That sinking feeling you get when you see the wool blanket you spent a month crocheting hanging on the clothesline, three times smaller and irreversibly misshapen.
I recently learned what happens when you throw caution to the wind and leave your boyfriend to launder your delicates. The takeaway? We need to talk about wool and cashmere. It’s time to sit down with your significant other, family or housemates and discuss what animal fibres are and how to properly look after them.
Why wool and cashmere need special care
These fabrics are made from animal hair that has been sheared or combed then spun into yarn. Most wool comes from sheep, with Merino sheep supplying the finer and softer variety of Merino wool. Cashmere is made from the undercoat of Cashmere goats. These superfine fibres have a velvety texture and superior insulating properties, giving cashmere its reputation as a luxury material. Both fabrics are warm, lightweight, breathable, durable and moisture-wicking. They can be used to make everything from cosy cushions to cute handbags.
Sitting at the pricier end of the spectrum, wool and cashmere garments are investment pieces, which is why it’s so important to treat ‘em right. You’ve probably got the basics down – hand wash and air dry – but there’s so much more to caring for animal fibres that many of us aren’t familiar with. If you show them a little TLC, they can keep you cosy for a lifetime and even be passed on to the next generation (shoutout to my grandpa’s excellent taste in vests).
So, without further ado, here’s everything you need to know about looking after your favourite sweater or that fab winter coat you just spent a month’s salary on (you go girlfriend).
Alexa, play ‘Smooth operator’ by Sade. It’s time to put some tracks on and show your clothes some love. We usually think of laundry as a chore: something to quickly tick off before moving on to the next task, but knitwear requires a more thoughtful approach.
Taking the time to launder correctly is the single most effective way to preserve wool and cashmere, mostly because this is where damage usually occurs. To avoid mishaps, approach washing as a self-care ritual for your clothes: get the water temperature just right, prepare the shampoo (yes, shampoo) and set aside some time for a soak.
Handwashing and spot cleaning stains is preferred (though you can use a machine on the correct settings) and sets should be washed together to maintain consistent colour and wear. Here are the hard and fast rules you’ll need to follow:
1. Don’t over wash: wool and cashmere are naturally stain and odour resistant, so knits only need to be washed a couple of times a season if worn carefully. We recommend one wash at the beginning of winter and another at the end.
2. Keep it cool: these fibres hate heat (just ask my now miniature crochet blanket). Avoid shrinkage by handwashing in cold or lukewarm water. For machine washes, place garments in a mesh bag, set the temperature to 30 degrees and wash on a wool or delicate cycle. Turning clothing inside out before washing will also help preserve quality.
3. Use shampoo not detergent: wool and cashmere are technically hair, so they need to be washed with a specially formulated shampoo that protects their delicate fibres. While very mild detergents can be used, harsh chemical products and bleach will do permanent damage to your clothes (yellowing, fading and causing fibres to become stiff or weak) so they are best left on the shelf.
4. Be gentle with stains: fresh stains can be spot cleaned by carefully blotting the area with a clean cloth. Never rub the fabric with a finger or brush as this will damage the fibres. Instead, gently massage a stain remover that's specifically made for wool and cashmere onto the area and follow with a good soak.
5. Handle wet clothes with care: when it comes time to remove knits from the tub, resist the urge to wring them out as this can distort their shape. To remove excess water, carefully bunch garments up into a ball and give them a light squeeze. You can also roll them up in a clean towel to press liquid out before drying.
Clothes should be air dried flat on a clean towel or clothing rack. For best results, arrange items in their natural shape (making sure there’s no scrunched or rolled up bits) and position out of direct sunlight. Hanging or pegging your knitwear will distort the fabric, so please just don’t.
6. Remember, direct heat is your enemy: this includes dryers, which shrink fibres and irons, which crush them. Steamers can be used to safely remove creases from knitwear as the moisture gently expands wool and cashmere fibres, leaving sweaters fluffy and fresh.
Wool and cashmere are composed of short fibres that are prone to snagging (when single threads come loose) and pilling (when threads get tangled and form a knot). To minimise damage, stay away from rough surfaces when you are wearing knitted garments.
It’s also worth investing in a sweater stone to remove pills from heavyweight knits (this includes most wool products) or a sweater comb for lightweight fabrics like cashmere. Unlike mechanical shavers that don't discriminate between the pill and surrounding yarn, these products remove the pill itself.
Keeping clothes well maintained over time is better for their durability than de-pilling once a season, so try to tackle snags when you notice them. For more serious repairs, you’ll need to consult a professional alterationist. If it’s a recent purchase, check with the brand first to see if they offer a complementary repair service.
No offence, but your knitwear needs a break from you sometimes. Give garments time to rest between wears: 24 hours is ideal to allow any moisture left over from your body or the environment to dry completely.
When you’re not wearing it, knitwear should be folded gently and stored on a shelf in your closet. Never hang sweaters up (unless you’re going for a Rick Owens-inspired gravity defying shoulders look).
In between seasons, wool and cashmere garments can be placed in cotton storage bags that will protect them from bugs, while also letting the fibres breathe. Wash before storing to remove body oils that can attract moths, then stow away in a cool, dry place as heat and humidity can cause discolouration and mildew growth.
Knits need some form of protection from fibre-loving critters, but mothballs are gross and full of toxic chemicals. Essential oils, dried lavender or cedar chips are natural alternatives that will keep your clothes looking and smelling fresh. If you do notice holes in your clothing, it’s time for a closet deep clean.