How to Wash, Dry, and Reshape Sweaters

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If you learn how to wash, dry, and reshape sweaters at home, you'll save lots of money and avoid high dry-cleaning costs. With a bit of time and patience, your sweaters can look great, smell fresh and feel soft to the touch.

Most sweaters that are knit from cotton, acrylic, ramie, bamboo, wool and even cashmere yarns can be washed at home. The exception is any sweater that has interior shaping for lapels, collars, and shoulders. While the outer fibers may be washable, the interior shaping materials (interfacings) may be dry-clean-only. Wetting these materials can make them go limp and lose their shape. However, you can usually spot clean and freshen these dry-clean-only sweaters at home with a home dry cleaning kit.

Before You Begin Washing

If you are a novice at sweater washing or are concerned that the sweater may stretch excessively, be prepared by taking these steps.

  • Measure the width and length of the body of the sweater as well as the sleeve length before washing.
  • Or, trace around the unwashed sweater on plain white or kraft wrapping paper.

Now, you have measurements and/or a pattern to help you reshape the sweater after washing.

Machine Washing Tips

Some basic sweaters may have a label that says they can be machine-washed. This is usually true for acrylic and man-made fibers. Some cotton and ramie sweaters may also allow machine washing but you will have less success with these fibers because they tend to shrink or stretch more easily than man-made fibers. When you machine wash, there are still some tips that will keep the sweaters looking their best by reducing stretching or shrinking and pilling.

  • Pretreat all stains before washing.
  • Use the lowest water temperature possible when machine washing sweaters.
  • Use the gentle/permanent press cycle when washing knits.
  • Stop the machine before the spin cycle. A high revolution spin cycle can be stressful to the yarns and pull them out of shape. Take care not to pull the sweater out of shape as you remove it from the washer.
  • Use mesh laundry bags (one sweater per bag). Mesh bags contain and protect sweaters and are easy to fish out of the washer. Less abrasion from other garments will reduce pilling and prevent snags.
  • One special tip to remember: Never 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.

Hand Washing Tips

Hand washing is usually the safest choice for washing natural fibers. If there are stains, pretreat before washing. Use a gentle detergent or homemade wool wash, following the label directions. Here are some additional tips:

  • Do not use too much detergent or you will have a very difficult time getting out all of the suds. Left-in detergent can cause fibers to feel stiff and scratchy.
  • Use cold or lukewarm water—never hot—for best results.
  • Gently agitate or squeeze the sweater in the water to be sure that the detergent and water reach all parts of the sweater. Never wring or scrub which can cause stretching and pilling.
  • Support the sweater from underneath as you move it to the rinse water or transfer it to a towel for drying.
  • It is best to wash only one sweater at a time. Overcrowding the sink or wash basin can prevent soil from being removed.
  • Never mix colors when washing! You may have dye transfer that is very hard to remove.

Reshaping and Drying

Here are the steps the best method to dry and reshape sweaters unless you own a ventilated drying rack for sweaters:

  • Gently squeeze to remove excess water and while supporting the sweater, lay sweater flat on a dry, heavy absorbent towel and roll the sweater up in the towel, pressing firmly as you roll. Do not wring the towel.
  • Next, lay another dry bath towel on a flat surface large enough to hold your sweater with arms extended. A card table is a perfect size for air-drying sweaters and typically has a protective vinyl top. Always protect wood surfaces with a vinyl tablecloth under the damp towel.
  • Place the sweater on the dry towel and reshape the sweater into its original shape. Pat the sweater into shape; avoid tugging or pulling. Gently push the ribbing together at the neckline, wrists, and waist. Fasten buttons. Fold collar as it would be worn. If the sweater has an attached belt, extend it flat away from the sweater on each side. For removable belts, dry the belt separately from the sweater.
  • Allow the sweater to dry for 24 hours.
  • Flip the sweater over onto a new dry towel, smooth into shape (the shape will have set by now but you don’t want to add wrinkles or slow the drying process) and dry for another 24 hours.
  • Fold your sweater and put it away. Never hang a knitted garment. The weight will stretch out the shoulders very quickly.

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 just the stretched area in hot water and blot slightly. Place the wet cuffs on a white towel and dry them with a hair dryer set on hot air. This will slightly felt the fibers and tighten the cuffs.

For a more permanent solution, stitch in some correctly sized knitted elastic tape into the inside edge of the cuff.

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