Not all delicate garments need to be dry-cleaned to remove sweat and stains. Woolen knits, such as sheep's wool and cashmere sweaters, can get wet, as long as you exercise a little extra care. If you just toss wool sweaters in with easy-care cottons or follow many typical washing routines for other fabric types, your garments may shrink. With a gentle, low-temperature machine wash or a hand wash in the sink, however your lambswool, merino, shetland wool and other woolens will come out clean and in good shape.
Check the Label
Although your sweater's tag may say "dry clean only," sometimes the heat of dry cleaning methods can shrink wool fibers. Check the fiber content -- if it is primarily wool or cashmere, you can wash it yourself without risking damage. However, keep in mind the type of wool when deciding if you want to wash by hand or by machine. A machine cycle can rough up softer wools like lambswool or cashmere.
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You can hand wash any type of wool garment without fear with a method that is gentle enough for even your softest sweaters. Fill a sink or a wash tub with tepid, not hot, water and a few drops of a mild detergent, like Woolite. If your sweater stinks something fierce, add 3/4 cup of white vinegar. Turn your wool sweater inside-out and soak it for 10 to 15 minutes, then gently swish it in the water. Soak it for another 10 minutes, then roll the sweater into a ball and squeeze out the water. Refill the sink and swish the sweater to rinse, then repeat as necessary.
To dry, roll your sweater into a ball and squeeze out the extra water, then lay it flat on a white towel. Roll up the towel and gently press on it to remove excess water. Lay the sweater on a mesh rack to dry. Gently pull it into its original shape, but do not overstretch it or it will stay that way.
If the tag says "machine washable" or you're OK with taking a risk, turn your sweater inside-out and place it in a mesh laundry bag. Put the bag into the washing machine along with a few drops of mild detergent and 3/4 cup of white vinegar. Set the machine to a cold, delicate cycle. Do not put the sweater into the dryer unless the tag instructions state that the garment is dryer-safe. Use only low heat on a tumble dry cycle.
If you prefer to air-dry your wool sweater, roll it into a ball and gently squeeze out the excess water, then lay it out flat on a white towel and roll the towel. Press gently on the rolled towel to squeeze out the rest of the water, then place the sweater on a mesh drying rack.
Wool Sweater Care
Lightly steam your wool sweater on a hanger to get the wrinkles out after washing. You may iron many sweaters flat on a medium-hot steam setting to remove large, stubborn creases -- but never iron a sweater with a "Do not iron" warning on the label. Iron lightly or you risk leaving shiny patches on the surface of the sweater.
Allow the sweater to cool for at least five minutes, then fold and store it in a cool, dry place. In a closed plastic container, make sure the sweaters are loosely stacked so they do not get crushed. Never use vacuum-sealed bags, which cna create difficult-to-remove creases, and never hang sweaters, as they will lose their shape.