How To Hand-Wash Your Winter Sweaters—Even If They're "Dry Clean Only"

Because it's cheaper (and safer) than taking them to an organic dry cleaner.

February 8, 2018

We’ve finally reached the time of year where your cozy winter sweaters are in full rotation. Which means that at some point or another, they’re gonna need to be washed. (Here's how often you should wash your clothes, according to a stink scientist!)

But if you’re uneasy about taking your duds to the dry cleaner, your suspicions might be warranted. Around 85% of dry cleaners rely on perchloroethylene (called perc for short), a chemical solvent and probable carcinogen that can cause dizziness, nausea, headaches and skin irritation.


Related: 5 Surprising Things You Didn't Know About Your Wool Sweater

As for the ones that claim to clean your clothes “eco-friendly?” It’s true that some dry cleaners who bill themselves as green or organic use wet cleaning—a cleaning process that simply relies on water or carbon dioxide. But there’s no official definition for what counts as organic dry cleaning, says Natural Resources Defense Council. So a cleaner who advertises itself as green could still use perc.

The best way to find out what your cleaner uses? Just ask them. If they rely on a truly green method like wet cleaning, chances are, they’ll be happy to tell you all about it. And if they don’t offer up much information or you’re not satisfied with their answer? Well, there’s another option.

The Best Way To Hand-Wash Sweaters At Home

Yes, we said hand-washing. Plunging your beautiful wool or cashmere pullover into a tub of water might seem a little terrifying, but if you know what you’re doing, your knits will come out perfectly fine, says fabric care expert Mary Marlowe Leverette.

Even if the label says “dry clean” or “dry clean only.” “As the clothing designer, you always want to be cautious,” says Mandy Kordal, founder and creative director of the Brooklyn-based knitwear line Kordal. “So the safest bet is to put ‘dry clean’ on the label. But most of the time you can hand-wash sweaters.”

And it’s actually pretty easy. Here’s how to do it.


1. Prep the garment
Turn the sweater inside out, since the fabric closest to your skin is probably dirtiest. If you notice any stains, you can pre-treat them by rubbing the affected area with a tiny bit of gentle detergent, Leverette says.

2. Prep the wash bin
Fill a sink or a large plastic bucket with cool water, add a drop (like, 1 tsp max) of gentle detergent, and swish it with your hand to disperse, says Leverette. (Adding more detergent makes it harder to get it out of the fibers.)

3. Wash the sweater
Lower the sweater into the water, pressing it down to make sure it gets saturated. Let it sit undisturbed for 10 minutes. If you still see any stains or buildup after that, give the area a quick rub with your hands to disperse the dirt.

4. Rinse the sweater
Gently lift the sweater out of the water, taking care not to scrunch or wring it. Empty the sink or bucket and refill it with fresh cool water. Dunk the sweater into the water and gently swish it around to rinse any suds. Repeat this step as needed until the rinsing water is clear and suds-free, Leverette says.

5. Dry the sweater
Give the garment a gentle squeeze to get rid of the excess water, being careful not to scrunch or wring it. Place the sweater on a clean, dry bath towel and smooth it into its normal shape. Then roll the towel up to sop up any excess water. Finally, transfer the sweater to a fresh towel and let it dry flat, flipping it over halfway to help the underside dry, says Leverette. (If you have a flat mesh drying rack, that works even better.) The sweater should be totally dry after 24 hours or so.


Make this simple, toxin-free room spray to freshen up your home naturally:

Some Pro Tips To Preserve Your Threads

Still nervous about destroying your knit? Here are a few extra tidbits worth remembering to help you achieve clean sweater success.

You don’t need to wash your knits that often
Especially if you’re wearing something underneath so they aren’t coming in direct contact with your skin. “I’ll wash it once per season, which helps to extend the life of the knit,” says Kordal.

Know that you can’t hand-wash everything
Sweaters with intricate details like beading or embroidery might still be best left to the professionals, at least until you get the hang of hand-washing, Leverette says. Ditto for metallic fabrics or huge sweaters that are really, really heavy, like a long sweater coat. “It could take 3 or 4 days to dry,” Kordal says.

Use the right detergent
Woolite Extra Care Delicates Detergent and The Laundress Wool & Cashmere Shampoo are both good, gentle options. In a pinch, castile soap or baby shampoo also work, says Leverette.

Never, ever hang a wet sweater
It’ll cause the garment to stretch out and lose its shape—and it probably won’t bounce back.

Or put it in the dryer
The heat will cause the fabric to shrink, Leverette says. So just plan to wash your sweater at least a day before you want to wear it, to give it enough time to dry on its own.