Personally, the most difficult category of clothing to safely clean and care for has always been sweaters. I've followed instructions on labels, used tips I've found online and tactics handed down from friends and family, and time after time ended up with completely unwearable knitwear. Now I approach all my sweaters with extreme caution, and opt for a careful hand wash and lay dry method that has (so far) yet to fail me. If you don't have a tried-and-true method yourself, this is probably a pretty fail-safe place to start. Here is my process:
- Fill a bucket with cool to lukewarm water - make sure the bucket is clean, as you don't want to be accidentally contaminating your sweater with any leftover grime or cleaning solutions. The water should be cool (definitely not hot), but if you go too cold your hands will be freezing halfway through this, so anything up to lukewarm will do.
- Add a small capful of detergent - I use Woolite, as I've heard many people recommend a wool-specific detergent (usually a bit gentler). If you have problems with itchy sweaters, I've also heard people vouch for using hair shampoo and conditioner instead of laundry detergent, although I have yet to try this myself.
- Gently submerge your sweater - From what I've read, the real damage from washing machines to wool sweaters is the agitation, not the heat or water. Rubbing the sweater against itself or other clothing, especially while wet, will cause the fabric to pill and turn into a flannel/felt-like consistency. Therefore, you want to be gentle as you soak your sweater. Move it around a bit to make sure the soapy water is thoroughly absorbed, but don't go crazy.
- Allow the sweater to soak - I usually let mine sit for 10 minutes or so. I'm not sure if this is even necessary, but it doesn't hurt, and makes me more confident that my sweater will actually be cleaner when this is all said and done.
- Empty the soapy water and rinse - I usually squeeze out as much of the soapy water as possible, refill with clean water, submerge and repeat 3 or 4 times. Again, you want to be careful that you are not agitating the sweater too much or allowing it to rub against itself. After the last rinse, again squeeze out as much water as possible.
- Roll the sweater in a towel - I actually sandwich mine between two towels, and then roll it tightly to sop up as much moisture as I can.
- Lay the sweater to dry - Last, find a flat space where you can lay it to dry (I'll warn you though, sometimes this can take even a few days, especially with thicker knits). At this stage, you can reshape the sweater (while still wet) to remedy any stretching or shrinking that may have occurred. Here's another time when having your measurements can come in super-handy, as you'll be able to form your sweater to your exact body type. Once the sweater has dried, it will hold the new shape you've formed - at least to some significant degree.
Again, I want to emphasize how much laundry care techniques seem to have a case-by-case success rate, so don't kill me if this doesn't work for you. And with that spirit in mind, please feel free to share your own methods in the comments!