December 4, 1998 | By: Haven Miller

Attention clothing shopper: Do you know what those little clothing care symbols mean on the labels of some of your newer garments? If not, now is the time to learn.

Starting January first, those little squares, circles, triangles and other assorted shapes may be the only care instructions you'll see on some of your new clothes.

Why? It goes back to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"Under NAFTA, it made sense for our government to try and harmonize labels for clothes made in the U.S., Canada, or Mexico," said Linda Heaton, Extension clothing specialist for the UK College of Agriculture. "That would prevent manufacturers from having to print labels in three languages--English, French, and Spanish."

In 1997 the Federal Trade Commission allowed U.S. clothing manufacturers to use international care symbols in place of words on permanent labels, provided some type of explanation was given to the consumer. As of January 1, 1999, the FTC will only require the care symbols. That means label instructions no longer will have to be in words.

"It won't prevent manufacturers from using words," said Heaton, "but it means they don't have to use them. Only the little symbols will be required."

That means wise shoppers should start learning the symbols.

"They're not that difficult," said Heaton. "Many of the symbols are easy to understand. For instance, the ironing symbol is in the shape of an iron. One dot in the center means 'low heat,' two dots in the center means 'medium heat,' and three dots means 'high heat.'"

Other symbols include a triangle for bleaching instructions, a square for machine drying instructions, and a small bucket-shaped symbol with little waves across the top to indicate washing instructions. An "X" across a symbol is often used to warn consumers against a certain procedure, such as "do not wash" or "do not tumble dry."

"A few of the symbols may be harder to recognize," said Heaton. "For instance, special instructions such as 'drip dry' or 'dry in the shade' use a square with lines inside it. Different numbers of lines in a different pattern mean different kinds of drying."

Heaton suggested that consumers study the FTC chart that has the care symbols and their meanings printed on it (available to computer users on the Internet at www.ftc.gov/ under "publications.") They can also get information on clothing care labels from their local UK County Extension Agent for Home Economics.

Contact: 

Writer: Haven Miller
(606) 257-3784

Source: Linda Heaton
(606) 257-7775