10/31/2012 06:28 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2012

Garment Care and Repair Are Important to a Stylish Life

Two weeks ago, I bought a sweater. It was a slightly sheer, multicolor-and-black-striped cardigan with an asymmetric, waterfall front -- and I could envision at least a dozen outfits that it would perfectly complement. The day I bought it, I wore it to a closet consult, and ended up putting it on my client five or six times to illustrate how a drape-front style cardigan worked beautifully across body types and personal styles. Clearly, it was $80 well spent.

I got it home and peeked at the care instructions: hand wash, lay flat to dry. I am busy and lazy in equal parts, so I threw it in a delicates bag and set the machine to "hand wash."

The cardigan is now with my tailor, who is attempting to reconstruct the edging or build a new hem. It unraveled so severely in the wash that I was leaving a trail of black and multicolor thread bits behind me as I wore it. I wouldn't say it's "ruined" exactly, but it's pretty darned close.

This was the universe reminding me that garment care is an important and often-overlooked part of being an avid shopper, and a stylish woman. Over the years, I've learned that my sheer and delicate tights need hand washing, but the sturdy opaques can get thrown into a tied-shut pillowcase and put through the washing machine's delicate cycle. I've learned that most natural fibers -- like silk, wool and cashmere -- can be carefully laundered using cold water and laid flat to dry, saving big bucks on dry-cleaning bills. But I've also learned that if a garment seems delicate, has any external embellishment or is simply expensive, sentimental or otherwise precious, care instructions should be followed to the letter. Or all hell will break loose.

Being stylish isn't just about knowing what works for your figure and taste, finding items that help you project your desired image and deploying those items with panache. You'd think all that would be enough, wouldn't you? But no! No, you've also got to keep those items -- garments, accessories, jewelry and shoes -- in good working condition. Style isn't just about identifying and procuring, it's also about careful maintenance.

Of course, there are levels. Some women store their handbags -- gently stuffed and secure inside their dustbags -- on dark closet shelves far from damaging sunlight. Some women take their new shoes directly to the cobbler for Vibram soles. I admire those as best practices, but admire them from afar. Still, I understand that if I want my wardrobe to work for me, I have to care for it. I have to keep my belongings clean, mend what's broken, tailor what doesn't work, ask for professional help when something goes kablooey and I have no idea how to fix it. (See cardigan anecdote above.) Otherwise, I may be spending my money on high-quality pieces, but since I'm not bothering to keep those pieces in wearable shape, I'm still, in essence, wasting my hard-earned cash.

Financial experts argue that very few fashion items are truly "investment pieces" since virtually all lose value over time. But building a working wardrobe is an investment in confidence, creativity and self-expression, because what we choose to wear helps us project our best selves outward. A closet filled with carefully selected pieces that make us look and feel powerful and beautiful is an asset indeed. But it's an asset that needs some care and tending.

Fingers crossed that my tailor can work his magic and save my cardigan. But even if he can't, it's certainly served as an object lesson. Hand wash, lay flat to dry. I hear ya, universe.