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Please Clean That Ratty Looking Tote Bag

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You there! Yes, you in the darling Liberty print sundress- and-cardigan combination pushing your glasses up your nose, you. Your tote bag, dear, it's filthy and ruining the look of your entire outfit.

With summer right around the corner, this is a good time for us to talk about your tote and weekend travel bags, so you can keep them looking great from city to train to beach, or wherever you plan to go.

Lightweight Cotton Tote Bags

Let's start with the day-to-day tote bags — those lightweight cotton totes that you get for donating to fundraising drives, that come free with purchase at your favorite indie bookstore, or that you collect as your friends begin to get married and provide you with tiny water bottles and packets of Advil tucked neatly into reusable souvenir bags. You know the ones. You probably have at least five of them.

There's good and bad news about these bags. Let's start with the good news: They're super easy to wash. The bad news is that you're definitely not washing them often enough. Ho hum!

Tote bags that are used regularly will collect a great deal of grime, making them look, well, ratty.

Tote bags that are used regularly will collect a great deal of grime, making them look, well, ratty. And because we often toss our totes down on the ground, they're also gross from a bacterial perspective, which means that washing them regularly — every few weeks to months, depending on how often they're being used — is a very good thing to do.

Washing them regularly is also very easy to do; if you can do your own laundry, you can wash a tote bag, because they're almost always machine washable. There are a few things to note, however: Machine wash using cold water only. Cotton tote bags are highly prone to shrinking, so it's really important to avoid the use of warm or hot water. For that reason, you also shouldn't put tote bags in the dryer — even on a low-heat setting, they'll be likely to shrink. When the tote comes out of the wash it will be merely damp, thanks to the force of the final spin cycle, but it will look a bit crumpled. This may make you feel nervous! But don't feel nervous, it will turn out okay. The trick is to lay the bag flat and reshape it using your hands, paying particular attention to the straps or handles so that they don't dry all twisted up. If, after drying, the bag is wrinkled or the straps aren't laying flat, a quick going over with an iron on the medium setting will take care of that right quick.

And finally, if the tote is dyed in any way, you'll want to be sure it's colorfast before you wash it; if it has embellishments, it should be hand washed only.

Heavy Canvas Tote Bags

Heavier canvas tote bags, like the ever-popular L.L. Bean Boat and Totes, can be cleaned in exactly the same way as their lighter weight counterparts — in the machine, cold water only, reshape to air dry. The biggest difference here is that when the bag comes out of the wash it will be quite stiff and possibly creased in odd spots. That is okay! I really promise. You'll want to do your best to reshape the bag and then allow it to dry standing up. As it dries, the canvas will lose its stiffness and any odd creases will come out naturally.

In the event that your cotton or canvas tote bags have stains on them, it's important to pre-treat the spots using a spray like Shout or Zout before you launder the bags, since those stains will probably have been there for a while and will need the extra help to eliminate.

Thick Cotton Overnight Bags

Heavier quilted cotton overnight bags like those uber-polarizing Vera Bradley numbers can also go in the washing machine, but because they're often multicolored and not necessarily colorfast, there's a high risk of the dye running and bleeding into lighter colored areas of the bag. The best way to safeguard against that is to use a Shout Color Catcher in the wash. Just like with tote bags, use cold water to prevent shrinkage. However, unlike cotton or canvas totes, your overnight bag can go in the dryer, though it would be better to let the bag air dry. If you do want to machine dry, only use the low-heat cycle, as medium- or high-heat will be too hot for the cotton.

Nylon Tote and Overnight Bags

Nylon totes, like those great multicolored Hervé Chapelier numbers, are the most forgiving of the bunch, just toss 'em in the wash without concern for water temperature (cold is still best). You can skip the dryer with these because they'll basically come out of the wash almost entirely dry — any remaining moisture can be wiped with a dry towel and the bag will be pretty much ready to go (the straps may need 30 or so minutes to dry out completely).

Now that you know how (and how easy it is!) to clean your tote and overnight bags, you'll be looking so spiffy when you go on weekend jaunts and beach outings this summer!