Or, in other words, “Dude, your gi reeks.” This is a public service announcement.
My wife does the lion’s share of laundry in our house, but I wash my BJJ gear. A very basic question that I hear a lot has to do with how to care for the gi. Most gis will come with manufacturer recommendations, and of course, you will seldom go wrong to follow them. That said, they are typically along the lines of washing cold and line drying, along with never using bleach. While I agree 100% about not using bleach, the rest is at least debatable.
In BJJ, we sweat as much or more than any other style of martial art, and there are a lot of reasons why. We work really hard. Although that’s not unique to BJJ, it’s one reason. Another is that, because grappling is rigorous, the BJJ kimono tends to be well constructed of a thick, durable weave. A heavy weight Karate Gi is often around 12 oz, which is about where the student grade BJJ gi starts.
In recent years, strong but lightweight BJJ kimonos are coming onto the market. The Gameness Pearl, Koral’s Competition Light gi, and most recently, the ShoYoRoll Super-Lite are just a few notable examples. This new type of gi is much lighter at about 3.5 to 4 lbs, easier to wash and definitely more comfortable on the mats.
So, what follows are 10 tips I’d like to share. I promise that you’ll be the best dressed kid at the county fair jamboree if you follow them:
1: While it hopefully goes without saying, you need to wash your gi every single time you roll. It’s just the right thing to do for everyone involved. If you are doubling up on a day, going to the morning class and the afternoon class, don’t wear the same gi. Take a shower, too, while you’re at it.
2: Don’t overload your washer. In your washer, three things contribute to cleaning your clothes: water temperature, soap and agitation. If you cram the washer full, there will be very little agitation and your clothes won’t get clean. There is a temptation to wash as many things as possible in a washer. Most top loaders are good for one heavyweight gi or maybe two lightweight gis. I have a high-capacity front loader and find that more than two gis plus the rash guard and such is about the cap. So, if your gis don’t smell good after your wash, it’s possible that you’re trying to be too efficient and your washer’s just not up to it.
3: Try White Vinegar instead of bleach: This is particularly great if you’re line drying, but is good for killing odors without weakening the fabric. Bleach will make your gi stiff and will dramatically shorten its life by weakening the fabric. Vinegar, on the other hand, will help eliminate odors without destroying the fabric in the process. A 5% solution of vinegar and water is also a natural, non-toxic antiseptic that will kill 99% of germs. So, try adding about ¼ cup of white vinegar to the bleach bin of your washing machine instead of bleach.
White vinegar is also safe for colors, if anything, helping to set them instead of making them fade, with the added benefit of helping prevent pit stains and yellowing in a white gi.
When you line dry, you'll often have a soapy residue left in the kimono from the wash? That stiffness is from the residual soap. Vinegar helps rinse out the soap, so you don't end up with cardboard when you're done.
4: Baking Soda or Borax for acidic odors: Vinegar is an acid, and tip 3 will only work if we’re talking about bacteria. If your gi smells like ammonia, vinegar won’t help. You’ll need something to counteract the acidic nature of the ammonia your sweat produces. Try baking soda or borax (or combining the two) added to your wash instead of the vinegar.
5: The Sun kills bacteria naturally. If you’re line drying in Brazil (or some other place that’s sunny and warm) you’re probably okay. Here in Seattle, line drying indoors and not taking any other steps to eliminate bacteria is a recipe for disaster… or at least funk.
6: Dry your gis completely before wearing them. Another common cause of funk is to wash the gi then wear it before it’s completely dry. Moisture is an environment that bacteria enjoy, and if you never allow your kimonos to dry completely, you’re probably harboring plenty of funky bacteria. This means if you’re line drying, you should plan ahead and give them plenty of time to dry. Also, see tip 9.
7: Heat kills bacteria. While it’s true that washing in cold water and line drying will extend the life of your gi, it’s not THAT bad. It’s not like washing and drying your kimono will cause it to fall apart in months (although bleaching it definitely will destroy it fast).
Cotton often shrinks, but there is a limit to how much. It’s not like your gi will continue to shrink forever until it looks like a kid sized gi. I wash and dry all of my gis, occasionally on the super-hot, Sunny side of Mercury setting (which basically heats the water up to 180F and dries it for like 90 minutes). Almost all of them have shrunk to one degree or another, but getting to know what sizes to wear, and buying the gis accordingly accounts for this. Also, washing your gi a few times super hot will help it reach that terminal size faster. Or said another way, washing it in warm water over several washings is just prolonging the shrinking process. It will still shrink... just not as quickly.
The first thing I do when I get a new gi is to try it on. If it’s pre-shrunk, great. I still expect a little shrinkage, but not that much. If it’s not pre-shrunk, I expect the sleeves and pants to shrink up a few inches, at least. Either way, if the fit is what I expect, I wash it at least twice on hot, drying it completely both times before wearing it. That way, I’m reasonably sure that it’s not going to shrink much more over the life of the gi.
8: Wash your belt. There is no such thing as a fuzzy belt in BJJ. If your belt is attempting to submit your opponents, I’m talking to you.
I’ve heard two main reasons for not washing one’s belt. The first is superstition. The second is that, in BJJ our stripes tend to be athletic tape. Washing the belt might literally wash off the stripes. This isn’t a huge deal, but one way or the other, your belt will get funky if you don’t clean it.
If you don’t want to wash it in the machine, use a disinfectant spray. Odoban works pretty well, and is available in bulk at Costco. Febreze also works pretty well. You can also make a 5% solution of white vinegar and just allow it to dry completely. The vinegar smell will fade away as the fabric dries.
9: Own multiple Kimonos: BJJ is a relatively inexpensive hobby. Sure, you can go nuts buying books and DVDs, but outside of competition fees and school tuition, what do we really have to buy? So, indulge yourself. If you’ve been training consistently for 6 months or more and still own only one gi, go nuts. Buy another one. Live a little. The Gameness Pearl is a great gi that can be purchased for under $100. Padilla & Sons and HCK also have high quality gis available at a great price. You don’t have to spend $150 or more to get a nice gi… although they are great if you can afford them. Ebay is also a pretty good place to find nice gis that are either brand new or close to it at a great discount.
Bottom line, owning multiple gis isn’t something I consider to be a luxury. If you train multiple times each week and are serious at all about it, do yourself a favor and own at least two gis.
10: If all else fails, try washing your washer. This is particularly true for the front loaders, where a small amount of water tends to remain in the basin between washes. Some things you can do to disinfect your washer include running an empty cycle with hot water, soap and bleach. Or I would recommend hot water and about 3 cups of white vinegar. If you have a front loader, leave the door open between washes to allow it to dry out. The front loaders are air tight, and leaving the door closed will promote the growth of bacteria, mold and mildew.
If you have any other laundry tips for martial artists, email me or post them in the comments section.