sweater washing lead

Sweaters have a reputation for being difficult to clean, and many people either outsource the job to their local dry cleaner or simply don’t wash their sweaters at all.

But, while many sweaters come bearing the label DRY CLEAN ONLY, there are actually four ways to clean a sweater: Dry cleaning, machine washing, hand washing and spot treating. They are all good methods for cleaning a sweater, and in order to break down when, why and how you might choose one over the other, we spoke with Wayne Edelman, president of Meurice Garment Care, and Jacqueline Sava, the founder of Soak Wash.

How to wash sweaters in the washing machine

Many sweaters can be machine-washed, which makes caring for them very easy. However, when machine-washing a sweater, the garment should be treated like a specialty item and extra measures should be taken to ensure it doesn’t get ruined.

Woolite Extra Delicates Care Detergent 

$4.47 at Amazon

Woolite Extra Delicates Care Detergent

Wash the sweater using the delicate cycle and cold water. If your washing machine has a cycle length selection, opt for the shortest one. While a specialty detergent for sweaters is not necessary, it can be nice to have.

Tutudow Mesh Laundry Bags for Delicates, 3-Pack 

$7.78 at Amazon

Tutudow Mesh Laundry Bags for Delicates, 3-Pack

Use a mesh laundering bag to reduce exposure to friction and wash sweaters with other delicate items. Avoid washing sweaters in the same load as heavy, bulky items like jeans, sweats or towels, or with garments that have embellishments like beading, zippers or grommets that can snag delicate sweaters.

Oxo Good Grips Folding Sweater Drying Rack

$17.99 at Amazon

Oxo Good Grips Sweater Drying Rack

After washing, reshape the sweater and lay it flat to air dry.

How to wash sweaters by hand

Sweaters that are very delicate, or that have embellishments like beading or sequins, will benefit from being hand-laundered, rather than washed in a machine. Sava and Edelman describe the step-by-step process for hand-washing a sweater.

Soak Wash

$15.99 at Amazon

Soak Wash
  • Step 1: Fill a basin with cool water, ensuring there’s enough water to submerge the sweater and move through it. “You need the water to be able to move around and through the sweater to remove dirt and body oils,” Sava explains.
  • Step 2: Add detergent. In the case of no-rinse detergent like Soak Wash, a capful is enough; if using a regular detergent, Edelman says, “Only add enough detergent to create a slippery feel to the water and some sudsing. Using too much detergent will then require excessive rinsing to remove the soap.”
  • Step 3: Agitate the sweater with your hands.
  • Step 4: If using regular detergent, rinse thoroughly to remove all detergent.
  • Step 5: Carefully remove the sweater from the water, supporting the weight of the sweater in your hands so it doesn’t stretch. Gently squeeze out the water, but do not wring; wringing or twisting can damage the fibers and distort the shape. Then, roll up the item in a dry towel, jelly-roll style, and squeeze to remove water.
  • Step 6: Lay the knits flat to dry. Wet sweaters should always be dried flat, rather than hung. Hanging a wet sweater will cause it to stretch and become misshapen.

How to spot-treat a sweater

Sweaters shouldn’t be overwashed, because the laundering process involves friction — friction causes a sweater’s fibers to fray or break and become tangled, leading to pilling. Because of that, if a sweater has a small stain on it, consider spot-treating rather than laundering. “Hand-washing addresses overall soil on the garment including body oils, perspiration, general soil and stains,” Edelman says, “whereas spot-cleaning is specific to a particular stain on a particular area.”

Eucalan Delicate Wash

$4.54 at Amazon

Eucalan Delicate Wash
  • Step 1: Using a damp rag, dab a small amount of gentle detergent designed for woolens and cashmeres onto the stain.
  • Step 2: Blot the stain until it’s gone, taking care not to scrub the stain, as friction will cause the sweater to pill.
  • Step 3: When the stain is gone, gently dab the area with a cloth dipped in clean water to remove residual detergent.