Woman in cozy oversized sweater holding a ceramic mugThere’s a reason why the Saturday Night Live skit Sweatuh Weathuh was so catchy (and if you haven’t seen it, here you go.) When the temps get cooler, most of us can’t wait to pull out the sweaters that have been sitting in storage and wrap ourselves in their fuzzy embrace. The only drawback to these physical manifestations of fluffy heaven is that they are a pain to take care of — they get pilly, or stretched out, or (heaven forbid) they shrink when your spouse accidentally puts them in the dryer. Thankfully, most of these issues have simple solutions, so if you follow these tips you can keep your favorite sweaters looking and feeling like new.

Regular Care

Just like anything else, sweaters are best maintained with a good care regimen. Most quality sweaters will have dry clean only or hand wash written on the garment tags. If it says to dry clean, then dry clean it. Dry cleaners have access to chemicals and processes that we mere mortals can only dream of, and we can’t replicate what they do at home without the potential for serious self-harm. If the tag says to hand wash, let’s go over a few basic reminders for the best way to do this.

Hand Washing:

  1. bright fabrics soaking in soapy waterTurn the garment inside out to protect it from any inadvertent wear and tear.
  2. Fill a bucket or sink with cool water. Add a gentle laundry detergent or baby shampoo.
  3. Submerge your sweater and gently swirl it around. Allow it to soak for about 30 minutes.
  4. Rinse under cool water. Gently squeeze excess water out, but don’t ever use a wringing motion, as that will stress and pull the fabric, leading to a misshapen mess.
  5. Lay the sweater flat on a clean towel and then roll it up like a jelly roll.
  6. Remove the sweater from the towel and then allow it to air dry either on a rack or flat on a clean towel.

Before you start eye-rolling at this elaborate process and what a time-suck it is, remember that sweaters are like jeans: you don’t need to wash them every time you wear them. Most sweaters can be worn about three times before a wash is necessary, as long as you don’t spill anything on them or eat at a Chili’s (why must we always leave there reeking of sautéed onions?) If you want to stretch it out to four or five wears before a wash, wear a thin layer underneath to prevent the sweater from absorbing any oils or odors from your skin.


Sweater folded over a hanger
The only acceptable way to hang a sweater

How you store your sweaters can also impact how long they will last. At the risk of sounding like Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, don’t ever hang your sweaters on a hanger. Hanging leads to stretching and peaks in shoulders that are hard to get out. The best thing to do is to fold them, or even roll them a la Marie Kondo. If you absolutely must hang them, the best way is to fold the sweater in half so that the sleeves match up. Then, place the hanger hook in the armpit, and fold the waist and sleeves over the hanger. 

The methods you use to store your sweaters during the warmer months when you’re not using them is also pretty important. Make sure they are clean and dry and folded nicely before you put them away. Any light staining that you might not have noticed could darken over time, and any dampness will lead to mold or unpleasant odors. On the same note, while those ziploc space-saver storage bags are really handy, they’re not great for storing natural fibers. Use a breathable container like a fabric garment bag for your sweaters, and try to store in a cool, dark place. You can also tuck in a sachet of lavender or cedar to help ward off any pests that like to nibble on our most expensive clothing.

Sweater Repair

There’s nothing sadder than when your favorite sweater starts looking a little worse for the wear. But before you consign it to becoming your scrubby, in-the-house-only shame sweater, try some of these simple methods for fixing the most common sweater problems.

Pilling: Pilling is caused by rubbing or any regular friction against the fabric, so it’s especially common to see under the armpits, in the elbow creases, and along the sides of our favorite sweaters. Resist the urge to pull the pills off one by one, as that only additionally pulls the fibers and worsens the problem. Instead, gently slice off the pills using a standard razor, or you can even buy pill removers, like pumice stones or battery-powered gizmos.

Hand showing a knitwear snagSnags: Snags are unsightly, annoying, and once they happen they tend to catch on everything. The best approach is to fix them before they turn into a full-fledged hole. Turn the sweater inside out and locate the snag. Using a crochet hook or a needle of some sort (a safety pin works well), pull the snag into the interior of the garment. If you can, try to knot the snag in place using a similar-colored thread. Alternately, you could try to “glue” the snag in place using some clear nail polish.

Hair Accumulation: Even the most fastidious of us can end up with an accumulation of pet hair, dust, and lint on our sweaters despite thorough hand washing.  When a lint roller won’t cut it, use a soft toothbrush or baby hairbrush to gently remove those stubborn bits of detritus.

Itchy!:vWe’re pretty sure itchy sweaters could be used as interrogation devices, because they are torture. When your favorite sweater needs a refresh, add a capful of fabric softener to your hand washing liquid. Some even swear by adding some hair conditioner, but make sure you use a standard formula: no 2-in-1s or formulas that say they have a special purpose like adding body or whatever. After a few washes your sweater should feel as soft as ever.

Woman stretching in a sweater and white jeansShrinkage or Stretching: Once your sweater gets out of shape, it’s actually not that difficult to wrestle it back into fighting form by manipulating it with water and heat. 

  • Soak any areas that are stretched out – like cuffs and necklines – in hot water. Then reshape them as best you can and dry with a hair dryer. 
  • If the whole sweater is stretched out, wet it and then dry it on high heat in the dryer. The wetter you get it, the more shrinkage you’ll achieve.
  • If your sweater has shrunk, re-soak it for at least 10 minutes in cool water with a capful of fabric softener or conditioner. Then reshape by gently and evenly pulling the fabric in the direction that it shrank, holding the seams while pulling to ensure you don’t accidentally rip anything. Once it seems to be where you want it, allow it to air dry. (In the fashion world this is called blocking; you trace the outline of the garment before it is misshapen, and then when you wash it you shape it back to that outline before allowing it to dry.)

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