Known to many of us as "special occasion" dinnerware, fine china involves an intricate production process. It’s made with a mixture of clay, quartz, kaolin, and feldspar that’s then fired in a kiln and painstakingly decorated with hand-painted designs and, in some cases, metal trims and inserts.
This high-value dishware is famously delicate and easy-to-break, and that’s why cleaning pros recommend serious caution when washing and drying fine china dishes and cups.
But is it ever okay to put your fine china in the dishwasher? To get the answer to this question, we consulted a group of professional cleaners and antique experts.
"If you don’t machine wash your favorite cashmere sweater, don't machine wash your nicest china."
Machine washing isn’t completely forbidden by china specialists, but if you own antique china or pieces with painted details, then they advise caution in the form of handwashing.
"If you don’t machine wash your favorite cashmere sweater, don’t machine wash your nicest china," says Emily Otranto, a sales and marketing expert at M.S. Rau , an antiques gallery in New Orleans. She went on to emphasize the importance of slower, more delicate cleaning for antique china, telling us that "antique china typically features older paints, and pieces are often hand-painted. Because these older paints are more susceptible to harsh modern chemicals, we suggest regularly using warm water and a soft rag. That’s it!"
If you’re wondering what qualifies as "older" china, Kathy Cohoon, operations manager of Two Maids cleaning company, offers the following: "A good rule of thumb is that if the china comes from before 1970, avoid the dishwasher."
For newer china sets, pay attention to the manufacturer's instructions.
While vintage china never belongs in the dishwasher, the strength of fine china has come a long way in recent decades, and many newer sets can be machine washed with very little risk of damage.
"Most modern fine china and durable pieces can be put through the dishwasher on a gentle cycle,” Cohoon says. But just to be on the safe side, Cohoon recommends "checking the manufacturer's guidelines" to make sure that there's no precaution against dishwashers listed.
If you get the go-ahead from the manufacturer’s instructions, be sure to stick to a less-harsh wash cycle like "the delicate or fine china setting. [These] will use lower heat and won’t damage delicate pieces. What's best for your sturdy stock pot is not best for your china tea cups!"
Always use warm water to wash china.
Fine china tends to react negatively to "extremely hot or extremely cold water. Either can make the [china] more sensitive than it already is and can cause the pieces to crack when only a small amount of pressure is applied,” explains Stefan Bucur, co-owner of Rhythm of the Home , where Bucur provides cleaning and organizing guides for readers.
If you're using the dishwasher, keep it at "a low heat setting," insists Juliana Rocha, owner of Amazing Maids cleaning services. The same goes for handwashing in the sink; warm water, gentle soap without abrasive chemicals, and soft sponges or dishcloths are the right tools for safely cleaning your china.
Emily Otranto highlights the importance of using dishcloths with no texturing, saying that “you want to stay away from cloths with grooves or patterns because there is a high risk of chipping the paint, especially if [the china] is hand-painted. I had a particularly noteworthy and tragic event where I used soap and a rough towel [to clean fine china]. Needless to say, the paint was never the same.”
If you encounter tough stains while handwashing, “soak [the china] in a tub with a solution of baking soda—about 2 tablespoons—and vinegar—also 2 tablespoons—and 2 cups warm water for one hour,” recommends Robin Wilson, author of Clean Design: Wellness for Your Lifestyle .
Never overload the dishwasher when china is involved.
It can be tempting to stuff our dishwashers to their highest capacity in order to save time and preserve water. But "stacking the china in the dishwasher can cause chipping or scratching," warns Avi Lang, the kitchenware expert behind Kitchen Supply Deals . Instead, run a separate cycle that only includes your china pieces, and be sure to put plenty of space between each item.
If your china includes metal accents and trims, it should always be handwashed.
Metallic inclusions and trims on fine china can easily tarnish and warp, so Cohoon says that "they should never be put through the dishwasher, as [machine washing] can damage the finish and design even after just one wash."
Luckily, metal accents won’t be affected by gentle soap, warm water, and soft cloths, so handwashing works very well for these pieces.