How to Wash a Wool Sweater the Right Way

Did you get a new sweater for Christmas? Lucky you! A nice sweater is as easy to wear as a sweatshirt, but can be both warmer and more handsome. 

Unfortunately, your new sweater isn’t as easy to clean as a sweatshirt. The particular properties of wool, from which sweaters are commonly made, coupled with their knitted nature, makes this garment prone to stretching, shrinking, catching, fraying, and pilling, and thus necessitates a little more TLC with its care.

Once your sweater becomes soiled, you don’t simply want to throw it in the washer and dryer as you do your other clothes. That kind of treatment can cause your sweater to become prematurely worn and warped. And you actually don’t want to send it to the dry cleaners, either; the chemicals they use are harsh on wool.

Instead, you want to follow a special home-washing protocol to keep your cardigan, v-neck, or pullover in tip-top condition and allow it to last as many sweater-weather seasons as possible. Here’s how.

Preliminary: Extend the Time Between Washes

Every time you wash any garment, it becomes a little more worn out. Fortunately, you don’t need to wash every piece of clothing after every time you wear it. That certainly includes your sweaters, as wool has inherent antimicrobial and odor-resistant properties. So after you wear a sweater and take it off for the night, give it a sniff. If it doesn’t smell in the pits, and hasn’t acquired stains or detritus in other areas, then simply let it air out for a day by draping it over a rack or chair (don’t put it on a hanger; that can stretch it out); then put it away for another wear.

If you’ve gotten splotches of something on your sweater, spot clean the stain (different kinds of stains require different treatments; Google the specifics of how to remove yours), let dry, and then put away. 

It’s only when your sweater starts to stink, or acquires significant soiling that you need to wash it. Consider wearing an undershirt under your sweater or layering it over a button-down to extend the time between these occasions.

How to Wash a Sweater

These instructions apply whether your sweater is made of merino, cashmere, some kind of wool blend, and even cotton as well. All types of sweaters should be handled with care.

Hand Washing

The care labels of some sweaters will indicate that they’re hand wash only. But even if the care label on yours says it’s machine washable, hand washing is still the ideal way to clean a sweater. It’s the most gentle, wearing the fabric the least and keeping it in the best possible shape. Here’s how to do it:

1. Fill a sink or plastic tub with cool water.

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2. Add a small amount of detergent; you only need about a teaspoon. Ideally use a detergent made for delicate fabrics, like Woolite. 

3. Turn the sweater inside out and submerge in the sink/tub. 

4. Use your hands to swish the sweater back and forth in the water for a couple minutes.

5. Let soak for ten minutes. Then swish it around a few more times.

6. Dump out the used soapy water, and refill the sink/tub with clean water. Swish your sweater around. Repeat until all the soap seems to have been rinsed out of the sweater.

7. Remove sweater from the water and gently squeeze it all together to remove some of the water. Do NOT wring your sweater out to remove the water, as this will damage the fibers.

8. Lay the sweater out on a towel. Roll up the towel, with the sweater inside it, gently squeezing out more water as you go. 

9. Transfer the sweater to a dry towel, lay flat, and reshape, smoothing out wrinkles and creases; allow to air dry. Do NOT hang up your sweater to dry, as the weight of the wet fabric will pull the fabric downward and stretch it out.

Machine Washing

Hand washing, while ideal, is a bit of a pain. It’s a great option for your more expensive cashmere sweaters and other sweaters you care a lot about and want to last as long as possible. But it’s okay to throw your heartier, less cherished sweaters in the washing machine IF you follow these directions:

1. Use the gentle/delicate cycle. This cycle should wash your garments in cold water, with slower/lesser agitation and spin time, and a shorter overall cycle. The less time your sweater spends in the washer, the less time it gets handled about, and the less it’s handled, the less it wears and warps.

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2. Use a small amount of detergent (proportioned to the load size) — ideally, a detergent specifically made for delicate garments, like Woolite.

3. Button any of your sweater’s buttons and zip up its zipper (if applicable) and turn your sweater inside out before putting it in the machine. You can wash your sweater with other delicate garments, but don’t put it in with clothes that are heavy and/or made with rough fabrics, zippers, and rivets (think towels, jeans, sweatshirts); the collision of such clothes with your sweater will abraid its fabric. Aim to minimize friction. 

4. Lay your sweater flat on a towel to air dry. Do NOT hang it up or it will stretch. Do not dry it in the dryer or it will shrink.

No matter how you wash a sweater, it will eventually develop pills, which make a sweater look worn-out. They can be removed with a sweater comb or electric defuzzer, which will help restore the fabric to its handsome, right-out-the-gift-box condition. 

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