How to wash wool the right way, without shrinking your favorite sweater to doll size


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When the temperature drops to hygge-optimal lows, but you’re forced to brave the cold for, you know, work and life, there’s really no better ally than a warm and cozy wool sweater. But, said sweater is almost certainly unwashable, which is an assertion I’ve made based on my personal experiences from trying, along with those of my peers. But, I recently learned two glorious tidbits about the matter while trying to learn (again) how to wash wool the right way: 1. It’s possible, and 2. It doesn’t require a trip to the dry cleaner.

“Washing at home is actually better for wool knits compared to dry cleaning, which uses harsh chemicals that can damage the fabric over time,” says Gwen Whiting, co-founder of The Laundress. “You can and should wash knits like wool, cashmere, and blends from home to preserve the natural fibers of your garment.”

“Washing at home is actually better for wool knits compared to dry cleaning, which uses harsh chemicals that can damage the fabric over time.” —Gwen Whiting, co-founder of The Laundress

I’m not suggesting that the care instructions on your favorite garment are lying to you, per se, but there’s certainly a difference between dry-clean only and “dry-clean only.” That’s because it’s a little-known dirty secret of dirty laundry that you can probably at least hand-wash your delicate garments that boast that ill-fated tag.

Still, wool is certainly a finicky fabric. According to the National Cleaning Association, putting wool in the dryer reverts it to its natural form. If you zoom in on the textile’s fibers, you’ll see that they make a scale-y sort of pattern, and when introduced to heat, water, and violently whirring machines, sometimes those scales interlock, and lead to (DUN, DUN, DUN) shrinkage, which is unfortunately pretty permanent. So to keep your favorite cozy sweaters fitting you (rather than shrinking and fitting nothing but your favorite childhood doll), learn how to wash wool the right way below, according to Whiting and her co-founder Lindsey Boyd.

How to wash wool by hand in 3 steps

Ugh I know, but this if your wool garment is particularly important to you, Whiting and Boyd assure me that hand-washing is always going to be the best bet for preserving the integrity of your garment. To give your wools some stellar TLC, try this quick step-by-step:

1. Pretreat stains with a stain solution

If you boldly wore your cream turtleneck to a red-wine night out and then spilled, tackle the stain straight away. Pretreat stains with something like The Laundress Stain Solution ($17) if it’s a tannin stain like coffee, sauce, or red wine. If it’s an oil-based stain like sweat, makeup, or literal oil, Laundress Wash & Stain Bar ($6) is a good option as well. Whichever you choose, gently work the formula into the fabric with your fingers.

2. Prepare your wool bath

Fill a sink, tub, or basin with tepid water and add the garment plus a squirt of a wool-safe detergent. There are few great options available, like classic Woolite ($18), Kookaburra Wash ($21) and The Laundress Wool & Cashmere Shampoo ($19). “The formula is pH-balanced and specially made for wool garments, so it’ll preserve your sweater’s natural suppleness,” Boyd says. “Gently swirl it around for about 30 seconds and let soak for up to 30 minutes.”

3. Drain and rinse with cool, clean water

“Avoid that gut reaction to wring it,” says Whiting. “Wringing manipulates the fibers, and when the yarns are wet, they’re weaker. You might end up disfiguring your sweater. Instead, gently remove the water by pressing the item against the side of your sink or tub.”

How to wash wool by machine in 3 steps

Good news: Boyd and Whiting reassure that the washing machine isn’t off limits for washing wool garments. Once again, though, you just need to be careful.

1. Place the knit in a mesh washing bag

This is to save it from snagging and becoming your most-loved cozy clump of yarn.

2. Choose the appropriate setting

“Select the delicate cycle on the machine, and make sure the water temperature is cold and the spin is on low,” says Boyd. “You can shrink or felt an item by overly agitating it if your machine is on a setting that’s too high or hot.”

3. Take your knit out of the wash as soon as it’s done

“Once the cycle is complete, remove the sweater right away to reduce wrinkling,” Boyd says.

How to dry wool

“The dryer will shrink your knits, so always air-dry,” says Boyd. “Once you’ve gotten the excess water out, lay the item flat on a clean towel or drying rack and re-create its natural shape. Then allow it to dry.” To speed up the drying process, first roll the sweater up in the towel like a sleeping bag. Then, unroll it and replace the wet towel with a fresh, dry one. Place it on drying rack, and reshape it again.

Oh, and big, big emphasis on shaping and stategically laying out your wool items. It may not seem like a big deal to hang them on a clothesline or toss them on whatever surface is in front of you, but this is the make-or-break moment of whether or not your piece will lose its shape.

“Don’t hang up your sweater up to dry; you’re going to end up with a sleeve sagging in a place it shouldn’t be,” Whiting says. “And be careful not to set them near a heat source like a radiator or even by a window with lots of sunlight, because it can cause shrinkage.”

Some other easy laundry hacks to get you through the season? Here’s how to wash a down coat without taking it to the cleaners, and here’s how to take care of your gloves—because yes, they can get super-germy. 

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