It’s officially fall, and that means pumpkins are in season and temperatures are dropping as the march to winter begins. We thought we’d take the occasion to host a pop-up blog within ShamrockCraic dedicated to the most Irish of cold weather apparel, the Aran sweater. Every Monday of October, we’ve brought you a feature article on a different aspect of the Aran sweater where we covered everything from origin myths to the process of yarn spinning and the meaning of knit patterns. Last week, we dove into the details of the Aran’s unique knitting style, and this week, our last entry, we’re all about helping you take the best possible care of your Aran sweater. Enjoy!
So, you’ve bought an Aran sweater. Congratulations! It’s a great investment in your warmth this winter. But as such, it needs to be cared for properly, so we’re here to answer all your wash and storage questions about your piece of Irish history folded in your sweater drawer.
Traditional Aran sweaters are made from wool, which means that they require a little extra care when washing. But it also means that they require washing less than other fabrics, because the water-managing properties inherent in wool mean that it is less likely to pick up a ripe smell—wool’s moisture-wicking abilities leave less dampness in which stink-causing bacteria could grow.
And yet we’ve all had a sweater that got just a little too ripe, or has a musty storage smell when we take it out for winter wear. At the very least, you should wash your sweater at the beginning of the winter season, before it goes into your rotation, and once towards the end of the season if you plan on putting it back in storage. In between, it’s up to you and how often you wear the sweater.
WASHING THE SWEATER
When it does come time to wash your wool Aran sweater, there are two dangers that are easier to avoid than you might think: shrinkage and holes. Kieran Costello, sales and marketing manager for Aran Woolen mills, says there are three things that cause damage to wool when washing, “too much heat, too much agitation, and too much washing powder.” The easiest way, he says, to avoid shrinkage and holes is to avoid the washing machine altogether.
The unique biochemistry of wool that makes it such a popular insulator also make it easy to damage. Each individual wool fiber has little jagged edges called cuticles that, when woven together, help bind the fibers into yarn. However, too much agitation also encourages them to stick to each other. This can be done intentionally to create felt, but when you want a sweater to maintain its large, bulky shape, felting is the last thing you’d want. This is effectively what happens when you accidentally shrink a wool sweater. It hasn’t technically “shrunken,” but the wool fibers have bonded to each other, creating a tighter fabric and turning your adult-size sweater into one more suitable to a teddy bear.
Additionally, wool is an animal product, and as such is made of proteins, as opposed to other natural fibers like cotton or synthetic fibers like polyester. The vast majority of laundry detergents contain an enzyme called protease, which works to break down proteins often found in food products that might find their way onto your clothing. This is great when you’re trying to get a mustard stain out of a sweater—protease will break down the mustard proteins and remove the grime. But protease doesn’t discriminate against proteins, so it will also try to break down the proteins in the wool yarn itself, causing those holes you might sometimes find in a sweater after you’ve taken it out of the wash. (The same holds true for other protein-based fibers like silk.)
So instead of using a regular laundry detergent, opt for a gentle or mild detergent that doesn’t contain protease like Soak, Woolite, or even baby shampoo (what is wool but sheep hair after all?). The New York Times’ Wirecutter review platform also recommends Eucalan for wool specifically, because it contains lanolin, which is wool’s natural waterproofing compound. Washing wool with a detergent that contains lanolin helps maintain the wool’s natural properties while protecting it from more wear and tear.
Both Soak and Eucalan are rinse-free detergents as well, meaning you’ll spend less time washing them, meaning less time agitating them as you try to rinse the excess detergent off in the end. And the less you handle the wool, the longer its life expectancy.
4 STEPS FOR THE BEST HAND WASH
1. Hand wash the sweater in lukewarm water using only a small amount of special hand-wash-only or mild detergent like Woolite, Soak, or Eucalan (which is specially designed for woolens and contains lanolin, a type of natural oil produced by sheep).
2. Never use hot or cold water only, because the extreme temperatures can damage the wool fibers and cause the sweater to shrink or the wool to loose its softness.
3. Gently massage the sweater in the detergent and avoid over handling, which can also cause the knit patterns damage. Rinse if necessary (Soak is a specially designed no-rinse formula, which avoids the risk of excess handling). Check label on detergent for best results.
4. Always dry the sweater flat to avoid unwanted stretching or elongation. Never wring the sweater dry because this will cause damage to the fibers and lessen the life expectancy of the sweater. Martha Stewart recommends rolling the sweater in a towel and pressing to remove any excess water prior to drying flat.
When in doubt, follow the wash instructions on the sweater label. These instructions have been factory tested and approved by the manufacturer to ensure the highest-quality results while avoiding unnecessary handling.
Some sweaters can be dry cleaned while others cannot. This depends on the type of wool used in the sweater. Check care label before dry cleaning.
STORING THE SWEATER
Storing the sweater is very straightforward. Simply fold it loosely and put it safely in a drawer. This will prevent the shoulders from being misshapen as a result of its bulk pulling on it while on a hanger. Wool is meant to be bent, but not stretched, which is why a loose fold is perfect. If you’re putting the sweater away for the winter, consider tossing some dried lavender in with your garment to help keep moths away. Moths generally only eat through wool if they have another reason to be attracted to the fabric, such as excess food or body oil on the fibers. You can easily avoid this by washing the sweater prior to storage.
We hope you enjoyed our Aran sweater series. The first entry in our Aran sweater series, all about the origin and rise to international fame of the style, can be found here.
To read part II, about the history of yarn spinning and the process of turning wool into the Aran sweater, click here.
Part III of our Aran sweater series, about the unique knitting style and patterns of the garments, can be read here.
And finally, if you don’t already own an Aran sweater, visit ShamrockGift.com for our complete collection.