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Flood-damaged Textiles: What to Salvage and How to Clean

Ann Braaten; Assistant Professor; Apparel, Design and Hospitality Management

When you can return to your home safely, take action to salvage and minimize damage to textiles such as clothing, quilts and household textiles. Because each textile can have so much variation in its nature, consider each piece separately to determine if it can be salvaged and how it should be cleaned.

Take Precautions

  • Protect yourself from the soiled textiles. Wear plastic gloves and cover your arms and legs. Wear a dust mask or respirator if the textiles are dusty or smelly.
  • Protect the wet textiles from tearing or stretching when lifting them by putting a solid support or fabric support under them before moving them.

Sorting Textiles

You need to decide if the item should be discarded or salvaged.

  • Unsalvageable Items: Discard textiles that cannot be cleaned and dried thoroughly. This may include:
    • textiles with visible discoloration or shrinkage that may not be reversible
    • textiles heavily contaminated with sewage spills or fuel oil
    • textiles contaminated with toxic chemicals or embedded with fiberglass insulation
  • Salvageable Items: Salvage textiles that can be cleaned, sanitized and dried thoroughly. Separate them by whether they can be washed or dry-cleaned and machine-washed or hand-washed, and then by their color and the washing temperature recommended by their care label.

Cleaning and Disinfecting Salvageable Washable Items

Simply drying flood-damaged textiles is not enough because water may have been contaminated with sewage waste. Disinfectants such as bleach are needed. Before washing items, make certain the water supply is safe to use and that the washing machine has been cleaned and sanitized by running a cycle with hot water, detergent and chlorine bleach. Then proceed to clean the textile items using the following steps:

Pre-treat Washable Items

  • Damp textiles should be rewetted with flowing, clean water to remove mud and debris. Work outside if possible using a garden hose.
  • Dried flood-damaged textiles should be shaken out, brushed off or scraped to remove dried mud and dirt, then rinsed with flowing, clean water.

Washing and Drying Machine-washable Items

  • Pre-wash machine-washable Items: To avoid setting stains, pre-wash flood-damaged textiles in cool water using a heavy-duty detergent with a small wash load and a full water level. To remove protein stains (for example, sewage), add an enzyme pre-soak product to the pre-wash cycle. Rinse and spin dry. Don't dry in the dryer until after machine washing.
  • Machine-washing: Wash the textiles in the hottest water that is safe for the fabric. Use a heavy-duty detergent, small wash load and a full water level. If sewage contamination is suspected, use a disinfectant such as chlorine bleach if it is safe for the fabrics or use a pine-oil disinfectant or phenolic disinfectant such as Lysol for other fabrics. Repeat as necessary before drying. Do not dry until you are satisfied with the results. Drying in a dryer can set stains, making them impossible to remove.
  • Drying: Dry using a regular setting if safe for the fabric. If an automatic dryer will cause excess shrinking, hang these items in the sun to dry. However, the heat of the dryer also helps kill germs.
  • Ironing also helps kill germs on fabrics made from cotton, linen, rayon and ramie fibers and blends with these fibers. Steam pressing helps kill germs in items that are dried away from the sun.

Salvaging Hand-washable Textiles

Pre-rinse with cool water to remove mud and debris. Pre-wash using appropriate detergents and safe disinfectants. Then wash by hand using the appropriate detergent and water temperature. Support the item when wet. Dry flat in the sun. Ironing or steam pressing will help kill the germs that remain of the fabric.

Salvaging Dry-cleanable Textiles

Take items outside and brush off any wet or muddy items. Don't rinse because water can harm the textile. Allow the textile to dry in the sun to prevent mold growth. When dry, take them to the dry cleaner for cleaning. The dry-cleaning chemicals and steaming help reduce the level of contamination in the textiles.


"Flood Damage Cleaning Fact Sheet: How to Salvage What Can Be Salvaged" 2005. International Fabricare Institute. Laurel, Md. www.ifi.org

"How to Clean and Disinfect Textiles" August 1993. Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service. MF-1132.

"Salvaging Water-Damaged Textiles" Jan. 24, 1996. Federal Emergency Management Agency with the American Institute of Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

Prepared by Ann W. Braaten, Ph.D., Department of Apparel, Design and Hospitality Management, College of Human Development and Education, North Dakota State University, April 2009.

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