5 Steps to Make an Old Cardigan Look Good Again

We all know the wonderful feeling of popping on a new cardigan – the color, the cut and the texture are all perfect.

But over time these change.  Cardigans, even more than most woolens, get pilly, saggy and lose their snuggly feel.

The featured image at the top of this post is Brora’s utterly fabulous cashmere oversized pocket cardigan. Here’s a link to the cardigan on the US site – change the country to see price in local currency.

Here are my five simple steps for restoring last year’s cardigan so it looks fabulous this year too.

Step 1 Restore the surface of your cardigan

  • Get these items ready: clothes shaver or disposable razor or sweater pumice stone, sharp nail scissors, sticky lint roller for clothes.
  • Spread the sweater out flat on a table in plenty of light.  If necessary, drag the table over to the window on a nice sunny day.  Doing this step in anything less than good light is a waste of your time.
  • If you wear glasses for close work such as reading, then pop them on.  You should take them off when you’re checking the overall look in a mirror of course.
  • Check under the arms, down the side seams and along the seam under the sleeve.  This is where those annoying balls of wool or other materials tend to collect.  That’s because pilling occurs when the surface of your cardigan is rubbed again and again.

So where your arm moves against your cardigan is the first area to show wear.

  • Remove these little woolly balls by gently shaving – with a clothes razor or a normal razor – from top to hem, areas that look rough and worn.
  • Next check other areas that get rubbed by your over-shoulder purse or tote.  And look at the cuffs and the hem of the cardigan too.  All these areas can quickly look shoddy.
  • Instead of a shaver you can use a pumice stone but only use a light touch.  Sweep it down the cardigan and it will catch those annoying pills.
  • When you’ve shaved downwards you’ll find lots of extra frizzy bits and threads hanging on to the hem.  Use small sharp scissors to snip these off one by one.  Don’t guess where they are.  Get up close with your reading glasses on!
  • Finally use the lint roller to roll from top to hem all areas of your cardigan to pick up any pill balls that are still clinging to the garment.

Step 2 Restore softness to your cardigan

You’ll need:

  • a gentle hand-washing liquid designed for woolens – I’d use this even if your cardigan is not made of wool.  Mild shampoo works too.
  • Two large clean non-fluffy towels – old clean towels are perfect.
  • A flat drying area such as a drying rack with a large flat top area – or fold up the rack and lay it across the bath tub. 

How to wash a wool, cashmere, merino or mohair cardigan

  • Use off-cold or just warm water to gently wash your cardigan.  Cashmere, wool, alpaca and mohair are natural fabrics spun from the hair of animals.  This hair was a protection against the weather.  So water is fine but anything warmer than body temperature is unnatural. 
  • Thoroughly dissolve the washing product in the water then slowly and methodically squeeze each area of your cardigan in these suds.  Don’t worry if there are no bubbles, they’re irrelevant to cleaning power.
  • Don’t rub.  And don’t let the cardigan’s weight drag it out of shape. 

Don’t skip this step even if you know your cardigan is clean.  If it’s been stored folded under other items the pile will have flattened.  If it’s been hung certain areas will have drooped or the stitches will have stretched.  Washing helps to make these areas tighten up again.

  • After two or three rinses in clean off-cold water – no rolling or wringing or twisting – press the cardigan against the bowl while you let the water flow away. 
  • Now work carefully, area by area, gently squeezing out excess water.  Think of washing your daughter’s hair.  How tight would you squeeze?

Step 3 Restore the shape of your cardigan

A wet garment is a heavy garment so handle carefully so that it doesn’t stretch.

  • Lay the damp cardigan on a towel on a flat waterproof surface – you can even use the bathroom floor if you have nowhere better.  Just bear in mind that after 50 or so kneeling down and scrambling up again may put you off washing your woollens as often as you should!
  • Take a moment to arrange the item so that side seams are parallel, front and backs are wrinkle-free but not stretched and any collar is looking as it would if you wore it.
  • If there are buttons or a zip then fasten these too.

This re-shape is very important so don’t skip it.

  • Now, working from the hem to the neck roll the cardigan in the towel it is lying on.
  • When it’s a tube use your hand pressure to help the towel absorb as much water as possible.
  • Now stretch another clean towel across the drying area – a frame across the bath or a free-standing drier with a large flat top surface.  If you don’t have anything suitable then just put the towel on a flat waterproof surface on top of a kitchen or bathroom cupboard for example.
  • Unroll the damp cardigan and reshape again on the dry towel.

Hang the wet towel somewhere it can dry quickly as you’ll need it again later.

  • Airdry the cardigan changing the towel from time to time.  Each time handle the cardigan as little as possible but reshape it.  Turn the cardigan each time you replace the towel.
  • Don’t place the cardigan near a radiator or direct heat.  Don’t put it in the drier unless it is made of a cotton blend or man-made yarn.  Even then, use a low heat and as little spinning as possible.  And finish the drying off by laying the garment flat to dry indoors.
  • Don’t hang the cardigan on a line or put it out in the sunshine to dry.  This can stretch the garment or shrink it and/or change the color.

Step 4 Add volume and bounce to a wool cardigan

If you followed these steps your wool cardigan should now have a lightweight airy volume to it.  It shouldn’t need ironing.

But if you store it wrongly that bounce and snuggly softness will disappear fast.

Fold the cardigan as shops do – so you have the front flat, without any folds, and the arms neatly placed behind the back.  Then fold it in three or two widthwise.

Cardigans can be stacked on a shelf but make sure the pile isn’t so high it pushes all the air out of the item at the bottom.

Never place cardigans in strong light as they might fade.

How to store a cardigan until next year

For long term storage keep the folded cardigan in the special bag that came when you bought it or purchase one that protects natural fabrics from moths, mildew, mold and fading. Don’t use a plastic or unwoven bag.

Look for the word ‘breathable’ before buying. Most are made of natural fabric such as linen and/or have a mesh panel on the side.

If the storage bag does not have a zip then you’ll need to pop in an anti-moth cedar ball.

Can you hang a cardigan?

I sometimes hang a cardigan on a well-shaped padded hanger if I wear it frequently.  But never do this for more than a week or so.  And only hang a cardigan or sweater that is lightweight – so no coatigans or chunky longer knits.

The looser the knitting, the more easily the cardigan develops droop.

Needless to say, never hang a cardigan on a hook – not even for half and hour! Any cardigan will develop an odd pucker mark from a hook. These are usually difficult to remove. But you can try an iron or steamer on low heat and use an ironing mitt to hold the cardigan from beneath to provide the right shape.

If you’re staying somewhere which only has thin plastic or wire hangers you can use them for a day but find another solution for cardigan storage, such as folding or rolling, if you’re going to be there for longer.

If you lack shelving and your drawers are shallow then roll your cardigans.  They may look a little wrinkled when you put them on.  My advice is to hang them over the bath tub for an hour or so whilst the bathroom is still steamy and warm. 

Otherwise you can use a hand-held steamer or a hairdrier on medium heat.  But remember, less is more.

Step 5  Mend or update an old cardigan

As you’ve been washing your cardigan you’ll have noticed any pulled threads and buttons hanging off.  Now is the time to snip off loose threads with small sharp scissors.  Or reweave slipped stiches and secure them invisibly at the back of the garment using a needle and thread.

If there’s a button missing and you didn’t keep that extra one that came with the cardigan when you bought it, then you will need to change all the buttons.

Take one of the buttons with you when you shop or measure it and compare it to online offers.

There’s no need to keep to the same color or style of button.  In fact every few years I change buttons on old cardigans as a matter of course.  Tweed buttons, pearly buttons, highly-colored buttons, velvet buttons or buttons you cover in a fabric you like, can all update a woollen in an evening. 

It’s a great way to fall back in love with a cardigan.

Enjoy wearing cardigans? Read this article next:

Tips on buying a new cardigan and how to style it when you’re over 50.

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