In our daily lives, we’re surrounded by symbols meant to guide us, warn us and convey concepts quickly. From the diamond-shaped hazardous-materials placards on tractor-trailers, rail cars and cargo containers to the glyphs and emoji on our cell phones, ours is a semiotic world, awash with signifiers ranging from the elegant to the enigmatic.

Not surprisingly, clothing care symbols — those squares, circles, tringles, swooshes, lines and dots on the labels of almost everything we wear — fall somewhere in between. After all, as anyone who’s played Pictionary can attest, we don’t all share the same ideas of what makes for an effective symbol. One person’s “baby talk” is another’s “baby fish mouth.” Old movie references aside, clothing-care symbols are a code worth knowing, whether you’re washing your duds or deciding whether buying that angora sweater is really worth the aggravation.

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