Skip the Dry Cleaners: Here's How to Wash and Care for Cashmere and Wool Sweaters
Let's debunk this myth once and for all: You do not have to dry clean your sweaters. In fact, not even cashmere requires professional cleaning.
But if you're like most, you're reluctant to wash your sweaters at home; perhaps you've had some laundry disasters that have prevented you from trying again, like when one of your wooly favorites accidentally ended up in the dryer. But if you're careful, there's no reason to haul your beloved knits off to the cleaners.
How Often You Should Wash Your Sweaters
It isn't recommended to wash or dry clean your wool and cashmere sweaters after every use, as it can damage the yarns that make up these items. While how often you wash you sweaters ultimately comes down to personal preference, Gwen Whiting of The Laundress says she launders hers at the beginning of the season and towards the end. "If you have pile of sweaters in your closet that you don't wear on heavy rotation, then once or twice a season is perfect," she says.
How to Wash Wool and Cashmere Sweaters
No matter what type of wool or cashmere you are washing, you can follow the same steps outlined below. "All animals in the wool family, whether sheep, alpaca, mohair, lamb, merino, or camel employ the same cleaning process," Whiting says.
The original dimensions of your sweater can sometimes get distorted during cleaning, so you want to measure your garment beforehand. "Measure your sweater because that's what you want your final sweater after washing to conform to," Martha said during a segment of The Martha Stewart Show years ago. To do so, use a tape measure and measure the entirety of your item, including the length of the sleeves, from the armpit down to the base of the sweater, and the width of the head and hand openings. Martha recommends writing the measurements down so you don't forget.
According to Whiting, it's always safer to hand wash your sweaters using the following steps.
- First, fill a sink, tub, or basin with cold water—but not ice cold, Martha says—and add a squirt of a cleanser that's specially formulated for wool. Don't have any on hand? "The alternative is a good hair shampoo, because wool and cashmere is hair," Whiting says.
- Next, submerge your sweater in the bath. "Don't mix colors," says our founder. "Beiges, whites, are separate from any colors."
- Once in the water, gently swirl your garment around for about 30 seconds, and let it soak for up to 30 minutes before rinsing out the soap with cold water from the faucet.
- Drain the dirty water and rinse with cool, clean water.
Though Whiting prefers hand washing, she says that the washing machine isn't off limits. For the best results, place your sweater in a mesh washing bag. Select the delicate cycle on the machine and make sure the water temperature is cold and the spin is on low. "You can shrink or felt an item by overly agitating it," she says. This can happen if your machine is on too high. Once the cycle is complete, promptly remove the sweater to reduce creasing.
How to Dry a Sweater
Whether you wash your sweaters by hand or in the machine, Whiting says that they should never go into the dryer or be wrung out by hand. "Wringing manipulates the fibers, and when the yarns are wet, they're weaker," she says. "You might end up disfiguring your sweater."
Instead, squeeze out excess water by first pressing your sweater into a ball. Once it's no longer sopping wet, Martha says to lay it out on a dry towel and manipulate the sweater so that it conforms to its original shape (using the measurements you wrote down earlier). Next, fold the towel in half over your sweater; then roll the towel with the sweater inside until most of the moisture is gone. Place it onto a fresh towel to finish the drying process.
How to Fix Flaws in Your Sweaters
Whether it's a spot of ketchup or a patch of pills, you can easily restore your sweater to its original state with a little care.
If you notice a stain on your sweater, don't panic and dab at it aggressively—that will just make it worse. Whiting recommends working a stain remover into the area before the next wash, but she says to go easy with the application. "If you're scrubbing it with your fingers or a scrub brush, you're going to have a visual result," she says. "You're either going to disrupt the weave or cause it to be super fuzzy." Gently massaging it in will do the trick.
Heat is kryptonite to wool, so don't use an iron, as it crushes the fibers. Instead, reach for a steamer. "Some wools, like a lighter merino or cashmere, are more prone to wrinkles after you wash—then you need to steam," says Whiting. She also likes to use the steamer in between washes for a quick pick me up. "Steaming fluffs the yarns up and is a natural refresher," she says.
Pilling—those little balls that form on your favorite sweaters—is caused by friction. To stop pills from taking over, Whiting recommends de-fuzzing as you go. She swears by two products: A sweater stone ($21, thelaundress.com) for a heavier gauge yarn, and a sweater comb ($19.50, jcrew.com) for a thinner weave. "They are two tools that just remove the pill, versus a shaver that won't discriminate between the pill and the textile," she says.
How to Store Sweaters
While some clothes can be kept in drawers and on hangers, there is a very specific way to store wool and cashmere sweaters—and doing so correctly is a key part of their care. You also want to be diligent when stowing these items away at the end of the cold-weather season, as they easily attract moths.
Although sweaters can be space hogs, it's important to fold (not hang!) them. "If you hang a sweater, you'll end up with distortion," says Whiting. "You'll have horns on your shoulder or or your arm will get stuck in the hanger and stretch it."
Store in Cotton Bags
For long-term storage, avoid plastic bins, where moisture and bugs happily thrive. "We recommend cotton storage bags, which bugs can't eat through. Cotton is also breathable, so you're not going to have that retained moisture," says Whiting.
Wash at the End of the Season
Before you store your knits away for the season, make sure to give them a wash. "You always, always, always want to launder at the end of the season," says Whiting. The main reason? Moths. Even if you only wore the item one time, you might attract bugs, which consider body oil, products like lotion, and perfume food.
If you do spot tiny holes in multiple sweaters, it's time for a closet cleanse. "Empty everything out, and then vacuum, spray, clean, and launder in phases," says Whiting. "Steaming is also really great for removing bug larva." If the problem is severe, quarantine your sweaters in plastic bags until you can wash them thoroughly.