Sure, I'm in beautiful Missoula, Montana, and have already made a couple of thrifty scores. BUT, there is a higher priority here.
I am sick to death of going to the thrift store and finding a cute wool mitten that used to be a lovely wool sweater. STOP WASHING AND DRYING YOUR WOOL SWEATERS IN THE MACHINES! I mean, Jesus people, some poor sheep had to grow that wool, someone cut it off, washed it, spun it, and knitted it. Sure, most of that may happen on a machine these days, but still. Have some respect for the sheep at least. And if you want mittens, just buy mittens. The sweater only has 2 sleeves. You have 5 fingers. it won't work as a mitten or glove.
(OK, I'm at a hotel and watching crap TV. Celebrity Rehab makes me ashamed to be an American. But I can't turn it off.)
So, how do you wash a sweater?
First, buy a good sweater. All wool is best. If it's mixed wool and synthetics, it won't handwash as well because the fibres will want to separate and that will make the wool felt and pill. Also, acrylic is the spider web of Satan. It is crap. Just don't buy it. Get all wool. If you must get a blend, make it natural fibers. They will do better in the handwash.
Second, make sure it fits. If it doesn't fit. Take it back. Don't try to block it into a better fit. It won't work and it will look funny.
OK, now that you have the sweater we can get down to the real business.
Third: if the sweater is good, wool, and fits, now you lay it out flat and trace it.
Do not trace it with ball point pen or a marker. You'll get ink on the sweater either now or when you wash it. Trace it with pencil or tailor's chalk.
Trace onto either butcher paper or light colored fabric. If you can get it, a giant sheet of wax paper, several inches wider than the sweater including the sleeves. Ask the butcher. If you cant get that, an old sheet, towel, or piece of muslin will work nicely.
Make sure the sweater is flat on the flat fabric or paper. Then trace carefully.
Once it is traced, remove the sweater and make sure the outline is clear. If you traced onto fabric you can go over the line with a fabric pen. Make sure to that this is a permanent, non-bleeding, color-fast type pen.
Fourth: wear the sweater around. It's good to wear an undershirt and try not to sweat on it. But eventually it may need a wash. Probably once a year is plenty for most sweaters if you wear a t-shirt under them.
Fifth: Gather the following supplies:
* sweater. Just one at a time for starters.
* clean sink or basin or bucket or very large bowl. CLEAN. No soap, oil or other residue in it. A dishpan works well, but so will a canner, a popcorn bowl (unless it is a giant heavy sweater).
* mild soap or detergent. I really like Soapnuts for washing wool. If you don't have that, try a DROP of laundry detergent or use a tiny bit of non-scented shampoo. Do not use dish soap. It is very harsh. The theory here is to NOT strip the natural oils out of the wool. You want those in there. They keep the wool nice and make it a bit water and stain resistent. So NOT MUCH SOAP. You do not need suds. Suds are crap. They mean nothing for cleansing. They just look nice for advertisements.
* the tracing
* a few big bath towels (old ones that have been washed many times. NOT something that will bleed)
Sixth: Shake out the sweater. Pick off any obvious things (candy bits, mud, etc). If it is dusty or it's been a while since the sweater has been washed, vacuum it with the skinny nozzle of the vacuum (make sure the nozzle is clean and will not snag the sweater).
Seventh: Fill the basin/bowl/sink with cool water and the bit of soap/detergent. Hot water will mess with the oils so don't use it.
Eight: Wash the sweater. Put the sweater in and push it to the bottom. Squeeze it gently with your hands until the whole thing is wet. Then just let it float bak up, push it down, squeeze gently.
DO NOT rub or twist or get over excited with the washing.
Let it sit in there a while. Up to an hour is usually fine with gentle detergent. The basic things with washing clothes are mechanical manipulation (agitation, squeezing), soap/detergent, and time. In this case, it's best to increase time rather than intensify the agitation or increase the amount of detergent. After it has set a while, do a bit more of the squeezing.
Ninth: Rinse it. Drain the water and gently squeeze the water out of the sweater. GENTLY. Do not twist, wring, or anything like that. That will screw up the shape and start to felt the sweater. Fill the basin with more water (sweater is still in the basin). Squeeze a bit. Drain. Repeat this until it seems the sweater is all rinsed out. No soapy residue in the basin. I find that 3 rinses is usually good.
Tenth: Find the tracing you made of the sweater and lay it out.
Eleventh: Spread out a towel, put the sweater on it (relatively flat and spread out but not stretched) and roll up the towel with th sweater in it. You can step on this while it's rolled up to get the most water out.
Repeat this with all but one towel. Your sweater should be relatively dry now.
Twelfth: Use the tracing to block (lay out) the sweater into it's original shape and size.
If the tracing is fabric, put the last dry towel under it and you can just leave the sweater on it to dry. So be sure to do this in an area where the sweater can stay for a day or two (and not on wood which will get ruined by the dampness).
If you traced on paper, you will lay out the sweater, cover with the towel, then turn the whole thing over (you can do this like flipping a pie crust, not like a pancake). lay the tracing on top to double check that things didn't get misshapen in the process.
Leave the sweater out for a while. After a day, turn it over and put it on a dry towel. Check the shape again. If the sweater isn't pretty well dry, put a fan blowing on it. If it stays wet too long, it will mildew and that is gross.
Store your sweaters folded, NOT hung up. they will get stretched out if you hang them up. FOLD THEM. Put them on a shelf, and put some cedar blocks around them, or anti-bug sachets, bay leaves or whatever. Keep the bugs out. Do not store them in a sealed plastic box or bag. They need to breathe. When the temperature cools, you'll get condensation on the inside of the box or bag and your sweater will mildew. Also, any stank in the sweater will stew in a box or bag. If you have a cedar chest, put the sweaters in there, but don't let them directly touch the cedar. Put a sheet down first. The cedar oil can stain things so you should always wrapp things in a cedar chest anyway and refold and restore them now and then.
OK, done with sweater lecture. Now I will print the url to this post on cards and hand them out to stupid college students who run their sweaters through the dryer.
Also, this method works for wool socks and long johns, and what have you.
Keeping your sweaters nice is frugal, thrifty, and respectful.