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Speaking Truth to Big Dry Cleaning About Your Smelly Sweaters

'Dry clean only' is fake news.

Photo: Georgie Hunter/Getty Images

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Out, Damned Spot has long provided general tips to keep your fashions looking amazing, but now, I'll also be answering questions about the very specific problems your new (or old!) purchases may present. Do you have questions for me? Ask away!

My sweaters... kind of smell. Like a mix of sweat and overcompensating deodorant. How the hell do you get smells out of cashmere/wool/dry clean only sweaters? — Trinity

I will tell you how, Dear Trinity. But first I need to dismantle the propaganda efforts of Big Clothing and Big Dry Cleaning. Get excited! I mean, who doesn't love a good take-down?

Here we go. Brace yourself for some T R U T H.

The Problem With Dry Cleaning

In order to understand the problem with dry cleaning, especially as it relates to odor removal, you first need to understand the basics of what dry cleaning even is.

Dry cleaning works somewhat similarly to wet cleaning (wet cleaning is what goes on in your washing machine), but replaces the water and detergent you use in washers with a solvent. Solvents are great at removing stains from garments without requiring the use of water, which is ideal when it comes to fabrics, like silk or rayon, that don't play super nicely with water. Solvents are, however, much less great at removing odors that are trapped in the fibers of a garment, and they're particularly bad at eliminating smells caused by BO.

The Other Problem With Dry Cleaning

The other problem with dry cleaning should more accurately be called a problem with clothing manufacturers, but that doesn't have quite the same ring to it. Here's the issue: Clothing manufacturers very often label clothing as “dry clean only” when, in fact, that garment may very well be machine- or hand-washed. “Dry clean only” is fake news, is what I'm trying to tell you.

There are lots of reasons why manufacturers do this. For one, there's a certain cachet that “dry clean only” evokes — clothes that require specialty cleaning feel fancier than ones that can just get chucked in the washing machine. There's also a bit of a CYA effect going on too, in that if a label tells you a garment is dry clean only, it absolves the manufacturer of responsibility should it get ruined in the wash or during professional cleaning (they can blame the dry cleaner, you see.) Related to that is this: If a manufacturer labels a garment as dry clean only, they don't need to subject the garment to rigorous fabric-care testing.

The practice of pushing dry cleaning is especially problematic when it comes to the care of wools, from merino to cashmere to alpaca. That's because cleaning wool with solvents isn't actually very good for the wool. The solvents used in dry cleaning will strip the yarn's natural oils, leaving sweaters looking dull and contributing to the loss of softness.

The Actual Right Way to Wash Wool

I'm not sure exactly how the "wool should never get wet" myth got started but, certainly, someone should look into whether Kellyanne Conway ever worked in the fabric-care industry. "Wool should never get wet" is one hell of an alternative fact, is what I'm trying to tell you.

Think of it this way: Sheep can get wet, right? It's not like they're putting up umbrellas every time it rains to protect their fleece so it doesn't frizz. So if a sheep can get his fleece wet without panicking about his hairdo, certainly the sweater that's made out of his hairdo can also get wet, yes? Yes.

Even though I don't know the origin of these alternative woolen facts, I do at least know what drives the fear of getting wool wet: the possibility that wool will felt, which is the technical term for what happens when wool fibers become matted and shrink in the course of being laundered. This happens for two reasons: exposure to fluctuating water temperatures and/or agitation. And those are issues that can be very easily addressed! Basically, make sure the water you use to wash woolens remains at a steady temperature — cool water is what you want here — and avoid overhandling. The easiest way to avoid overhandling is to hand wash sweaters. We've covered hand washing instructions in this space, so I'm going to leave them here for you should you need a refresher. Also, back in the fall, I devoted an episode of my podcast, Ask a Clean Person, to the subject of sweater care, including hand washing instructions, so I'll also leave you with that and wish you happy laundering!