How to wash a wool sweater

Hello everyone!
My name is Solanah, I run the blog Vixen Vintage, and Casey has kindly invited me to post on Elegant Musings!
Right now in the northern hemisphere we’ve hit winter, and I’m sure you’ve all gotten some good use out of your sweaters, socks, and mittens. It’s time to freshen them up, and make sure they last for many more winters to come!
Wool is a keratin fiber, which also makes up our fingernails and hair. So it does not respond well to harsh chemicals, such as alkaline, found in laundry detergents, and perspiration. Alkaline opens up the little scales on the fibers, like those hair commercials, with the before picture showing a microscopic image of an unhealthy hair, all prickly and dry. Thats what happens when alkaline is introduced to wool.
So instead of laundry soap, use dish detergent, this will successfully clear away the greasiness from normal wear, without harming the wool fibers. This method is gentler (and more economical) than dry cleaning, which does weaken the fibers. It is also said that hand washing correctly can make wools softer, and there’s nothing better than your favorite cardigan getting softer and softer with each washing.*
Instructions for washing wool knits:
1. Fill a bowl or sink with a colander, and warm water, and add a few drops of dish detergent, or even mild shampoo (no conditioner), and swish around a bit.
2. Place your knit item in the colander, and gently immerse in water, don’t squeeze, wring, or really move in any way. You can gently press it down to make sure it’s covered in water, but otherwise just let it soak for a bit, 10, 20 minutes, longer if it needs a really good soak.
3. When it’s done soaking, lift the colander out of the bowl or sink and set aside, draining the sink, or empty bowl. I put my colander in another empty bowl, so it wouldn’t drip on the counter.
4. Fill your container again with warm water, and let it sit some more, the soap will find it’s way our of the wool. Repeat if you feel necessary. If you have “hard water”, add a bit of vinegar to the rinse, to soften it up.
5. Once you have sufficiently coaxed the bubbles out of hiding, drain any water from the sink or bowl, and just let the item sit in the colander dripping excess water. Press down to quicken the drip process if needed. Wool is weaker when wet, so avoid lifting when it’s soaking and heavy.
6. Once it has dripped well, gently lift the item as a whole (eg. Don’t hold a sweater by it’s shoulders, leaving the body of it to hang), and place it flat on a clean, dry towel. Roll the towel and press.
7. Take the item and lay it on a dry towel, on a flat surface. Flip every few hours until completely dry.
And voila! My cashmere sweater has a new fluff and fresh feel :)
*I would not recommend this method for multi-colored items as they may run. Test the item before proceeding, in a spot that is hidden if the colors do run, such as under a collar, toe of a sock, etc.

December 29, 2010 · 59 lovely thoughts
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Steph December 29, 2010 at 22:58

How helpful! Thanks for sharing!

anja louise December 29, 2010 at 23:13

I really needed this. I’ve ruined a few nice old sweaters this year and I don’t want any more to have a nasty fate. Great post!

Purple Deer December 29, 2010 at 23:20

Yes…This will save so many vintage WOOL sweaters from a sad shrunken state <3

Shawna December 29, 2010 at 23:21

Awesome post. Thank u for sharing.

Rueby December 29, 2010 at 23:43

What an awesome idea to use a colander! Otherwise I do it the same, just never heard of that method before :)

Eleanor (undeadgoat) December 29, 2010 at 23:52

As a knitter I’m a seasoned handwasher, but I really like the colander idea as well as the hard water tip! For items where the colors will run, I recommend lots of water and little to no soaking time–a no-rinse woolwash that works in cold water is also nice, as cold water will help colors set.

Solanah December 30, 2010 at 01:17

Eleanor, great idea! Will try that for multi colored items :)

Thank you for your comment!

Sherry December 29, 2010 at 23:55

Using a colander is a great idea – I am sure I am far too rough on my woollens when they are wet! Thanks for sharing.

Jennifer December 30, 2010 at 00:12

What helpful tips and so much more economical than the dry cleaners and quicker too!! Thanks for the post!!

janine December 30, 2010 at 00:24

do you find that dish soap works better than woolite?
great post, thanks! i love your how-tos! i just found your monogramming one too and cant wait to try :)

Solanah December 30, 2010 at 01:29

Janine, woolite, while gentler than most laundry detergents, still contains alkaline, so while it may be great for other materials, it still strips away layers on wool fibers, bit by bit.

Good luck monograming, I just monogramed some hankies for a Christmas gift, and they were very well received!

Thanks for stopping by!

Erin December 30, 2010 at 00:30

Very helpful, Solana! I suppose this would also work well for non-wool sweaters? I don’t wear much wool (I’m allergic – it’s itchy!) I heart your blog and glad to see your guest post here at Casey’s domain (which I also heart).

Solanah December 30, 2010 at 01:34

Yes! Any handwashing I usually do with dish detergent. Laundry detergent gets too sudsy, and is a pain to rinse out. For really stained, or dingy vintage items, I use Biz, but for normal washings, just a bit of dish detergent does the trick :)

Thank you so much Erin, it’s always nice to hear from you!

Jenny @ Kerrfect! December 30, 2010 at 00:40

Love your post! My husband could have used this info last week when he shrunk up his “new” cardi. I’ll make him sit down and read it for next time! I love both you guys, you are so adorable, long time subscriber!

Andi December 30, 2010 at 04:12

For multicolored garments or yarn you know is not color fast, a splash of vinegar in the soapy water can help loads. It helps the wool hold its dye in. I have a red and cream striped sweater made out of Cascade 220 and that is the only way I can wash it without the red bleeding dramatically.

Solanah January 8, 2011 at 16:49

Hey thats great! Vinegar is wonderful, seems like it works for everything!

Thanks for the tip!

Christie December 30, 2010 at 06:15

This is soooo helpful. I’ve had a wool sweater sitting in the “to-do” bucket in my laundry for months as I wasnt sure how to wash wool – time to actually wash it now!

SoOhCliché December 30, 2010 at 06:32

Thanks for the advice :) A great post ! And thanks for sharing !!!

northwest is best December 30, 2010 at 06:45

Thanks for the tutorial, Solanah! I still haven’t forgiven myself for chucking a favourite wool jumper into the washing machine when I had just come back from holiday. I was so tired I wasn’t thinking, and it came out of the machine doll-sized.

kim @ pineapplemint December 30, 2010 at 09:15

i use dr. bronner’s to wash my woolens, using a similar method to this one. it is less harsh than dish soap and makes the sweaters smell AMAZING, and the pleasant smell also lasts for a very long time.

Amy Markham December 30, 2010 at 10:36

Thanks so much…very helpful! Any advice for washing vintage Orlon? I think it is supposed to be machine washable, but have been to scared to risk it!

Solanah January 8, 2011 at 16:50

Orlon is just acrylic, so it’s fine to machine wash :)

Syrena December 30, 2010 at 10:40

Thank you! I have several sweaters that are going to be handwashed now!! LOL I really dislike having things drycleaned…. it seems so harsh!

emily December 30, 2010 at 11:31

your so good at these how-to’s! i read your monograming one as well and im excited to try that. i also found a link a while ago to a blog (cant remember which..) where you did a little info on vintage undies and things. i didnt know that a garter belt is supposed to go under your underwear, this last year i started wearing one more often, and only really got my cues from modern editorials where they are used quite often now,but almost always over undies! but i was quite presently surprised to see why this is how you wear them! try going to the bathroom!
keep these up, i really enjoy them, you have a lot of knowledge to share and you make it simple and easy to understand. great photos too.

Solanah January 8, 2011 at 16:52

I’m glad now you can wear stockings without all that trouble!


Kimberly December 30, 2010 at 14:36

Great tips; thank you!

Tilly December 30, 2010 at 15:43

Wow, this is such a helpful post! I’m rubbish when it comes to looking after my knits, but you’ve inspired me to take better care of them when washing in future.

pixie December 30, 2010 at 17:15

Yup, I learned this the hard way last year when my lovely turquois cowl neck came out of the laundry sized for my co-worker’s chihuahua. Now it’s only a few drops of shampoo, warm water and tender loving care.

Maria December 30, 2010 at 19:08

While I’m no novice when it comes to laundering vintage wool, I’d completely forgotten about using laundry soap as an alternative to detergent. I usually use a tiny bit of organic detergent that is sodium and phosphate free, and haven’t noticed any damage on my knitwear. While abroad I used shampoo as laundry soap frequently, and it works well too when in a pinch!

Ann December 30, 2010 at 19:27

This is so helpful. I’ve recently picked up knitting again, and don’t like using acrylic, so knowing how to take care of me knits is wonderful! Thanks.

Sarsaparilla December 30, 2010 at 20:31

I cringe when I think of all the nice vintage things I’ve ruined from lack of patience! Thanks for the reminder of the slow & gentle way to wash clothes. Excellent post!

colleen December 30, 2010 at 20:58

wow, i never knew. thanks for sharing!

Em December 30, 2010 at 21:04

Incredibly helpful, easy to follow, and very timely!

The Sew Convert December 30, 2010 at 21:33

Wow! I didn’t know any other method of washing wool other than dry cleaning till now. Thanks for the tip!

Jill December 30, 2010 at 22:06

huh…I never knew that ♥

Renae December 31, 2010 at 00:39

Thank you so much for this tutorial. I’ve been avoiding washing some delicate woolens for fear of upsetting them.

bunny December 31, 2010 at 06:02

This post was very useful! Thank you very much! And a happy new year for everybody!!!


sue December 31, 2010 at 09:33

what a great find your blog – found it by Solanah! perfect tutorial

Jacquie December 31, 2010 at 10:20

i hand wash the sweaters often, but some of these tips (i.e., colander/vinegar) were really great!

thanks for sharing and what beautiful photos!

Sarah Louise December 31, 2010 at 16:26

Thanks for the tips! I’ve used dish detergent on my handwashing for ages, but I was never sure if it was the correct thing to do :S So glad that you said this method works for non-wool items also (I’m another poor person allergic to wool!)

Peggy December 31, 2010 at 17:12

I’ve been washing wool sweaters by hand for years and never thought to use a colander- brilliant!

Nikki December 31, 2010 at 17:16

Great post! I had no idea wool was made out of the same fibers as human hair and fingernails. Pretty nifty.

Awesome photography, too, by the way!

Tisha January 1, 2011 at 14:01

I appreciate this post so very much. I don’t have many vintage woolens but I do have a positively alluring vintage 30s/40s dress that needs washed — and I certainly did not want to put it in the washer. Thank you!

Rebecca January 2, 2011 at 16:36

This is so good to know! Thanks for sharing!

Victoria / Justice Pirate January 3, 2011 at 15:58

I’ll be honest. . I really had NO idea how to wash wool at all. Thanks for this!

Margo January 3, 2011 at 21:17

what a fantastic tutorial! So practical and clear. Thank you so much. I considered myself a pro hand-washer, but I picked up some new tips. Thanks!

Sara January 5, 2011 at 12:51

I wonder if you could use a salad spinner, which is basically a colander and a tub. I don’t think it would agitate enough to felt or pill even if you spun out the excess water after the final rinse.


Solanah January 8, 2011 at 16:56

Yes! I read in “Real Simple” magazine once that a salad spinner makes a great “dryer” for hand washed garments :)

Jackie January 7, 2011 at 10:57

A lot of knitters shy away from using dish detergent on their handmade garments–it can tend to strip away too much of the wool’d natural oils, which help keep the fibers pliable as well as help provide wool’s fabulous insulating properties. I can’t say whether dish detergent would be okay for synthetics.

For wool, I agree that Woolite really isn’t good. I have used wool washes like Eucalan and Soak, and have been pleased with the results (I have no connections to either product).

The Dr. Bronner’s is a true soap, not a detergent, which could leave a film (the stuff that becomes “soap scum” on your bathroom fixtures) on the fibers. Much as I love the stuff for cleaning myself, it may not be a great choice for washing clothing.

Just some observations FWIW.

Solanah January 8, 2011 at 17:03

Thank you Jackie, I didn’t know about Dr Bronners soap :)

Dish detergent is a go to for any hand washing, especially when it comes to wools. It’s the gentlest cleaner we all have on hand, After 14 years of knitting and completing textile courses in college I’ve observed a gentle dish detergent to have a great effect on wools. The cashmere sweater I used in this tutorial has been through washings every winter I’ve had it, and I can’t remember how long I’ve had it! It seems to get softer and fluffier every year, which is why I stand by using simple dish detergent, it’s never failed :)

Molly January 7, 2011 at 16:23

Thank you for a very useful tutorial! I often use shampoo and dish detergent when doing laundry. I’ve found that a little shampoo and a toothbrush is great for cleaning dirty collars because that dirt is basically grease and skin and shampoo is designed to remove grease (as of course is dish detergent).

Solanah January 8, 2011 at 17:05

Oh yes, I learned about the shampoo on collars trick in school during theater productions. Those collars would get filthy with makeup! But shampoo does wonders :)

Julie January 8, 2011 at 15:51

Very cool!
Are these methods any good for use on other Dry-clean-only materials?

Solanah January 8, 2011 at 17:07

I wouldn’t recommend this method on any other dry clean only items, some materials don’t take well to moisture, so it’s best to follow the instructions on the tag :)

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