The colder weather has arrived and I’m pulling our family’s sweaters out of storage. We’ve had many of our wool and cotton sweaters for years, and a few of them were rescued from thrift shops.

One of the things I learned about during my clothing design internship in Paris, and when I was a student at FIT, was about how to care for sweaters. Although my specialty was wedding gown design, I still had to suffer through long lectures on the care of woolens and knits. Now that I’m older, I appreciate all the wisdom I acquired in those classes. But just in case you never learned how, here’s a quick primer on how to care for sweaters. Many of these steps should be done before they’re put away for the summer, but sometimes the cleaning comes in the fall. And that’s okay too.

1. Remove Pills Immediately

I hate seeing pills on my sweaters but they happen all the time. They’re caused by the threads rubbing against each other or other objects, and you tend to find them around the elbows, under the arms, and along the waistlines and sleeves. Regardless of where they are, they need to be removed immediately or the threads will begin to snag and the situation worsens from there.

To remove pills, lay the sweater flat and, with one hand holding a straight razor or pill remover, gently slice off the pills one at at time. Do not pull them. Things will get only worse if you do.

2. Fix Noticeable Snags

Snags, those little loops of thread when a stitch is unwoven, are dangerous. If the snag gets caught on something, the sweater will begin to unravel and form an unsightly hole. While snags can’t always be fixed, they can be ameliorated. Turn the sweater inside out. Then place a small crochet hook into the same stitch as the snag, and pull the loose thread through to the inside. A safety pin, or even a turkey skewer, will work in an emergency. The snag won’t be as noticeable and it won’t get caught on anything and make the hole bigger. If it’s a large loop of thread, I may use a fine hand needle and cotton thread in the same/close color to sew the loop together and attach it to another nearby thread. This takes practice, but if you do it right it’s hard to tell from the right side and will prevent any further damage.

3. Remove Dandruff, Hair, and Lint

Knitted or woven sweaters are usually made of soft wool, cotton, or cashmere but those natural fibers attract dust, lint, dog hairs (!!!), dandruff, and stray hairs that make sweaters, especially darker colors, look worn and used. To remove the debris, use a tape roller or a lint brush or a small, soft tooth brush. Make sure to brush along the fibers in one direction, very gently, to prevent damaging the fibers and cause pilling. If you brush in one direction, any damage will be less noticeable. Lint brushes have arrows on them so you know which way to brush. A good way to keep sweaters looking fresh is to do a quick, gentle brush every time you take them off and before you put them away.

4. How & When to Wash

Washing your sweaters shouldn’t be scary! First of all, check the label to see if it should be dry cleaned. While not everything in your closet needs to be dry cleaned, certain things do depending on the fibers, weave, and any ornamentation. If there are fancy buttons or fur colors, or sequins, etc, the sweaters must go to a professional cleaners. But most everyday sweaters can be hand washed to get the longest life out of them. To hand wash, fill a sink or tub with cool water and mix in a few drops of a gentle laundry detergent. While the tub/sink fills, make a note of any particular stains on the sweater that need to be worked on.

Gently submerge the sweater into the water and let it soak for 30 minutes. Then, with a soft washcloth or a small, very soft toothbrush, very gently rub at the stain until it is gone. Do not rub too hard. Some stains fade enough you can’t see them, but if you damage the fibers that will be even more noticeable. When you are done, gently rinse in cool water. To dry, gently squeeze out the water (do not wring!!) and lay the wet sweater on a towel. Then roll the towel up like a sleeping bag to remove the extra water. Unroll and lay the sweater flat on a clean, dry towel or on a drying rack.

Note about stains: Even if a sweater can be hand washed, some stains (markers, pen ink, and oil/grease) need to be handled by a professional. Also, if you have a dark stain like coffee on a light-colored/white/cream sweater, that may need to go to the cleaners as well to make sure the edges of the stain are removed. The darkest part of a stain is always around the edges where the contaminant pools. And if the sweater smells like smoke (cigarettes, bonfires, etc), then consider it stained. You may not see the smoke particles but they are there and they weaken the fibers.

Note about fibers: Cotton and cashmere need the most attention and should be washed after every three wearings (unless they get stained, dirty, etc). Wool and polyester can usually handle five-six wearing. ALWAYS follow the directions on the label. And, if possible, spot clean small stains in between washings but please don’t wash more often than necessary. And dry clean only labels are serious–DRY CLEAN ONLY!

5. Wear a T-shirt

One way to cut down on washing sweaters is to wear a T-shirt beneath it. The T-shirt works as a barrier between sweater and skin and will soak up sweat, deodorant, and body oils. Wearing a T-shirt can extend the life of you sweaters because it eliminates the need for more frequent washings–as long as you don’t dump your coffee all over the front!

6. Save an Itchy Sweater

Sometimes, after many washings, the fibers of a sweater loosen or break and make a soft, cozy sweater super itchy. One way to save an itchy sweater is to fill a sink or tub with cold water and add a cap-full of liquid fabric softener (find one without any dyes or fragrance, if possible). If you don’t have fabric softener, you can use a 1/2 cup of hair conditioner (without fragrance or dyes). Do not use a shampoo/conditioner combination or a heavy super-conditioner as they have too many thickening ingredients that can damage the fibers. Let the sweater sit in the water for 30 minutes and then rinse with cold water and dry the sweater according to the directions above. You may need to do this a few times before the sweater feels soft and cozy again.

7. Save a Stretched Sweater

To save a stretched out sweater, fill a tube or sink with cold water and submerge the water. Gently roll out the extra water (like described above) and put it into the dryer on a sweater/sneaker shelf if you dryer has that feature. (if it doesn’t just toss it into the dryer). Set the temperature to High Heat and let the dryer run until it is dry. This will shrink the sweater. I you only need a bit of shrinkage, take the sweater out of the dryer early and let air dry.

Note on shrinking: The amount of water in the sweater will determine the amount of shrinkage. The wetter the sweater is, the more it will shrink. If you just need a bit of adjustment, mist it the sweater with a water bottle until just damp and throw it into the dryer. Also, not all fibers will work well with this shrinkage technique. Cashmere and silk blends may shrink way too much while polyester hardly shrinks at all. But if you can no longer wear the sweater, then you have nothing to lose by trying to shrink it the best you can.

8. Folding Sweaters

Never, ever, ever hang sweaters! Hanging sweaters will cause them to stretch out and will add “peaks” to the shoulders. The best way to store sweaters–once they are clean–is to fold them or roll them and store them in drawers or on shelves. To fold properly, lay them face-down on a bed or a flat surface. Fold each arm from the sleeve seam diagonally across the back and crisscrossing the sleeves. Fold the sweater either horizontally or vertically in half from the bottom hem to the collar. Fold again, if necessary, to fit in a drawer or a shelf. If storing sweaters on top of each other, place a piece of white tissue paper or squares of an old, clean white sheet you’ve cut up between the sweaters. Do not use colored tissue paper as, over time, the dye can leach into the sweaters. Add a few cedar blocks or chips or lavender sachets to the shelves and drawers to keep away any critters like moths, etc.

If you have to hang a sweater, fold it over a hanger with a piece of white tissue paper between the hangar and the sweater to prevent creases. And never, ever, ever store sweaters in dry cleaning bags/plastic bags. Natural fibers need to breathe and they need circulating air to keep away critters and prevent mildew.

9. Packing Away Sweaters

When sweater season is over (sob!!), don’t just toss them into drawers. First, make sure they are cleaned and dried, either by hand or at the cleaners. Then fold them (directions above) and place them in a drawer or shelf. If you need to put them in boxes, use only canvas or cotton bins. Add in lavender or cedar sachets/bricks, and store in a a cool, dry closet. DO NOT store in plastic bags as it can trap moisture and cause yellowing or mildew. DO NOT store sweater bins in attics. DO NOT store sweater bins in basements unless they are climate-controlled.

Bugs hate the scents of cedar and lavender so you can’t have too much of either stored with your sweaters. This might be a lot of work, but when you pull out your sweaters next year, you’ll thank me.

10. Saving Sweater Decorations

If the sweater has decorative elements like fur collars or fancy buttons, or sequins, etc., make sure to use a piece of muslin or cut-up cotton sheet in between the sweaters when storing them on a shelf, drawer, or bin. Fancy buttons and sequins can cause pilling and snags on the sweater stored on top. If a fur collar is removable, do so in between wearings and before storing and gently lay the collar on top of the sweater. This will prevent the button holes that hold the collar onto the sweater from stretching and will prevent creases in the fur. And if fancy buttons are heavy, check to make sure they are still attached to the sweater securely. With heavy buttons, you may have to re-sew the buttons on with heavy button thread to make sure you don’t lose them. Standard buttons can be replaced, but fancy decorative buttons are hard to find and replace and you’ll be sorry to lose them.

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