Words by Alex Freeling | Illustrations by Lee Woodgate
Great knitwear is well worth the investment: thoughtfully produced, high-quality pieces are finer to the touch, longer-lasting, and more ecologically responsible. Caring for knits is straightforward, but there are a few important rules to avoid stretching, shrinking, or losing a favourite sweater to moths. Maintenance is best kept to a light touch throughout the season with the occasional larger intervention when necessary.
Here’s how to keep everything from Shetland sweaters to cashmere cardigans at their best.
1. Store with care
Fold or roll knits in order to store them; never hang, as they can stretch under their own weight. You can discourage moths by using natural means such as cedar, lavender or dried orange peel, but if you’ve had problems in the past, or live in a historic building, consider specialist repellent sachets.
If you do have the misfortune to find moths in your sweaters, experts at English Heritage recommend placing your knitwear in individual air-tight bags and placing it in the freezer for at least two weeks to kill any moth larvae or unhatched eggs.
2. Spot-treat stains
A quick response to stains is best: wet spills can be blotted with a tissue; thicker spills can be scraped off with a blunt knife. If necessary, treat the affected area with white vinegar and rinse with plenty of water.
3. Gently wash when needed
If a stain persists after spot treatment, or if your sweater is in need of overall attention, it’s best washed by hand, inside out, with specialist wool shampoo. Washing machine delicate cycles can wash some knits without shrinking them, but check the garment label to be sure.
After washing and rinsing, lay it out flat on a towel to dry, and avoid storing it until it’s completely dry. A damp sweater can gently be reshaped by hand if needed.
4. Prevent pilling
Pilling is the natural tendency of wool and cashmere garments to develop small balls of thread on the surface over time, especially where the fabric rubs at the underarm or elbows. It’s less pronounced in higher quality knits, but inevitable in all.
Resist the urge to pull at pills, which can make things worse. Instead, use a cashmere comb to smooth out the whole garment and catch any pills as they form, or for serious cases use a fabric shaver to trim off the pills without unravelling the fabric underneath.
5. Call in the experts
For especially difficult stains or spills, consider the services of specialist dry cleaners. While chemical cleaning is best kept to a minimum, it’s worth considering once a season for heavy winter pieces, ideally before putting them into storage. Sweat and skin can attract moths, so it’s safer to store wool, silk and cashmere at its cleanest.
If you’re unlucky enough to develop a snag or tear in a fine knit, a specialist re-weaver (or re-knitter) may be able to repair the hole invisibly, using threads taken from elsewhere in the garment. For chunkier casual sweaters, traditional darning or a simple patch will suffice, and can even add character.