Handle With Care: How to Machine Wash Sweaters & Other Handknits

So you checked the yarn label and discovered that your yarn is machine washable. Awesome! But don’t be hasty. Your yarn label might say the fiber is machine washable, but that doesn’t mean you can treat it like you would any other machine-washable item.

Here’s what you need to know about washing your precious handknits in the washing machine.

Machine washing knits

My boyfriend’s superwash wool sweater knit by his mom, Lynn — safe for the washing machine, if handled with care.

Why choose machine washable yarns?

My first instinct when I started knitting was to totally avoid machine washable yarns. Why take that risk? But there are actually a lot of good reasons to choose a machine washable yarn over a yarn that must be hand washed.

Machine washable yarns, for instance, are great choices for baby knits. (What mom has time to hand wash?) Machine washable knits are also handy if you’re someone who travels a lot and may not have time to treat your knits with the care they deserve.

I like to choose machine washable yarns when I’m making gifts, too. I find that a lot of people unfamiliar with knitting are also unfamiliar with the task of hand washing handknits.

Gentle, gentle, gentle

Just go ahead and repeat those words to yourself when you’re preparing to machine wash any of your knits. Think of how devastated you’d be if you popped open that lid after the cycle finished only to find a mangled or felted mass of yarn where your lovely knit used to be. Treat those hand knits gently, like they’re your babies.

Detergent

Keeping “gentle” in mind, use a detergent that will go easy on your knits. There are plenty of wool washes available out there; in fact, your local yarn store probably sells them or can at least recommend a good one. I’ve also used detergents I found in the grocery store that are alcohol-free and as mild as possible. Baby shampoo is another good choice for knits.

Washing cycles

I’ve used both a delicate cycle and a regular cycle on hand knits, depending on what fiber they’re made from and what the item is. For kitchen items made of cotton like potholders, coasters, etc., I’m not terribly careful about the cycle. I’ll even throw them in with some of my usual loads of laundry without worrying too much about it.

But for something like a gorgeous wool sweater with lacework on it, it’s a different story. I use the delicate cycle for most garments, especially if they have any lacework on them. You can also use the mesh garment bags that are meant for lingerie to make sure your handknits are handled delicately and not agitated in the machine.

Drying

Your yarn label will also tell you if drying the item in the dryer is ok, too. For this, though, I’ve discovered that I have some personal preferences.

I don’t feel like my knits keep their shape when they’re dried in the dryer, even if the yarn label tells me it’s fine. So my process is to dry the item flat, blocking it in the process if it’s something like a garment that needs reshaping. Then, if it’s still damp after laying flat for a while, I might toss it in the dryer on low heat just to dry it completely.

Testing swatches

There are a few superwash wools I’ve used over the years that are predictable when it comes to machine washing and drying simply because I’ve tested them so many times.

But if you’re using a new yarn and aren’t sure how it will behave, throw a test swatch in with your next load of laundry. Check out how it turns out — Did it felt? Does it look fuzzy? — and keep testing until you feel confident about how it will react.

Use common sense — and knitter’s instinct!

When you’re caring for handknits, the bottom line is to use your own judgement. If you’re worried the item won’t survive a wash in the machine, just hand wash it. Common sense and a knitter’s instinct rarely fail us.

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If you want to find out more ways to finish and care for your knits, check out The Essential Guide to Finishing Handknits with Anne Hanson. You’ll learn about weaving in loose ends, blocking, hemming, inserting a zipper — so many awesome skills that you can use to make your handknits look professional.

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Have you ever washed handknits in the washing machine? How did it go? Any tips to share?

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