It’s sweater season again, and time for me to wash the sweaters I didn’t manage to get around to last spring. Yes, “wash”. Most people are terrified to wash sweaters by hand because they think they’ll shrink them, and often avoid buying them in the first place. In reality washing wool sweaters by hand is quite simple if you know how.
images via: Sandra Backlund
Here’s a step-by-step description of how I wash my wool sweaters and hats. I’ve never ruined one by hand washing. The first thing to keep in mind is that the combined agitation of wet fabric and soap mats and shrinks i.e. “felts” wool knits, not the temperature of the water. Wet wool needs to be handled gently as the fiber is weakest when wet and easily disturbed.
Start by running hot water, but not so hot you can’t plunge your hand into the sink or tub you’re filling. (Yes, “hot”.) Add a squirt or two of mild detergent; using the same amount you would wash dishes with. Swish your hand around the sink a couple of times to blend it with the water without creating suds.
Unless you want to felt your sweater it’s important to use a mild detergent rather than soap. Soap has a high alkaline ph content and scours the wool fibers and helps mat and shrink the fabric. Dish washing liquids like Ecover, Seventh Generation or Dawn (with the blue label) work well. Dawn is used to clean birds caught in oil slicks because it doesn’t damage their feathers so it is fine for wool. Despite Woolite’s fantastic job marketing itself as a wool wash, don’t use it; it has a high alkaline content.
Next, lay your sweater down on the surface of the water and very, very gently push it down into the bowl to wet it, or you can just let it sink by itself. Do not rub, scrub, scrunch or wring the sweater. Just let it soak. The hot water and detergent will pull out dirt, grease, wood smoke and pet dander without your help. Let it soak for at least 15 minutes. Longer is Okay.
Drain the water from the sink without handling the sweater or gently reach under the sweater and pull the plug. Once the water is drained gently push down on the sweater with your palms to remove more water. Then carefully lift the lump of wet sweater and place it in another container. I wash my sweaters in the bathroom sink and transfer them to the bathtub for this step. Wool is most fragile and susceptible to felting and stretching when wet so it is important that you transfer it carefully. Resist the temptation to wring or squeeze the water out.
Rinse out the dirty sink and fill it again with hot water, this time without detergent. Place the sweater back into the sink and let soak again for another 10 or 15 minutes. Repeat the rinse process two times or until the rinse water is clean.
Place a big towel on the floor and gently move the sweater to the towel and arrange it so that it is smooth and flat. Roll it up in the towel and press hard to remove the water. I kneel on the roll for better leverage. Never twist or ring the towel – just press. You’ll need a couple of towels so you can repeat this step again. Once the excess water is removed and the sweater is just damp, carefully place it on a dry towel and gently pat the sweater back into the same shape it was before it was washed. Wet wool stretches so be careful that your sweater isn’t wrinkled or skewed to one side or the other because it will dry that way. Some people like to use special netting racks designed for drying sweaters. These are great because your sweaters will dry more quickly than on the floor.
Be patient because it can take a couple of days for a sweater to dry depending how heavy it is. I dry mine in my guest room where I won’t walk on them. Check in on it periodically to flip it over or turn a sleeve back to expose the damp areas.
As you can see it’s really not hard to wash sweaters by hand. Think too of all the money you’ll save by not sending them to the dry cleaners.