads” contain a scant handful of items that would fit inside the volume of a milk jug and I have a large family sized washer. Would you please write another article on laundering for single people? Please emphasize the wastefulness of energy consumption and time in running so many loads in a nearly empty machine. Set a different guideline on sorting when you don’t have that much clothes.

    • Lauren Hill says:

      EY, I’m sorry for your dilemma. Yes, it is wasteful if you don’t have a washing machine that senses the loads, and thus adjusts the water.

      I will definitely try to write a post on laundry for single people! Great idea!

      -Lauren 🙂

  18. Maryanne Mccready says:

    I have 13 different colors of skinny jeans. White, hot pink, pastel green, dark purple, red… I could go on. How far do I have to separate these?

  19. Can you wash red shirts,towels,with another color

    • Lauren Hill says:

      Penny, you can IF you are certain the garment is color fast. That means the dye isn’t going to run.

      How do you know? Fill your bathroom sink full of cold water. Place your garment in the sink and swirl it around. Now let it set 10-30 minutes. When you check back on it, note if the water is super red. If it is, your garment is definitely not color fast. It’s only safe to put in the washer with other garments if the dye didn’t color the water at all.

      Hope that helps you!

  20. I just got a sweatshirt that is really soft inside and I want to make sure it stays that way. How should I wash it?

    • Lauren Hill says:

      Hey Emily – I’m assuming the lining is fleece? If so, it will stay super soft, no matter how often you wash it. 🙂



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