It’s warming up here in Hampshire and with these sunnier days it seemed the time to freshen up some of our hand knits. But how to go about it? As Koster and Murray rightly said in their Modern Knitting Illustrated, in 1945, ‘knitted garments which have taken a long time to make are often ruined by careless washing before they are worn out.’ Well, I knitted Giles’ hooded cardigan below, about 16 months ago and it certainly hasn’t worn out yet. Neither am I about to ruin it by careless washing, mind.

I must admit that I didn’t adhere to the wartime rules of using hot soapy water to wash the garment with, and neither did I begin my drying through a slack wringer (and not only because I don’t have a wringer to hand). However, I do have a set of rules that I follow to limit the damage that might be caused to the wool (or in this case, the wool element of the yarn as it is a blend.)

Hand knitted woollens need to be washed differently to other clothing. It doesn’t do to fling them into the washing machine on 40 degree Easy Care along with some Arial Automatic, which I’m apt to do with most of my other clothes. As wool is a keratin fibre, it needs some special treatment, which includes hand washing. It doesn’t respond well to the alkaline chemicals found in normal washing powders or liquids, so you will need to procure yourself some Woolite, Soak or the like. Woolite is a liquid, made as the name suggests for washing delicate and woollen items (you can buy it in the supermarket), whilst Soak is a leave-in wash for lingerie and delicate woollens. If something is particularly delicate, fragile, or hasn’t had much wear since the last wash, use Soak or similar, but if your garment has seen some good wear, a wool detergent is the way to go.

On that note, here are a few pointers on how to wash different types of yarns.

  • Wool must be washed by hand in tepid water or it will felt and shrink.
  • Superwash wool can be hand or machine washed on the gentle cycle in cold water.
  • Cotton yarn can be washed in the washing machine on a gentle cycle using either cold or warm.
  • Acrylic and other synthetic yarns can be washed and dried in with your normal washing as they do not shrink, but do watch out for colour-fastness.
  • If your knitted garment is of an unknown fibre content, do err on the side of caution and wash as if wool.

So, down to business. As I was washing a larger garment, I’ll tell you how to do this using the bath (or a large trug, if you have a bath-less bathroom). If you have something smaller to wash, just use your kitchen sink.

You will need: a garment in need of a wash, a bath/sink/bowl to wash in, a clean bowl or trug to store it in between rinses, wool detergent, large bath towels, somewhere flat to leave it to dry, and a good bit of patience.

Firstly, make sure that the bath isn’t occupied. Nobody wants a soggy cardigan as their bath mate when they were expecting a 1930s crime novel, a mug of hot chocolate and a rubber duck.

Fill the bath up to around 3 inches with cold or at most, tepid water, and add a few drops of Woolite or Soak. Swirl it around a bit to disperse.

Place your garment gently into the bath, flat out. Admittedly, here the hood is possibly making up for the lack of a 1930s crime novel by making the cardigan look a little corpse-like. I’m not expecting Poirot anytime soon though.

Gently press it down into the water until all of the fabric has been immersed. You can usually tell this as it goes a little darker. Let it soak for about 10 minutes, or longer if it has seen some proper action.

After it has soaked for long enough, pull out the plug and let the water drain. Once the water has gone, gently press the water from the garment. You can squeeze carefully without wringing, against the side of the bath, here to get a bit more water out. After that, gently lift it out of the bath, supporting the whole garment, as wool is rather elastic when wet and we need to minimise stretching (well, unless the owner of the knitwear in question has grown dramatically, I suppose). Carefully place into your waiting bowl (I find that the big red trug that I use as a washing basket, but others might use for hauling leaves around the garden, does well for this).

A note: I used Soak for freshening up this cardigan as it wasn’t really grubby, so I didn’t need to do the next bit with washing out the suds, but if you used Woolite or similar, read on; if you used soak, skip to the next italics.

I didn’t have a picture of rinsing, so here is the 1945 method of squeezing the suds out in hot water. I can’t stress strongly enough. Don’t. Do. This.

Next, fill the bath once again with tepid water, and place the garment back in to sit again. You can agitate it a little to help the suds out, but do not rub, as nothing felts it more quickly.

Repeat the draining, gently squeezing, lifting into awaiting bowl, refilling bath and placing back in until the suds are gone.

This next bit is best done on some lino or other non-carpeted floor as it will get wet.

Once you’re satisfied that there are no more bubbles, roll out a towel and place the garment onto it, completely flat. With the hood on Giles’ cardigan I just formed it into shape and laid it as flat as it would go.

Place another towel over the top (especially if you have a larger garment that will hold more water) and roll the whole thing up. Walk up and down the rolled-up towel to get a good bit of the water out. It should soon seep through the towel and you might find that you need to change towels and do this a couple of times, depending on the amount of water that the garment holds, and how many towels that you have at your disposal, really.

Hurrah! You’ve successfully washed a woollen garment.

Next time I’ll be talking about how to dry one, and if you’re ready to use it, you can read that post here.

How to Wash a Hand Knitted Woollen Garment
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