Kill pills! How to store and restore winter woollens for seasons to come

From shooing moths away to gentle washing, here’s how to care for the knitwear that kept you warm all winter

If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent the past few months shuffling around your home, swathed in various combinations of knitwear. A charcoal turtleneck for video meetings. A big navy cable knit for coffee runs. A red scarf to brighten particularly gloomy mornings.

As the weather turns, it’s a good moment to show your knitwear a little love before putting it away until next year. After all, we tend to keep woollen garments for a long time and through this winter they served in place of the warm hugs we weren’t allowed to get from family and friends.

Deborah Sams, the co-founder of Australian brand Bassike, says knitwear “is an investment and, if cared for well, can last for years”. Since merino wool and its counterparts such as cashmere, alpaca and mohair are prone to pilling, moth holes and shrinkage, caring for knitwear can be tricky.

It’s worth keeping a few things in mind.

Always follow the care label when washing

For hand washing, fill a tub or sink with lukewarm water and apply a mild or wool-specific detergent with a relatively neutral pH level. If you’re not sure, Woolmark has a guide. Place the garment in the tub and leave it to soak for 10 minutes, rinse it thoroughly in lukewarm water, and then again in cold water.

For machine washing, turn the garment inside-out and place it in a laundry bag. Be sure to set your washing machine to the “wool” or “delicate” setting on a cold-water cycle. Apply the same rules as for hand washing when choosing a detergent.

To dry the garment, gently squeeze out any excess water and then lay a towel down flat, place the garment on top of it and gently roll it up, applying pressure as you go. This should soak up any remaining moisture. Then reshape the garment on a dry towel or flat drying rack, and leave it out of sunlight and away from heaters.

A sweater comb, which can be used to remove pills from knitted garments
A sweater comb, which can be used to remove pills from knitted garments. Photograph: Amazon

Unfortunately, pilling is inevitable

According to Mary-Lou Ryan, Sams’s co-founder at Bassike, “pilling is a natural process that can be hard to prevent, caused simply by the rubbing of fibres in a garment”. It’s worth thinking about this when you’re getting dressed, because friction from items such as belts and handbags can cause fibres to rub and pill.

To prevent it, when you wash your woollen clothes make sure they are inside-out, and don’t use fabric softener. Running a cool iron over a woollen garment after it has been washed and dried can also help smooth the fibres.

When pilling does occur, Ryan advises removing pills with a fabric comb “that works by pulling away the knotted pilling fibres from your garment”. Electric garment shavers or lint removal devices are another good way to reduce pills, but be careful, Ryan says, and “always proceed with caution and a steady hand”.

Keep moths away with proper storage

Moth holes happen because wool and other animal fibres contain keratin, which clothes worms love to eat. Be sure to clean your knitwear before you put it away as moths can be attracted to food stains and moisture from body odour.

A drawer full of cedar wood balls
Cedar wood balls, along with cedar blocks or cedar hangers, can keep moths at bay. Photograph: Katee Dee/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Garments should be stored folded with cedar blocks or, if appropriate to hang, on cedar hangers. It’s worth vacuuming drawers and cupboards if garments are being stored for a long time. Moths also hate light and disturbance, so an occasional shakeout can be helpful too.

If moths have already got to your knitwear, a professional, invisible mender should be able to fix the holes. They work by re-weaving the damaged area, thread by thread, to restore the garment to its original condition.

Parting tips

There are a few other things that can improve your knitwear’s life.

  • Knitted garments should be stored folded and given at least a day’s rest between wears.

  • Address snags and pulls by poking errant threads back inside the garment. Sometimes a tidy knot is necessary to keep things in place.

  • Brushing wool with a clothes brush can shake out dirt and dust that dulls its appearance.

  • To remove odours from cooking or smoking, leave woollen garments outside. They love sunshine and fresh air – just like us.


Lucianne Tonti

The GuardianTramp

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