The beautiful, cozy sweaters you bought last fall will never make it through the winter unless you learn to clean them correctly. Since a sweater basically stands between you and well, sweater weather, you could be wearing yours every day. And you can only wear a sweater four or five times before cleaning it. Sweaters get sweaty, and they can become stinky after a while. If you're cleaning them wrong, you're ruining them.
Let's get a few things straight. If you're tossing your comfy sweaters into the washer with your jeans, that's exactly the wrong way to clean a sweater. You're beating that wooly warmer to a pulp! And if you're always sending dirty sweaters to the dry cleaners, you may be wasting your money. So, in defense of sweaters everywhere, here's everything you need to do to clean them the right way.
1. Read the label
Depending on if they're made of wool, cashmere, or some kind of blend, sweaters need special handling. Check the care label first. It will tell you exactly what you need to do to clean that sweater. If the label just says "Dry Clean", be skeptical. That's a recommendation, not an order. If it says "Dry Clean Only", you might have to listen. If you're stubborn, we have a guide on how to wash "dry clean only" clothes at home that should work if your sweater isn't beaded, bejeweled, or made of silk.
2. Turn sweaters inside out
Even the gentlest washing machines beat up clothes to get stains out. Protect your sweater by washing it on the wrong side. If you fail to do that, your sweaters will end up with extra wear and tear. Over time, you may also find them covered with pills, those little nubs of fiber that ruin the look and make a sweater look like you've kept it too long.
Pro-tip: You can remove pills with a special sweater shaver like this one, but it's not effortless.
3. Hand wash if possible
It's easier than you think to wash sweaters by hand. Better still, it's simple, affordable, and more sustainable than dry cleaning.
4. Use a detergent meant for delicates
Detergents with enzymes do a good job removing stains, but they can weaken a wool sweater. An eco-friendly detergent might be a better choice.
Pro-tip: A few drops of baby shampoo can be used to hand wash sweaters.
5. Cold water is the way to wash
Swish your sweaters in a basin of chilly, sudsy water. This helps prevent shrinkage. Check the label, though. Some sweaters can be washed in cool or warm water, which may do a better job of removing those stains.
6. Swish to rinse
Drain the wash water, and fill the basin again for a gentle cold water rinse. Swirl the sweater in clean rinse water. You may have to change the water more than once.
Pro-tip: Don’t run water from the faucet directly onto the clothes, because it can stretch them.
6. Roll, don't wring
Don't ever wring out a sweater. That sets it up for stretching. Lay the sweater on a towel and roll it up, just like you'd roll a yoga mat. That helps get the water out without putting too much stress on the fabric.
7. Lay it flat to dry
Reshape the sweater and lay it down on a dry towel. Come back in a day and check to see if it's dry enough to wear. Don't rush it!
Pro-tip: Lift a damp sweater with both hands from underneath. Picking up a wet sweater by the shoulders is another way you may unintentionally stretch it out.
8. Fold, don't hang sweaters
Hanging up sweaters, especially delicate cashmere sweaters, will pull them out of shape. Don't even think of doing it. If you want, you can give your sweaters the vertical fold Marie Kondo style. Or fold them flat and store them in a basket or on a shelf.
Pro-tip: Keep your sweaters away from hangers to avoid stretching. If you notice bumps or wrinkles on your sweaters, you can use a garment steamer to remove them.
9. Machine washing is possible
Cotton and acrylic sweaters will survive machine washing. Place sweaters in a mesh bag (don't crowd them), and put them in the washer's drum. Use a mild detergent on a cold delicate cycle. Don't even think of running your sweaters in the dryer, unless you want to shrink them.
If you do end up shrinking sweaters by accident, there are products that claim to unshrink sweaters. They smell funny, though, and may not work as well as you expect.
Some high-end European washers made by Miele offer customized laundry pods that can clean wool and silk, among other high maintenance fibers. If you have a washer like that, you are very fortunate. But for most people, hand washing sweaters is a fact of life.
10. Wear your gorgeous sweaters this winter and next
Now that you know how to clean your sweaters the right way, you can follow these steps for washing, reshaping, drying, and folding them. Your sweaters will look newer longer while keeping you warm all winter—and next winter, too.