The No-Shrink Way to Wash Your Winter Sweaters

Caley Vitella
by Caley Vitella

As someone who has lived in areas that experience all 4 seasons my whole life, I have developed a healthy sweater collection in my closet over the years. However, I’ve also experienced my fair share of unintentional sweater sacrifices to the Dryer Gods on several occasions. I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you about how bad it sucks when you go to pull your cozy cardigan from the wash, only to find it mangled in a shrunken, matted mess. Luckily, I’ve picked up a few tips over the years on how to properly care for my garments, and I thought I’d help you avoid my past heartbreaks by sharing them with you today!

**Please note that all of these tips and tricks will help preserve any sweater, vintage or not, but with vintage pieces, there can be excess wear or unknown fiber content which will change your approach a bit when it comes to your handling. For more tips on how to safely store and wear your sweaters, check out the full blog post here.

How you’re going to wash your sweater depends on what it’s made of. Most sweaters don’t like heat regardless of their fiber content- so it’s safest to only machine dry on the lowest heat setting or lay flat to dry. Sweaters made from wool, cashmere, and cotton are likely to shrink with heat, so hand-wash those or have them dry-cleaned. There are also synthetic blends to consider. If your vintage sweater is from the 1970s and later (and is blended with a synthetic fiber), it’s probably fine to machine wash and dry on a low heat setting. If your sweater is from the 1960s and earlier, OR you’re unsure of the age or fiber content of your sweater, it’s best to follow these steps:

First, do a spot check. Wet a hidden spot on your sweater and add a bit of mild detergent. Using a cotton swab, gently rub the area and check for color transfer. If your swab picks up color, take it to the dry cleaner. If not, you’re likely ok washing at home. If your sweater is embellished, be sure to do the same test on any threads as well. Unless your sweater is a sensitive material like cashmere, you’re usually fine washing it in the machine with cold water, inside out, or in a garment bag. You can also add a cup of white vinegar directly into the washing machine to help preserve the color.

  • To hand-wash your sweater, fill your sink with cold water and a very mild detergent or wool wash. Gently agitate stains with your fingers (do NOT rub the sweater on itself), then drain the sink and refill it with clean water to rinse. Continue to do so until the water runs clear.

  • Animal fibers, like wool, are weakened when wet, so it’s important to handle with care at this stage to prevent it from becoming distorted, stretched, and misshapen. Do not rub, wring, or ball up your sweater to dry it.
  • Gently place your clean sweater on a dry towel and roll it to absorb excess water. Repeat until your sweater is no longer dripping. Place the sweater on a flat surface away from direct sunlight or heat to air dry.

  • NEVER machine dry unidentified sweaters, or pieces labeled “hand wash” or “dry-clean” only. The heat from the dryer, even on the lowest setting, can cause shrinkage, felting (where the fibers mat together in a felt-like texture), and can even melt synthetic materials

I hope you found this helpful! I’d love to do more posts like this on other articles of clothing in the future, but if you have any further questions about your sweater collection, or if you have any other tips + tricks you’d like to share, let me know in the comments! In the meantime, whatever you’re up to, I hope it makes you happy.

Stay warm out there!



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Want to know the best way to wash gym leggings? Check out this tutorial on How to Wash Lulus and Keep Them in the Best Shape Possible!

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4 of 6 comments
  • Marlene Marlene on Feb 26, 2021

    I am 86 years old now, but it made me chuckle to myself because I always washed my skirts and sweaters by hand in cold water and I still do. They turned out perfectly and lasted forever. I also laid them out on a towel flat and since we had not yet had the pleasure to use an uninvented dryer, that part never was given a thought. A couple of weeks ago, I remembered I had a sweater that was a gift to me and the color was purple which is my favorite color. It was too big and I didn`t want to tell her so my imagination went in gear. I remembered a lesson I learned years ago real quick when I used a dryer and a favorite sweater shrunk making it impossible to ever wear again. I then used the " no heat" cycle and checked often. I still finished drying them on a flat surface. Well, my new purple sweater would fit me if I put it in the dryer on heat after dampening it thoroughly and it would shrink and my secrete gift could be worn and no one would ever know. I guess it was made with yarn that the heat would not harm or shrink the sweater soooooo, , I rolled up the sleeves, grabed a large safety pin and just above the bottom trim I took the pin and made gatherings about 3 inches upward and secured the safety pin and put it on and it was right in style so I wore it proudly. For 65 or so years I washed them like you and when I wanted to show how smart I had become and shrink it to fit in hot dryer and brag about it but no such luck. I hope I didn`t bore you with this. Marlene

    • Caley Vitella Caley Vitella on Feb 28, 2021

      Not a bore at all, this actually made me laugh out loud! Apparently, you have the magical "no shrink" touch, and I envy you! I'm glad you were able to find a way to make your sweater work for you though, thanks for reading!

  • MARG MARG on Feb 26, 2021

    I am 75 years old and remember coming home from university in the spring of late 1960's to the welcomed arms of my Mom. She LOVED washing for me. She washed my whole winter supply of sweaters including several that she had knit for me and laid them carefully stretched out on towels on the grass in the back yard for the sun to dry them. This was before phentex or manmade yarn, they were all made from wool. They ALL shrunk beyond wearability. Can you imagine the devastation? They fit my dolls. I have learned subsequently that you can soak them again in a cold water and vinegar solution that relaxes the fibres somewhat.

    • Caley Vitella Caley Vitella on Feb 28, 2021

      OH NO!! As a knitter, I really feel for you (and your poor mom!) here! That's actually one of the reasons I decided to do a deep dive into sweater care- after I knit my first sweater I was TERRIFIED to even look at it, let alone wash or wear it since so much work went into it. Thank you so much for sharing!