At its worst, fear of caring for luxury knits can dissuade a person from straying from ordinary merino. Which is strange, really, as the only major problems I’ve encountered washing knits seem to have been with merino (it wants to shrink). Cashmere, vicuna, camelhair—the cost of these fibers might suggest expensive maintenance, but the opposite is true. I wash my best knits at home, and it is a refreshingly undramatic event.
In fact the expense involved in manufacturing luxury knits is what makes them so amenable to home maintenance. Only the longest and thinnest individual fibers are selected from the naturally shed underbelly fur of the cashmere goat for the premium end of the market. Once twisted into yarn and knit to shape, the result is not just soft and light, but strong, smooth and less prone to pilling because of the long initial fiber length. The cheaper end of the market is another matter entirely, made primarily by blending the remaining underbelly fleece with ordinary wool, both of which have shorter and thicker individual strand lengths which pill, lose shape and fuzz more readily.
It is refreshing to actually get what you pay for, something that is rare in a retail environment in which marketing often muddies the question of quality. And it is in washing luxury knits that the layers of quality can most clearly be seen. Cheap cashmere acts like wool, resisting the process like a feral cat. Whereas high quality knits, having been gently washed, slowly dried and carefully reshaped, emerge reborn as plusher, more refined versions of their prior selves. I’m reminded of the Medieval trial by ordeal during which the accused is bound and thrown in a lake; the guilty barely survive the ordeal to their later detriment while the innocent succumb—difficult to witness, but ultimately worthy of admiration. Either way, things are getting wet.
The other option, the craftily named dry option, is to fork your valuable knits over to a stranger behind a counter. I suppose there is some comfort in thinking of a dry cleaner as a professional; within that word there is the promise of expertise. But it pays to be curious about just why dry-cleaning is thought better. The cleaning agent is typically a petrochemical, only a few carbon molecules away from gasoline, and effectively removes dirt and oil. Of course knits are made of natural fibers which rely upon oil (lanolin) to remain conditioned, and this too is stripped during dry-cleaning. The results are luxury knits that lose some luxury, eventually becoming course, dry and brittle.
But there is another, more sinister level to the prevalence of dry-cleaning. The manufacturers of low-quality knits are quite brazenly shifting the responsibility for their shoddy wares to the cleaners. Ask yourself honestly: if an inexpensive cashmere cardigan disintegrates at the cleaner who is to blame? Does that party change if the same damage occurs while washing it at home? Of course it does. Sewing a Dry-Clean Only tag into something functions as a free pass for both the manufacturer and the customer; if something goes wrong, as is inevitable at the bottom end of the market, the world-weary cleaner will usually just pay for the garment.
Happily, washing luxury knits at home is straightforward if the following steps are taken:
Sort knits according to fiber and color, turn inside-out
Load into machine and set to coldest, gentlest setting, typically Hand Wash, Cold
Add a small amount of delicate laundry powder; Forever New is a favorite
Say a few solemn words; begin cycle
Close and lock (or actively guard) laundry room door
Immediately upon a finished cycle, remove knits
Arrange knits to dry flat in an unheated, well-ventilated and clean space*
When thoroughly dry, carefully reshape each using clean, dry hands
Fold and store
*A room dedicated to this purpose, complete with custom shaped wire racks and a de-mumidifier would be ideal. Wire-backed chairs or a towel-covered table will do.