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How to wash a sweater

Santa was good this year and brought you a bunch of new, fuzzy, warm sweaters.

By now, they've been worn a few times and need a date with the washing machine. But you hold back, not wanting to lose that new look and feel. 

Sweaters can survive the laundering and come out looking good. You just have to know how to sweater wash by fabric type. 

Here's how to wash a sweater yourself.

Read the Fabric Care Label Before You Wash Sweaters

Sweaters can be machine-washable, hand-wash only, or dry clean only. 

First of all - 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 fibers and leave them stiff. 

Probably not the look you're going for.

Your first act before washing a sweater: Read the label. 

Then follow the instructions very, very carefully. If the label says "Dry Clean Only," dry clean it. (However, if it says "Dry Clean," you may be able to hand wash it.) 

To hand-wash, gently swish the sweater around in the sink or tub. Do not rub or wring. Rinse thoroughly, then roll the sweater in a towel and press gently to remove excess moisture. 

Sweaters are a little harder to care for than most garments. They can shrink; they can stretch; they can pill. And the softer the sweater, the more delicate.

Harder, tighter yarns are more durable than soft, loose ones, which tend to stretch easily. 

Here are general laundering guidelines to ensure your sweater wash is a successful one, in case your sweater's fabric care label is no longer legible.

Washing Sweaters by Fabric Type

When in doubt about water temperature, choose a cold water wash. Use a laundry detergent formulated for delicates. 

Here's how to wash sweaters by fabric type:

  • Acrylic sweaters: 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 if the label says that's OK. If it needs ironing, iron it inside out on low heat and be careful not to stretch it.
  • Angora sweaters: 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 gentle laundry detergent and lay flat to dry.
  • How to wash cashmere sweaters: Cashmere is goat hair blended with wool or synthetic fibers. Often, you can wash cashmere on the delicate cycle in cold water. Roll in a towel to squeeze out excess water, reshape, and dry flat away from sunlight or direct heat.
sweater washIf you want chenille sweaters to stay soft, don't put them in the washing machine - even if the label says it's OK.
  • Chenille sweaters: 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's agitation can damage the fibers and make them snag or feel rough. Instead, hand wash inside out and lay flat to dry.
  • Cotton sweaters: Hand- or machine-wash cotton in cold water with color-safe bleach. Lay flat to dry. If ironing is needed, iron while damp.
  • Silk sweaters: Some silk sweaters can be washed in the delicate cycle, in cold water, and dried flat on a towel. But it may need ironing afterward. If so, use the iron's cool setting. 
  • Wool sweaters: Some wool sweaters can be washed; others cannot. Shetland and Merino wools can usually be washed in cold water without bleach, on the most delicate machine cycle. Agitation can cause them to shrink. Check the label. Lay flat to dry. If ironing is needed, use the iron's wool setting.

Washing and Drying Tips for Success

Hand-wash only sweaters should always be dried flat. Machine-washable sweaters can sometimes be dried in the dryer on low heat. Check the care label to be sure. 

  • Wash sweaters inside out to reduce pilling. Many synthetic clothes shed small fibers that ball up and cling to the clothes. Remove these pills with a fuzz-removing device or carefully trim away with scissors. To prevent future pilling, use a fabric softener in the washer or dryer to lubricate fibers, and wash sweaters inside out to limit abrasion on the "good" side.
(If this happens, you can remove the pills with an electric sweater lint shaver.)
  • Machine drying: If you put your sweater in the dryer, choose the low heat setting and remove it when it's almost dry.
  • Flat drying: Place the sweater on a rack and reshape it as much as possible. Do not dry near heat or in direct sunlight. Check it occasionally to make sure it's not shrinking as it dries. If it does, pull it back out to its original size. (Mark the outline on your rack with tape.)
  • Storage: Don't put away a sweater away dirty. This makes it more attractive to pests. It also allows any stains time to set. Once a sweater is clean, fold to  store it.  Hanging causes most sweaters to stretch out of shape.
  • To make sweaters last longer, air them out at least 24 hours after wearing them. Fold and store out of direct light.

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› How to Safely Wash a Sweater