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.