The No-Shrink Way To Wash + Store Vintage + Handmade Sweaters


It’s November which means one things- it’s officially sweater season! As someone who has lived in areas that experience all 4 seasons my who 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.





All garments are going to face general wear and tear over years of use. This can help them become softer and more snuggly, but it can also break down the fibers in a way that leads to holes or pilling. Here’s what you can do in those situations:

  • Clear away any pills using a defuzzing comb. This can be time-consuming, but the “new sweater” look you achieve from doing it is so worth it!

  • Protect “high traffic” areas. Some garments may benefit from the addition of elbow patches or should not be tucked into waistbands if you notice small holes forming near the bottom hem of the garment.

  • Wash sparingly. Washing takes a heavy toll on the fibers and weakens them (which is why they become softer). Save washings only for when the garment is soiled. You can sanitize your sweater between washings by using a steamers or iron (be careful with heat, though!) or by placing it in a plastic storage bag and setting them in the freezer overnight. This will kill any odor causing bacteria, but will not remove stains. For that, you’ll need to wash it:





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’s also synthetic blends to consider. If your vintage sweater is from the 1970’s 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 1960’s and earlier, OR you’re unsure of the age or fiber content of your sweater, it’s best to follow these steps:

#block-yui_3_17_2_1_1604632676113_6951 .sqs-gallery-block-grid .sqs-gallery-design-grid { margin-right: -20px; }
#block-yui_3_17_2_1_1604632676113_6951 .sqs-gallery-block-grid .sqs-gallery-design-grid-slide .margin-wrapper { margin-right: 20px; margin-bottom: 20px; }

  • 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.

#block-yui_3_17_2_1_1604634592317_8718 .sqs-gallery-block-grid .sqs-gallery-design-grid { margin-right: -20px; }
#block-yui_3_17_2_1_1604634592317_8718 .sqs-gallery-block-grid .sqs-gallery-design-grid-slide .margin-wrapper { margin-right: 20px; margin-bottom: 20px; }

  • 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.

#block-yui_3_17_2_1_1604636046803_9958 .sqs-gallery-block-grid .sqs-gallery-design-grid { margin-right: -20px; }
#block-yui_3_17_2_1_1604636046803_9958 .sqs-gallery-block-grid .sqs-gallery-design-grid-slide .margin-wrapper { margin-right: 20px; margin-bottom: 20px; }

  • 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



For the most part, you’re going to want to fold your sweaters as opposed to hanging them. Hanging your sweaters makes them susceptible to gravity and can lead to lengthening or misshapen shoulders or necklines. Some lighter, more tightly woven sweaters may be fine being hung, however. If you choose to hang your sweater, be sure to use a soft padded hanger and keep them out of direct sunlight. That said, just fold your sweaters, ok? Once folded, follow these guidelines to store:

  • When hanging, store with like materials and never near anything embellished or with buttons/zippers to prevent snagging

  • Keep them out of direct sunlight and away from heat. Sunlight can cause significant fading, which may unevenly “bleach” your garment. Depending on the fiber content of your sweater, the heat may cause some shrinkage as well.

  • Take note if your sweater is comprised primarily of animal fibers (wool, cashmere, alpaca, etc.) since that can attract moths. Though they might not be tempted by pieces blended with cotton or synthetics, you may want to store these sweaters in air tight containers such as plastic storage bins.

  • Make sure your sweaters are cleaned before storing them if you purchased them second-hand. Soiled clothing can attract pests (like moths) or even contain them if you thrifted the piece.

  • If you’re really concerned about moths, store your sweaters with cedar blocks or in a cedar-lined drawer. You can also try a sweater spray.

  • Keep your closet and drawers tidy and organized to prevent pest infestation or to at least make it more noticeable if it does happen to prevent significant damage.




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.



*This post contains affiliate links. Learn more here.

2 thoughts on “The No-Shrink Way To Wash + Store Vintage + Handmade Sweaters

  1. Hi, I read your article. I have several sweaters that are about 2-3 years old. I get a physical reaction when I smell or touch them. This even happened after I washed them in the washer with regular detergent. Do they have some kind of bacteria that can’t come out? They are mostly acrylic. Should I throw them out or is there a way to wash them?

    1. Hmmm, it really depends based on what’s causing the smell, but there are a couple of different options you can try to remove it before tossing the sweaters altogether. First, you can try storing them in a plastic, sealable bag and store them in the freezer overnight (this will help to kill any bacteria that may be living in your sweaters). Alternatively, you can try soaking them in 1/2 cup of Borax for about an hour, then washing them in your machine as usual. The last thing I’d try is to add a cup of plain vinegar to your load. Not only does this help preserve colors and act as a fabric softener (that won’t damage the fiber) but it also helps to remove any odors as well. Hope this helps!

Leave a Reply