How to look after your knits

Taking proper care of your knitted garments will make them look better and last longer, as Jen Arnall-Culliford explains.

How to look after your knits

Please don’t talk to me about the two months I spent knitting a pair of ‘Glynis’ socks by Cookie A, only to felt them on the first wash: it’s still painful seven years later! Having spent hours knitting a beautiful design, it’s vital that the finished item is properly cared for. There’s little in knitting that is more distressing than ruining something that you’ve spent so long creating. Whether it’s spillage of bolognese sauce down a child’s jumper, or the dreaded moths nibbling a hole in a treasured Fair Isle sweater, this article will help you to avoid some of these pitfalls.


Washing can be hazardous for knitwear! Two of the ladies at my knitting group have particularly small feet, and they profit regularly from the rest of us inadvertently washing our hand-knitted socks in the machine on a normal cycle. The combination of water, heat and agitation can so easily lead to felting – an irreversible procedure where the scales on the fibres, from which the yarn is made, lock together, causing the fabric to shrink and become denser. Great if you planned it, but not so when the cardigan fitted perfectly before you put it in the wash.

Tip 1 is that woollen items need less frequent washing than their synthetic counterparts. Unless your item has a stain, oftentimes all it needs is hanging up to air overnight. A woollen sweater certainly shouldn’t need to be washed after every time it’s worn. The same is true for hand-knitted woollen socks – let them air out after you’ve worn them, and they will be fine to wear for a good few days without any noticeable odour.

Air out your knits to keep them fresh
Knitwear should need washing less frequently if you air it regularly.

When it is time for washing your hand-knits, prepare yourself by checking the washing advice contained on the ball band of the yarn you used. If you’ve detailed your projects on, you can check back to see which yarn you used, as well as whether the yarn is machine-washable or not. If for any reason you aren’t able to verify the recommended washing instructions then always err on the side of caution. It can also be extremely helpful to have your original swatch (you made one, right?), since you can test your planned washing routine on the swatch rather than risking the whole garment.

Washing instructions on ball bands
Ball bands give clear washing instructions.

​If your yarn can be machine-washed, be sure to use the correct cycle – both the temperature of the water and the speed of the spin cycle are important here. I’m still teased about the silk/merino cabled throw that I washed on the normal vigorous 40°C cycle instead of the gentle 30°C hand wash cycle. The throw was, needless to say, completely ruined (unless you wanted a particularly posh bath mat!). It’s also important not to wash heavy items like jeans and towels in with delicate handknits, since they will bash your knitting around, making felting more likely.

Wash socks carefully to avoid felting
Felting hand-knit socks is all too easy, so take care when washing them!

​We are lucky enough to have a washing machine with a very gentle hand-wash cycle, and after some careful experimentation, we have found that we can wash all of our hand-knitted garments using this cycle, without mishap. Not only does this save time in washing, but also drying, since the gentle spin cycle (700rpm) means that the garments are drier coming out of the machine than we would be able to achieve following a traditional hand wash. It may be worth your while trying out your machine if this option is available. We started by washing old socks that we weren’t too worried about, and gradually built up to our most delicate hand-knits, happily with no disasters to date. This is particularly useful in the winter when the family wears many pairs of hand-knitted socks as well as sweaters and cardigans, making enough laundry for a hand wash load every week.

When hand-washing is unavoidable, I would definitely recommend using a specialist hand washing liquid for delicates. Brands such as Eucalan or Soak are specifically designed for this purpose, and do not require rinsing. This is often one of the most time-consuming steps in traditional hand washing, so it’s great to be able to skip it. Simply pour a washing up bowl of tepid water, mixed with a teaspoonful of wool wash, and leave your knitwear to soak for at least 20 minutes, so that the fibres relax and absorb the water fully. Gently move the garment to dislodge any larger bits of dirt, then carefully lift it out of the water and gently squeeze, but don’t wring out the excess water. Wringing or twisting the wet fabric can stretch and snap the fibres, so that over time the garment will wear out more quickly. If the piece is still very wet, press it gently between two towels to remove as much of the remaining water as possible, then lie the item flat to dry. Remember to shape the garment correctly, since this process is like blow-drying your hair – if you leave one sleeve stretched more than the other, it will stay that way until the next wash.

Stain removal

As always, prevention is better than cure, so if you’ve planned spaghetti bolognese for dinner, either wear an apron while cooking or eating your meal, or take off that precious jersey before you start. In the worst-case scenario, treat the stain as quickly as possible in order to get the best results. Remove the bulk of the stain by scraping it with a spoon, and then treat gently with an appropriate stain remover, taking care not to rub too hard at the spot, since this may cause localised felting. The Woolmark Company has helpful stain removal suggestions for wool on its website, and a well-stocked stain removal kit would include items like white vinegar, white spirit, surgical spirit or rubbing alcohol, and soap. Finally, ensure that the stain is removed as completely as possible before the garment is exposed to any heat, since this may cause the stain to set permanently.

Pressing and steaming

Most garments may be carefully hung to remove small wrinkles and creases. If the item is too heavy to hang from a hanger (if it would stretch unattractively), then lying flat on a breathable frame such as a laundry airer can also be very effective. Stockists include Lakeland and John Lewis. If neither of these techniques is an option, then you may need to use an iron to remove creases. As with using a washing machine, this requires some care to avoid damage to your knitted creation. Always check the yarn care instructions and test on an unobtrusive area before you start.

Knitwear generally responds well to gentle steaming. Using a steam iron, held an inch or two above the fabric, slowly work across the surface, holding the fabric flat and pumping steam onto the item. Take care not to scald your fingers as you go, and don’t touch the iron to the surface of your knitting, or you may scorch the yarn. This should puff up the stitches and allow you to remove any unwanted wrinkles. This method can also be used to block an item where you don’t have time to wait for it to dry naturally when wet-blocking.

If steaming isn’t sufficient, then it is possible to press knitted fabric using a pressing cloth and iron on the wool setting, but in my experience the fabric is easily over-flattened, and it’s tricky to avoid damaging the fibres. I would try all other methods first, and treat pressing as a last resort.

Gently steam knitwear with an iron
If you need to steam an item, hold the iron a couple of inches above the fabric.

Storage and moths

If you aren’t going to wear something for a period of time, first ensure that it is clean and totally dry before you put it away. Damp woollens will eventually start to rot if they are left sealed and unable to dry naturally. And even dry-to-the-touch knitwear may contain moisture within the fibres, which over time can be released. So whilst plastic containers and zip-lock bags are highly effective at keeping moths out, it would be unwise to leave garments sealed in them indefinitely.

Instead, fold your knits neatly, and store them in cotton pillowcases or bags. These allow the fibres to breathe, whilst keeping bugs out, since moth larvae can’t eat through cotton. If you do store knits in plastic, remove them regularly, and let them air before replacing them in the storage container or bag. This allows any moisture to escape without causing problems.

Check knits for signs of moths
Check knitwear regularly for signs of moth infestation.

​Moths are attracted to soiled items first, so it’s well worth having a seasonal refresh of your knitwear before putting it away for the summer. For pieces that you wear all year round, it’s worth putting moth repellents in with your knits. Whether they are stored in a wardrobe, chest or drawers, lots of products are available. Many moth repellents are based on natural products such as cedar wood, lavender or citronella oils, but no matter which product you pick, it’s vital to ensure that you replace them as directed. Drawers of knitwear with used-up moth sachets are completely unprotected, so set a reminder on your calendar to replace them. Moth larvae greatly dislike light and being disturbed, so opening drawers and giving everything a good shake can be very effective at avoiding problems.

In case of a moth disaster, pop your pullovers in a bag and put them in the freezer overnight. Remove the bag and allow it to return to room temperature, then repeat the cycle. This method will kill both eggs and larvae without any damage to your garments, and can equally be used to ‘quarantine’ new yarn or knitwear before you put it away with your other possessions.

Repairing damage

Inevitably, from time to time even the most well cared for hand-knits will get damaged. Whether it’s a hole nibbled by a moth, or a worn-through sock, being able to mend small areas of damage is usually quicker than making a whole new item. Some knitters may get more enjoyment from knitting a replacement than the small amount of sewing involved in a repair, but I’m always surprised at how quickly and neatly most little holes can be mended.

The easiest method is to Swiss darn (duplicate stitch) over the affected area, and to catch it before it’s completely worn through. This technique is great for socks or elbows, where you can see the wear before the yarn finally breaks completely.

First, choose a suitable mending yarn – an identical colour for a subtle repair, or contrasting if you wish to embrace the spirit of the visible mending movement! The yarn should be of similar thickness to the original, so for mending the toe of a sock, choose a similar sock yarn.

And finally, it’s a good idea to choose a yarn that’s as strong as the surrounding yarn (or stronger). For socks, definitely look to mend the patch with a sock yarn containing nylon so as to get the most wear from the repaired item.

Swiss darning


Step 1

Try to catch the area before it’s completely worn through.

Swiss darning step 1

Step 2

Cut a length of yarn not more than 1.5m long and thread onto a tapestry needle. Weave the end of the yarn in from the WS to the RS of the undamaged fabric at the edge of the problem area, coming up through the bottom of a stitch. Following the pattern of the stitches, take the needle back through to the WS at the top right of the ‘V’ that the stitch makes.

Swiss darning step 2

Step 3

Come back through to the RS at the top right of the ‘V’, then take the needle back through to the WS at the bottom of the stitch again. One stitch complete.

Swiss darning step 3

Step 4

Swiss darn across a row of stitches just below where the damage begins. This row will anchor the following rows of darning. Work across the next row of stitches, making sure that you are sewing through the stitches on the row below, so that the darning closely matches the knitting below it.

Swiss darning step 4
Swiss darning step 5

Step 5

Continue to work rows of stitches until you have completely covered the damaged area, and work a further row to anchor the darning at the top. Weave in the yarn end to the WS of the fabric.

Swiss darning step 6

Where a hole has already developed, it may be possible to Swiss darn and ‘replace’ the missing stitches with darned ones. But if the damage is too great, you will need to choose a more traditional woven darning technique. If this is required, then it helps enormously to use the purl bumps on the WS of stocking stitch fabric to lock in the ends of each row of darning. You can find a tutorial for traditional stocking darning here.

With a bit of care, you should get many years of happy wear from your knits.