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how to machine wash sweaters

It is possible to machine wash sweaters yourself at home and have them come out soft, clean, and looking good.

Dry cleaning your sweaters might seem more straightforward, but it's an expensive option. And just because dry cleaning is expensive, does not mean it's the best care for all sweaters. 

The dry cleaning chemicals can build up in some sweater fibers, leaving them stiff instead of soft and cozy. Probably not the look you're going for.

To machine wash sweaters safely at home, you'll need to know how to launder each type of fiber. These sweater washing guidelines can help.

Read the Sweater Care Label

Look to the sweater's care label for guidance. 

Today's international care labels often have symbols as well as, or instead of, words. Most of the symbols are pretty self-explanatory.

A cuplike icon with dots tells you the wash temperature (one dot for cold, three for hot.)

A simple cire indicates clothing you should dry-clean, and a circle overlaid with an X identifies clothes that should never go to the dry cleaner.

But when clothes are labeled dry-clean only, must you obey? 

The dry-cleaning industry will tell you, yes, and if you can't live without that silk sweater, you should comply.

If you clean it yourself, you risk damage like shrinkage, color loss or fading, and fabric texture changes.

The benefits: If you don't mind gambling, you save money and have the item ready when you need it.

Your best hand-washing bets (cold water, please) include cashmere (washed inside out), fuzzy sweaters, and fancy loose-weave knits.

Sweaters are a little harder to care for than most garments. 

They can quickly shrink; they can stretch, and they can pill. And the softer the sweater, the more delicate.

How to Machine Wash Sweaters by Fabric Type

How important is the right laundry temperature?

It directly affects the performance of the laundry detergent, the wrinkling of fabrics, and the life span of your clothes - so follow the care labels.

When in doubt about water temperature, choose a cold water wash. Cold water will protect most dark or light-colored sweaters from running and minimizes shrinkage of washable woolens.

If you're going to do a cold water wash, check first for stains and spots and pretreat the sweater; detergent doesn't clean heavily soiled areas a well in cold water. 

If you do lots of cold-water washes, consider using a laundry detergent designed to work in all temperatures. 

Here are some guidelines on how to machine wash sweaters safely by fabric type if the label is no longer legible.

  • Acrylic:  Acrylics are manmade fibers that can stretch when subjected to heat. Wash as directed on the label (usually in warm water). Then either lay the sweater flat to dry or tumble dry on low heat if the label says that's OK. If you have to iron it, iron the sweater inside out on low heat and be careful not to stretch it.
  • Angora:  Angora is a blend of rabbit hair and synthetic fibers. It's very prone to shrinking, so this is one sweater you should consider dry cleaning. If the label says it can be washed, don't put it in the machine. Instead, hand wash in a delicate fabric wash such as Woolite and lay flat to dry.
  • Cashmere: Cashmere is goat hair blended with wool or synthetic fibers. Usually, you can wash cashmere safely on the machine's delicate cycle in cold water. Roll it in a towel to squeeze out excess water after washing, then reshape and dry flat, away from sunlight or direct heat. 
  • Chenille: If you want chenille sweaters to stay soft, don't put them in the washing machine - even if the label says it's OK. The rubbing caused by the machine agitation can damage the fibers and make them snag or feel rough. Instead, hand wash your chenille sweater inside out and lay flat to dry.
  • Cotton: Hand or machine wash cotton sweaters in cold water. Lay flat to dry. These sweaters may need ironing. If so, iron while damp.
  • Silk: Wash in the machine's delicate cycle in cold water, lay flat to dry. It may need ironing afterward. If so, use a cool iron setting.
  • Wool: Some wool sweaters can be machine washed; others cannot. Shetland and Merino wools can be washed in cold water on the most delicate cycle. Agitation can cause them to shrink. Check the label. If you do put your wool sweater in the washing machine, choose the gentlest cycle, and wash in cold water. Lay flat to dry.

How to Keep Sweaters From Pilling 

Fabric pilling happens because sweaters often shed small fibers that ball up and cling to the sweater's surface in the wash process.

You can remove these pills with an electric sweater lint shaver or by carefully trimming away with scissors.

To prevent pilling, wash your sweaters inside out to limit abrasion on the "good" side of the sweater fabric.

If hand washing, remove excess moisture by rolling the sweater in a towel.

If you do put your sweater in the dryer, dry on low heat and remove it when it's almost dry. Let your sweater finish the drying process lying flat on a sweater drying rack.

Never put away a sweater dirty as this makes it more attractive to pests, such as clothes moths. Also, some stains may set.

Fold sweaters to store them; do not hang sweaters if you'd like them to retain their shape.

Finally, to make your sweaters last longer, air them out at least 24 hours after you wear them (and before you wear them again). Then wash, fold, and store out of direct sunlight.

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Do You Have Tips for Machine Washing Sweaters?

Do you have tips or a story about machine washing sweaters? Share it!

› How to Safely Machine Wash Sweaters