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How-To Launder and Care for Handmade Garments
by C.W. Carvalho
Certified Crochet Instructor, Certified Knitting Instructor, Certified Master Knitter

After spending many hours making a sweater, vest, coat, or afghan, seeing it ruined in the laundering process is very, very upsetting. Before any garment is washed for the first time, read the yarn label and wash a swatch. The yarn label will provide fiber care instructions. By making a swatch, measuring it, laundering it in the manner you choose, then re-measuring it, you will see if the garment is going to shrink, stretch, or if the color will run.

Fiber Content and Soap/Detergent

All fibers are protein, vegetable, or chemical/synthetic. Each may be laundered differently. Read the yarn label to determine the fiber content of the yarn used in the garment.

All animal fibers are protein and need to be laundered in an acidic or a pH balanced detergent, soap, or shampoo. Acidic soaps/detergents strengthen protein fibers but weaken vegetable fibers. Vegetable fibers are best laundered in an alkaline or a pH balanced detergent, soap or shampoo. Alkaline soaps/detergents strengthens vegetable fibers but weakens protein fibers. Chemical or synthetic fibers can be laundered in either soap or detergent.

Do not use a phosphorus based detergent or soap. If the phosphorus content of a particular soap is questionable, try a “pure” soap. Shampoo can be used with any “hair” fiber, such as wool. Hair conditioner in the rinse water will help soften and relax “hair” fibers.

Use a pH balanced soap with wool, mohair, or rayon. Cashmere is a fragile fiber therefore, do not rub or do not use an alkaline soap. Camel’s hair and alpaca are very fragile and felt easily in warm or cold water therefore, dry-clean them. Hand wash (do not dry clean) angora, fluff in a cool air dryer, or put the garment in the freezer to fluff the fibers when the garment is dry. Machine wash cotton with soap/detergent and machine dry to reshape the garment. Linen can be dry cleaned or washed with detergent/soap. Synthetics and acrylics are washable and can be heat sensitive and can melt in the dryer. Do not dry clean nylon.

Avoid fabric softeners. They may contain bleach, whiteners or brighteners, and may make dye run.

  • Author Note: Learn from my mistakes – hidden bleach in a major delicate detergent has ruined several of my hand knits. Read the label of your delicate or wool wash and if you still are unsure about the possibility of hidden bleach, call the manufacturer’s customer service toll free telephone number (usually listed on the label) and ask.


Everyone has heard of the pink underwear story when a red shirt was washed with the whites. Color bleeding is caused from excess dye being released from the yarn or fabric. Washing releases the excess dye which will attach to other colors, garments, or fabrics in the same laundry load. To test the colorfastness of a yarn, place a swatch in a jar containing the appropriate temperature water and soap/detergent. Shake the jar. Let it sit a few minutes and re-shake the jar. If the water stays clear, colorfastness is not an issue.

Hand Wash Versus Machine Wash

Whether a garment is hand washed or machine-washed depends on the fiber care instructions given on the yarn label, your lifestyle and resources, and whether the yarn has been pre-shrunk (see Before You Sew, Knit, Crochet, or Quilt - Fabric and Yarn Preparation).

To wash a garment in the washer, use cool/lukewarm water and a gentle or delicate cycle setting. In order to get a desirable water temperature, partially fill the machine with cold water then switch the setting to warm water setting to add some warm water. Turn the garment inside out and place in an extra-large mesh laundry bag before placing in the washer. This avoids the sweater from rubbing on other garments, which may cause “pilling”.

For hand washing, place soap/detergent in a basin large enough to hold the garment. Add water of the correct temperature and mix the soap into the water. Turn the garment wrong sides out, place in an  extra-large mesh laundry bag, and place in the basin. Let the garment soak for about 20 minutes, stirring it around once in a while. Drain the water and refill the basin with the correct temperature water to rinse. Keep draining and refilling the basin until the water runs clear. If using Eucalan™, do not rinse if leaving it in as a moth repellant. When water runs clear, drain the basin and let garment drain thoroughly before removing it. Either spin the garment in the spin cycle on the washer (be careful, the spin cycle can add heat) or roll it in a towel to remove excess moisture.

  • Author’s Note: I have successfully used Orvus soap (pH balanced), Eucalan™, or Delicare™. All are gentle and do not contain bleach.

Cold Versus Warm Water

If yarn has not been pre-shrunk, wash garments in cool to lukewarm water. This doesn’t mean, “ice cold.” Ice-cold water combined with soap will shocks protein fibers and will cause wool to felt and sometimes cause dye to run. Warm water causes fibers to relax which allows soil to be released. Warm water will also set dye and some stains, while cold water will release excess dye. Heat, soap, and agitation will cause wool to “felt.”


Some fibers need to be brought back to their original stretch. Cotton or nylon sweaters may be placed in the dryer (wrong sides out) and dried on a low temperature setting. When almost dry, remove from dryer, shake out, and place flat on a sweater drying rack to finish drying.

To dry garments by the flat method, place the garment flat on a sweater rack, reshaping to size/shape as required. Check it once in a while to make sure it is not shrinking up again. If it does, pull it back to the desired shape.

  • Author Note: For years I have used clean, undamaged fiberglass window screens (garage sales are a great source) as sweater drying racks, which allows air to circulate around the garment. Place the screen between the backs of two chairs, place the garment on the screen, and recheck as necessary.

To make sure the garment gets back to the original shape/size, before washing the garment, place it on a large sheet of paper (grocery bag, butcher paper, freezer paper, etc.) and trace around it with a soft lead pencil being careful not to get lead on the sweater. This drawing can then be used to compare “before” and “after.”

Blocking is a method used to shape either a garment or knitted or crocheted pieces to specific dimensions or shapes by wetting them or pressing/steaming them. The important elements of blocking are heat and moisture. Knitted or crocheted pieces may be blocked before they are assembled. Blocking will also smooth out irregularities and curling edges. To block a garment according to a specific size, check the pattern directions for the finished size measurements and block the garment to that size. If no measurements are provided, the appropriate dimensions can be calculated from the gauge. For example, if the shoulder is 28 stitches, the gauge is 7 stitches/inch, then the shoulder dimension is 28÷ 7 = 4”. Not all projects or yarns will need to be blocked. Most synthetic and acrylic yarns do not require blocking. Natural fibers, such as wool, cotton or flax can probably be blocked. Check the yarn label before attempting to block a project.

In the wet blocking method, knitted or crocheted garment/pieces are either submerged in water, then pinned, with rustproof pins, to a blocking board or blocking grid and left to dry. In the steam method, knitted or crocheted pieces/garments are pinned to shape, a press cloth placed over the garment/pieces, and a steam iron or steamer held above the garment/pieces. Do not place the iron directly on the garment/pieces.

Dry Cleaning

Read the yarn label. Many manufactures recommend dry cleaning to protect themselves when the garment or yarn really can be washed. The easiest way to tell for sure if a garment can be laundered is to make a swatch and test it. When color-fastness is a questionable issue, the swatch fails the washing test, or if a garment is badly soiled, dry cleaning is the best solution. Find a dry cleaner whose plant and work is done on the premises. Ask how often they change the chemicals and filters and take your garments in on the day they change the chemicals.


Only store clean garments to reduce the risk of pests attack. Place sweaters in a drawer or on a shelf. Do not hang. If hanging woven fabric, use padded hangers. A cedar closet or trunk is ideal for the storage of wool garments. An option to the cedar closet is to fold and store clean wool sweaters in extra-large sealed plastic bags (optional: toss in a moth ball or two just for extra protection.)


It is a misconception that moths eat wool. The damage is caused by the liquid excreted by the larvae which breaks down the wool. To minimize the susceptibility of moths always clean any garment before it is put away for long-term storage. Store wool in a cedar lined chest or sprinkle cedar chips around the garment. Periodically lightly sand the cedar to refresh the cedar scent. Moth balls contain the chemical para dichlorobenzene which, in certain circumstances, can be extremely dangerous to a person's liver and nervous system.

Hints and Tips

how to launder handmade garmentsUse an old electric razor to remove (“shave”) the fuzz from a sweater. Or you can use a razor with a blade (preferably on old one that is sort of dull) being careful not to cut the sweater threads. A Sweater Stone quickly and easily removes pills and balls from sweaters and fabric.
how to launder handmade garmentsHere are several methods to un-shrink wool. (1) Add baby shampoo to water and soak the sweater. Remove from water and gently ring out excess water. Stretch out to desired shape and place on a sweater drying rack. (2) A shrunk sweater can be soaked in hair conditioner and water to relax the fibers and then stretched.
how to launder handmade garmentsTo un-felt a sweater, first the scales on the fiber must be relaxed. Try putting the sweater in salt water and bring to a boil and then let it cool. Be careful you don’t scorch the sweater as it sits on the bottom of the pot and don’t walk away leaving the pot on the stove and end up setting the house on fire!
how to launder handmade garmentsMicrowave woolens (remove buttons) for 10-20 seconds to kill moths.
how to launder handmade garmentsPhosphorous-free detergent does not kill the color in clothes.
how to launder handmade garmentsMost yarn manufacturers are careful about not putting a yarn on the market that will shrink. However, I have had even cotton yarns washed in cool water, shrink. To save knitting or crocheting time, I now pre-shrink yarns as I do with all fabric that are sewn. To do this, hank up the yarn using a yarn swift, wash it in the manner the sweater will be washed, let it dry on a sweater rack, and then re-skein it on a ball winder. This will also help prevent color bleeding in the finished garment. If the yarn is questionable about colorfastness, I will soak it in either salt water or vinegar water to set the dye and then wash it.
how to launder handmade garmentsWhen pressing wool, use a steam iron and a press cloth. Do not iron wool dry.
how to launder handmade garmentsAlways remove spots and stains promptly.
how to launder handmade garmentsRefresh wool garments by hanging in a steamy bathroom.
how to launder handmade garmentsWhen in doubt, dry clean silk, wool, linen, and rayon.
how to launder handmade garmentsTreat your yarn or fabric as you will treat the finished garment - wash in cool water by hand, wash in the washing machine, or dry clean.

copyright © MCMXCVII, C.W. Carvalho. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This material is not for sale or reproductions without the written consent of the author. Do not copy or post to another web site.