How to Clean and Care for Sweaters

Sweater drying flat on a towel

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If you learn how to wash, dry, and reshape sweaters at home, you'll avoid high dry-cleaning bills. With a bit of time and patience, your sweaters can look great, smell fresh, and feel soft to the touch. Most sweaters knit from cotton, acrylic, ramie, bamboo, wool, and cashmere yarns can be washed at home.

How to Hand Wash a Sweater
Detergent Mild or wool wash
Water Temperature Cold
Drying Cycle Type Do not use machine dryer—lay flat to dry
Special Treatments Wash alone
Iron Settings Do not iron

Project Metrics

When planning on handwashing one or several sweaters, keep in mind that you'll need to allow for at least two days of drying time.

Work Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 2 days

Skill Level: Beginner

What You'll Need

Supplies

Tools

  • Tub or sink for washing
  • Rubber gloves (optional)
  • Flat drying rack or bath towels

Instructions

Hand washing is usually the safest choice for cleaning natural fibers. If there are stains, pretreat before washing. Overcrowding the sink or washbasin can prevent soil from being removed, so it's ideal to wash one sweater at a time.

Shaping Tip

If you want to be sure to maintain your sweater's original shape, trace around the unwashed sweater on kraft wrapping paper before washing. Now you'll have a pattern to reference when you reshape the sweater. If you don't want to make a pattern, you can measure the sweater with a measuring tape before and after to make sure it's the same size.

  1. Pretreat Stains

    Before washing, start by spot-treating stains—sometimes that's all a sweater will need to look fresh again. You can try removing a stain with a very small amount of stain remover, just remember to dab the solution with a cloth instead of scrubbing with a brush. Rinse thoroughly (repeat the process if necessary) and then wash as normal.

  2. Fill a Tub or Sink

    Use cold water—never hot—and fill a plastic washing tub or a clean sink. You will need to fill the vessel once for the wash and then again for rinsing.

  3. Add Detergent

    Use a small amount of gentle detergent (about a 1/2 teaspoon) or wool wash, following the label directions. If you use too much detergent, you'll have a very difficult time getting out all of the suds. Detergent residue can cause fibers to feel stiff and scratchy.

  4. Agitate by Hand

    Put on your rubber gloves and then gently squeeze the sweater in the water to be sure that it's completely soaked. Never wring or scrub which can cause stretching and pilling. Let the sweater soak in the suds for about 5 minutes.

  5. Rinse

    Thoroughly rinse the sweater until it is free of detergent. It may take several rinses for the water to become clear and free of suds.

  6. Let Water Drain

    Without wringing, remove as much water as possible from your sweater by squeezing. Support the sweater from underneath as you transfer it to lay it flat on an absorbent towel.

  7. Absorb Excess Moisture

    Roll the sweater and towel together, pressing firmly as you go. Next, lay another dry towel down on a flat surface large enough to hold your sweater with the arms extended. Place the sweater on the dry towel and reshape the sweater into its original form. (If you chose to trace a pattern, reference your drawing.)

  8. Reshape the Sweater

Push the sweater's ribbing together at the neckline, wrists, and waist. If the sweater has an attached belt, extend it flat away from the sweater on each side. Dry removable belts separately from the sweater. Allow the sweater to dry for 24 hours. Lastly, flip the sweater over onto another dry towel, smooth into shape once again, and dry for another 24 hours.

Machine Washing Sweaters

Many sweaters made of synthetic fibers, as well as some cotton knits, can be washed by machine. However, use caution when machine washing cotton sweaters, as natural fibers are more prone to shrink or stretch.

How to Machine Wash Sweaters
Detergent Mild
Water Temperature Cold
Cycle Type Gentle/permanent press
Dryer Cycle Type Do not use machine dryer—lay flat to dry
Special Treatments Wash in mesh bag
Iron Settings Do not iron

Project Metrics

Machine washing can save time and you can wash several sweaters at once by using mesh washing bags.

Working time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 2 days

Skill Level: Beginner

What You'll Need

Supplies

  • Mild detergent
  • Mesh laundry bags

Tools

Instructions

  1. Pretreat Stains

    Pretreat any stains following the guidelines for the type of stain.

  2. Place Sweaters in Mesh Laundry Bags

    Protect your sweaters by washing them in mesh bags to help prevent snags and reduce pilling.

  3. Set Water Temperature to Cold

    Use cold water—warmer water will fray knits and hot water can make them shrink.

  4. Set the Cycle

    Choose the gentle/permanent press cycle when washing knits. If using a top-loading machine, start the cycle and let the water fill the basin. Pour a small amount of detergent in the water before adding the sweaters. If using a front loader, add detergent, put the sweaters in the machine, and then start the cycle.

  5. Skip the Spin Cycle

    Stop the machine before the spin cycle as it can be stressful to the yarns and pull them out of shape. To avoid additional stretching, take care when removing the sweaters from your washer.

  6. Absorb Excess Moisture and Air-Dry

Follow the same steps for absorbing excess moisture and air-drying as you would for hand-washed sweaters.

Tips for Washing and Drying Sweaters

  • Never mix colors when washing. It may result in dye transfer that's very hard to remove.
  • Card tables are ideal for drying sweaters as they typically have a protected vinyl top. If you're not using a waterproof surface, always lay plastic or a vinyl tablecloth under the damp sweater and towel.
  • Don't put a sweater into the clothes dryer, even if the label says you can. Avoid the dryer to prevent shrinking and excessive static cling with acrylic fibers.
  • If you accidentally shrink a favorite knit, you may be able to save your sweater by reshaping and pinning it on top of a cork bulletin board.

How to Repair Stretched Cuffs

Quite often, the cuffs of sweaters will get stretched while the rest of the sweater looks just fine. To tighten the cuffs, dip the stretched area in hot water and blot slightly. Place the wet cuffs on a white towel and dry them with a hairdryer set on hot air. This will slightly felt the fibers and tighten the cuffs. For a more permanent solution, stitch in some knitted elastic tape inside the edge of the cuff.

Storing Sweaters

Sweaters store well neatly folded in drawers. Never hang a knit garment—especially if it's heavy—as the weight will stretch out the shoulders very quickly. If you're ready to pack your knits for the winter, make sure they're clean and thoroughly dry, and then fold and place in a plastic tub.