It really is possible to machine wash sweaters - and even have them come out clean and looking good.
Dry cleaning your sweaters might seem easier, 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 on 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 fabric type.
Become a Sweater Label Reader
The label on your sweater is your best guide to successfully cleaning it.
Your first act: read the sweater label. Then follow the instructions very, very carefully. If it says, "Dry Clean Only," dry clean it. (However, if it says "Dry Clean," you may be able to wash it.)
And if the label says "Wash is cool water," don't wash it in cold water. There is a difference.
Sweaters are a little harder to care for than most garments; they can easily shrink; they can stretch; and they can pill.
Here are some guidelines to help you machine wash sweaters safely by fabric type f the label is no longer legible.
How to Machine Wash Sweaters by Type of Fabric
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 sweaters are 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 the sweater in a delicate fabric wash such as Oolite and lay flat to dry.
Cashmere: Cashmere is usually goat hair blended with wool or synthetic fibers. Usually, you can wash cashmere safely on the 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: Usually, you can hand or machine wash cotton sweaters in cool water. Lay flat to dry. These sweaters may need ironing.
Silk: Some silk sweaters can be washed in the delicate cycle in cold water and then laid flat to dry. But they too may need ironing afterward.
Wool: Some wool sweaters can be washed; others cannot. Check the label. If you do put your wool sweater in the washing machine, choose the gentlest cycle, and wash in cool water. Don't twist. Lay flat to dry. Also, not all wools are alike. Shetland and Merino wools can often be washed in cold water on the most delicate cycle. Agitation can cause them to shrink.
How to Machine Wash Sweaters to Keep Them From Pilling
Fabric pilling can happen even when you've done sweater washing and drying correctly. This is because sweaters often shed small fibers that ball up and cling to the sweater's surface in the wash process.
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 your sweaters to store; 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.