How to Hand-Wash a Sweater and Remove Pills

Martha Stewart Living, October 2010

If you think caring for cashmere (or merino, or angora) is best left to professionals, someone has been pulling the wool over your eyes. Yes, there are consequences to doing it incorrectly -- you could turn a turtleneck into toddler wear. But avoiding laundering mishaps is simple if you stick to three cardinal rules.


First, wash woolens in tepid water, and never expose them to direct heat. Heat is the enemy of wool and leads to shrinking. Second, never wring or stretch wool when wet. Wool is wonderfully elastic, but it can be pulled out of shape permanently if handled carelessly while being washed. Finally, dry woolens flat to keep them from elongating.


Almost all woolens fare best when washed by hand rather than in the machine, because the fibers are covered in microscopic scales that tend to lock together when sweaters tumble in the washer. Cashmere fibers, which have fewer of these tiny scales, can be washed safely in a lingerie bag on your machine's gentle setting. But they'll last longer if washed by hand, using the techniques shown here.



Fill a tub or sink with tepid water and a few drops of mild detergent, such as dishwashing liquid. To neutralize perspiration odor, add 3/4 cup of white vinegar. Immerse the sweater, and swish gently, taking care not to stretch it. Soak for 10 minutes.


Resources: Acrylic party bucket from Gracious Home; Martha Stewart Clean Dish & Hand Soap.



Ball up the sweater gently, and squeeze out the water without wringing or stretching. Discard water, and refill tub with clean, tepid water. Place sweater in filled tub, and swish to rinse. (Avoid putting it directly under running water; the pressure can stretch it.) Repeat with clean water until detergent is gone.



After squeezing out water, lay the sweater on a white towel on a flat surface (a white towel prevents dye transfer from towel to sweater). Gently roll the towel and sweater together to remove moisture, squeezing and pressing as you work.


Resource: Low-twist bath towel by Martha Stewart Collection at Macy's.


Block and Dry

Dry the sweater on a flat, moisture-resistant surface, preferably mesh, which lets air circulate. Keep it away from sun and heat. Coax the sweater back into its shape, squaring the shoulders, placing the sleeves parallel to the body, and squaring the hem.


Resource: Stackable sweater drying racks from The Container Store.



When the sweater is dry, gently steam it on a hanger to remove wrinkles (this is a great way to freshen up a sweater you haven't washed). Or lightly press with an iron on the wool or steam setting. Fold the sweater; place it in a drawer or on a shelf. Never store a sweater on a hanger.


Resource: Go Mini My Little Steamer from HSN.


Make It As Good as New

Help cardigans keep their shape by buttoning them before washing. Restore a delicate sweater to the right size by measuring it from shoulder to shoulder, across the bottom, and outside of each arm before washing. Then block to those measurements after washing. Remove pills with a fine-tooth comb or a pill remover.


Resources: Cashmere "Darla" sweater from Club Monaco; tape measure from Create for Less; portable folding comb from Muji.


Bonus: How To Remove Sweater Pills

It could be cashmere, wool, flannel, cotton, or even a synthetic fiber, but chances are, one of your favorite sweaters will eventually pill. Pilling occurs when groups of fibers break, tangle, and mat together, making the texture of the sweater rough and decidedly unattractive.


Fortunately, there are ways to prevent pilling, such as following the manufacturer’s care instructions, turning the garment inside out before washing, making sure to use the gentle cycle (and shorter washing-machine cycles in general), removing the garment from the dryer immediately, and brushing the sweater regularly with a lint or bristled garment brush. But if pills do appear, you can try one of the following techniques to remove them:


Remove the little balls, one pill at a time, using a small pair of scissors or a razor blade, being careful not to damage the fabric by cutting too close to the surface.


Or, you can purchase a sweater comb or electric fabric shaver, then drag it across the fabric to remove the pills. These battery-operated devices can also be used on furniture and blankets; they’re are available in various sizes and usually come with removable rings designed to protect delicate textiles. Just be sure that you aren’t wearing the garment while de-pilling it, and remember to empty the pill trap when it’s full.


Resources: Sweater de-fuzzer available from Macy's; D-Fuzz-It Sweater/Fabric Comb, a product of Oak Hill Industries Corp., available at Shop At Clares and Von Maur;fabric lint brush available from Sew True.


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