How to Clean and Care for Sweaters

A cardigan sweater near cleaning items

​The Spruce / Ana Cadena 

Overview
  • Working Time: 30 mins
  • Total Time: 1 - 2 days
  • Skill Level: Beginner

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 for years to come. Most sweaters made from cotton, acrylic, ramie, bamboo, wool—as well as some cashmere yarns—can be washed at home, but you'll need to determine if the sweater should be washed by hand or machine.

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 best to wash one sweater at a time. When planning on hand-washing one or several sweaters, keep in mind that you'll need to allow for at least two days of drying time. 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 Often to Clean Sweaters

The general rule of thumb is to clean a sweater after two to five wears, unless it's soiled. The more durable the sweater's fiber (such as wool and synthetics), the less frequently it needs to be cleaned.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Tub, sink, or washing machine
  • Clean cloth (optional)
  • Rubber gloves (optional)
  • Drying rack or bath towels

Materials

  • Mild detergent or wool wash
  • Mesh laundry bags
  • Stain remover (optional)

Instructions

Various materials for washing sweaters
​The Spruce / Ana Cadena
How to Wash Sweaters
Detergent Mild or wool wash
Water Temperature Cold
Cycle Type Gentle or permanent press
Drying Cycle Type Do not use dryer
Special Treatments Hand-wash alone or machine-wash in a mesh bag
Iron Settings Do not iron

How to Hand-Wash Sweaters

  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.

    Someone pretreating a stain on a sweater
    The Spruce / Ana Cadena
  2. Fill a Tub or Sink

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

    Someone filling a tub with water
    ​The Spruce / Ana Cadena 
  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.

    Someone adding detergent to the water
    ​The Spruce / Ana Cadena 
  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 five minutes.

    Someone agitating the sweater by hand
    ​The Spruce / Ana Cadena 
  5. Rinse

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

    Someone rinsing the sweater
    ​The Spruce / Ana Cadena 
  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.

    Someone draining water from the sweater by squeezing
    ​The Spruce / Ana Cadena 
  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.

    Someone rolling the sweater up in a towel
    ​The Spruce / Ana Cadena
  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 sweaters. 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.

    Someone reshaping the sweater
    ​The Spruce / Ana Cadena

How to Machine-Wash Sweaters

When machine-washing a sweater, it's best to put the garment in a mesh bag for extra protection from any friction or agitation. Also, avoid putting it in the wash with any bulky items, such as jeans or towels.

Items for machine-washing a sweater
​The Spruce / Ana Cadena 
  1. Pretreat Stains

    Pretreat any stains on the sweater depending on the specific type of stain.

    Someone pretreating the sweater
    ​The Spruce / Ana Cadena 
  2. Place Sweater in Mesh Laundry Bag

    Protect your sweater by washing it in a mesh bag to help prevent snags and reduce pilling.

    Someone placing a sweater in a mesh laundry bag
    ​The Spruce / Ana Cadena 
  3. Set Water Temperature to Cold

    Use cold water. Warmer water will fray knits, and hot water can make them shrink.

    Someone choosing a cold water temperature
    ​The Spruce / Ana Cadena 
  4. Set the Cycle

    Choose the gentle or 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 sweater. If using a front-loading machine, add detergent, put the sweater in the machine, and then start the cycle.

    Someone choosing the laundry cycle
    ​The Spruce / Ana Cadena
  5. Skip the Spin Cycle

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

    Someone removing a mesh bag from a washer
    ​The Spruce / Ana Cadena 
  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.

    Someone placing the sweater flat to dry
    ​The Spruce / Ana Cadena

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 them in a plastic tub. Avoid fabric storage bags because moths can eat through them—and your clothes.

Repairs

Quite often, the cuffs of sweaters will get stretched while the rest of the sweater looks 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 blow-dryer set on hot. This will slightly felt the fibers and tighten the cuffs. For a more permanent solution, stitch some knitted elastic tape inside the edge of each cuff.

Treating Stains on Sweaters

When you spot an old, unidentifiable stain on a sweater, try eliminating it before washing with a stain remover, as mentioned above, or by using a couple of other methods. Try flushing the stain with water, and then blotting it with white vinegar. Let the vinegar sit for a few minutes, and then flush the area with water to rinse. If the stain remains, try blotting hydrogen peroxide (3 percent) on the stain, let it sit for a few minutes, and then flush it with water. Then hand-wash or machine-wash as you prefer.

Tips for Washing Sweaters

  • Maintain your sweater's original shape by tracing around the unwashed sweater on kraft wrapping paper before washing. Now, you have a pattern to reference when you reshape the sweater. If you don't want to make a pattern, measure the sweater with a measuring tape before and after to make sure it remains the same size.
  • 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 place 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 a cork bulletin board.