Washing a silk sweater

The story:

So yesterday there was an estate sale two doors down from where I stay, and I got myself twelve shirts and three sweaters for $15. One of the sweaters is 72% silk, and 28% viscose (whatever that is). Not being the kind of guy who can ordinarily afford fine shirts and sweaters, I don’t know what to do with it. It says “Hand wash separately” (and some other stuff, including the option to dry clean).

The question:
Do I really have to hand wash it? Why (physically, and practically)? And how do I go about hand-washing it?


I used to hand-wash my clothes because it was cheaper, but I found the wringing and soaking wore them out faster and faded the colours. I’d figured this was only something you did with robust garments. And I usually disobey Dry-Clean-Only warnings (except with suits and things) and it’s never been a problem.

So… what do I do?

Well, for openers, it looks like you paid roughly a buck for the sweater, so it’s certainly not worth agonizing over too much!

“Hand-wash” means to wash it by hand in something like Woolite. No agitation. Certainly no wringing. No rock-beating on the shore. Soak it in cool water with Woolite for 3 minutes (or whatever the instructions on the bottle say - I can’t quite remember the routine), gently squeezing the suds through the sweater, rinse it gently, then gently squeeze the excess water out of it (NO WRINGING!!). Use some towels to blot the water out of it, then lay it out on some towels to dry. Don’t hang it from a clothesline.

Another little trick with sweaters: after hand-washing, put it in the washing machine, turn the dial around to the “spin” part of the cycle, and let 'er rip. That will spin a lot of the excess water out of the sweater without subjecting it to the damaging agitation of the washing machine.

Silk is a fiber that is weakened when wet. That means when you wash it you hand wash delicate. You gently place it in the water and move it around a bit, you do not agitate and you definately never wring. You really shouldn’t ever put it in the dryer either, contrary to the previous poster - dry by laying it on a towel, rolling towel up, squeezing (not wringing) towel. Repeat if needed with second towel. Reshape and lie flat to dry.

An excellent resource for all of this, particularly for “when it’s okay to ignore the label” and “how to handwash various fibers” is a book called Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House. It has an exhaustive section on laundry but also is an excellent reference source on, say, how long something will last in the fridge, which fruits will ripen after you bring them home, how to mop, how often to tune your piano, etc.

Please re-read. I never said to put it in the dryer! You’re right, of course - that would be the kiss of death for this poor defenseless sweater. What I was suggesting was a run through the spin cycle in the washer. All this does is press the sweater against the drum, by centrifugal force, and coax the excess water out of it. It isn’t being agitated or heated in any way, so it’s safe.

Just my two cent’s worth:
I bought a sweater at the thrift store last Spring for $2. It’s 75% silk and 25% cotton, and the label says “hand wash.”
I wash it in the washing machine on the gentle cycle for the shortest time (I think it’s 4 minutes) and lay it flat to dry. I throw a couple of bath towels in the wash cycle with it to sort of cushion it.
And I don’t wash it every time I wear it. As long as you use deodorant and don’t sweat a lot, you can wear it a couple of times between washings.

Thanks! But:

If silk is so fragile, why would anyone make clothes out of it? Or buy clothes that need to be treated like china teacups?

Okay, hand wash it is, then. Hmm. The sink in the Shoebox* has got a rusty spot where the enamel was chipped away, so that’s probably not good. And I need special detergent? Can I just use hand soap? (It’s “99% pure”…) or dish soap? (“Soft on hands…”)

  • Name I’ve bestowed on my apartment.

If I hand wash I use baby shampoo and let the item soak for a bit, rinse, roll in a towel (or 2) to remove most of the excess water, then lay flat on a mesh contraption I bought.

Most often I throw my silk items in small zippered pillowcases (boudoir size) and toss them in the washer on cold with regular detergent. I’m a lazy cuss.

Viscose is rayon.

Yeah, I looked up Viscose after posting. I don’t know why there are two names in use for garment labels… (I’m wearing a “cotton-rayon” shirt right now).

So you’ve been putting them in pillowcases and washing them cold? Has it hurt them at all? I’d really like to be able to cycle this garment with the main loads if possible; it simplifies the laundry algorithm greatly. Although if I acquire more of these special-care garments in the future, I guess I could intorduce a new element into the system.

As I said in my post, I wash my silk and cotton sweater in cold water in the machine on the gentle cycle with a couple of bath towels. It’s always come out fine.
I have a mesh thing like peri’s, but mine is just a big round circle. I lay the sweater on that to dry.

I have ruined one wool sweater when I forgot to retreive it from the dryer. More on that later.

My decision to machine wash depends upon fiber blend, weight of yarn and knit gauge. Wool sweaters also get thrown in the washer for their final rinse (on delicate) and water extraction.

Boudoir pillowcases are large enough, at 12x18", to hold a sweater, without extra room to allow it get all buffed up or abraded. I use pillowcases or protectors with zippers. They’re available at the Company Store, Linens 'n Things and other bedding suppliers. I do have the mesh bags and use them frequently, but not if any other item in the wash has velcro or hook closures.

As to the dryer thing above, I routinely throw sweaters in the dryer for 15-20 seconds to relax the wrinkles and fluff the yarn Don’t do this unless you can stay by the dryer. It’s too easy be distracted and forget, as I did. Fine gauge woven silks are machine washed, but do not get the dryer tratment.


I’ll look at acquiring some of the appropriate pillowcases. In the meantime I’ll try hand-washing.

Buy the least expensive cases you can, preferably white or undyed. Invest in a mesh dryer or 2 if you find you’re washing the sweater(s) frequently. Drying time will be greatly reduced and you won’t have to deal with changing damp towels.