How to Keep Your Sweaters and Slippers Clean and Pill-Free


Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She’ll be here every other week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Email her.

I have a few pairs of amazing Roxy slippers that I adore and are now … well … absolutely foul. I mean knock-a-dude-out-if-I-had-my-feet-over-his-shoulders-on-a-winter-night foul. I’m aware I could go buy new ones, but I love them and I am desperate to know if there is any way I can save them? They are fuzzy lined and have a fake sole—can I wash and dry them or am I screwed? Please help?! (Worse case, I have to go shopping.)

I can help, but if you’d like me to lie and tell you that the only choice is to go shopping I can also do that too. If you’d prefer the latter, stop reading now and get thee to the mall. The rest of you, come with me.

Generally speaking, when we talk about cleaning slippers the thing we want to be mindful of is the material used for the soles. The soles of most Roxy brand slippers are made of TPR—for those of you with a curious streak, TPR stands for thermoplastic rubber—and is a material that’s often used in the manufacturing of sex toys. So now you know that! TPR can be cleaned with mild soap and hot water, but be aware that stronger cleaners like bleach, vinegar, isopropyl alcohol, etc. should be avoided, as they can cause TPR to break down.

Given that, you should feel free to launder those slippies! Using the gentle cycle is recommended, but if you want to throw them in with your regular wash just put them in one of those mesh baggies that are usually reserved for laundering hosiery or brassieres. That will help to protect the slippers from getting banged up too badly. Warm water would be ideal here—the hot water cycle on a washing machine is hotter than the hot water you’d use at home to hand wash them, so err on the side of caution and use the warm water setting. You can either dry them in the machine using the low heat setting or you can let them air dry.

Which brings us to hand washing those babies! Hand washing is absolutely also an option, and is certainly the more conservative approach to take if you’re concerned about your favorite house shoes falling to pieces, or if you’re unsure what they’re made of. Speaking of which! These instructions apply to most slippers, including those with regular old rubber bottoms. But with that said, it’s always a good idea to check the care tag for washing instructions. There are, of course, some slippers that are so fancy that they shouldn’t be washed. We’ll go over some tips and tricks for the fancy-slippered among us, but first let’s get back to those hand washing instructions.

Hand washing is really pretty simple: Fill your kitchen sink/bathtub/a bucket/whatever is convenient with hot water and a dose of mild laundry detergent, swirl things about to make some suds, and then drop the slippers in. Agitate the slippers a bit so they become entirely saturated with the detergent solution and then just let ’em soak for a while so that all the grimy buildup is leached out. The wash water will turn a tremendously gross and satisfying shade of gray. At that point, go ahead and drain the dirty water and rinse the slippers well under running water. You can also do a double rinse cycle if you’re feeling ambitious; that would involve refilling the sink with clean water and letting the slippers soak in that for ten or so minutes before draining the sink and doing a final rinse under running water. But that’s not required. More like extra credit. Totally up to you.

The final step is drying, which is also pretty painless: While the slippers are still in the (drained) sink, press down firmly on them to extrude as much water as you can. Then grab a clean towel, place one slipper down, roll the towel over it, place the next slipper down, do the same thing with the towel and bear down with the weight of your body. That will press even more water out. From there you have two choices: You can either reshape them and let them air dry or you can turn the blow dryer on them. The blow dryer will help to fluff them back up if they’re the kind of slippers that have furry interiors.

If you’ve got a pair of decorative slippers that can’t be safely hand or machine washed, there are still some things you can do to extend their lifespan if they’ve taken on a stink. The first is to wipe the interiors out with a baby wipe. Baby wipes are great for cleaning items that you can’t or won’t submerge in water because they’re low in moisture and are impregnated with a mild detergent that is safe on delicate fabrics (and delicate baby tushes). Then there are sneaker balls, which I cannot talk about without pausing to make a testicle joke because I am a child. A clean child! But a child nonetheless. Sneaker balls are basically spherical odor eaters and can be found on Amazon, or at most sporting goods stores. Just pop ’em into your slippers, or sneakers, or whatever footwear has gone rank and let them gobble away any and all smells.

These things also apply to your regular slips, and will help to keep them from getting to the stage where you’re afraid to drape your beslippered feets over a dude’s shoulders on a winter’s night.

I’m sorry, did you think I was going to let that pass without comment?! Come now. You know me far better than that! Now the rest of you tell me where you’re putting your beslippered feet because it is far more hilarious and delightful than talking about our smelly footwear.

I live Scandinavia and as such, I have a LOT of sweaters that get worn a LOT—and dry cleaning is horrifically expensive here. What is the best way to care for my favorite cashmere sweaters and my super-practical merino sweaters? What is the best washing/drying process? They both say ‘dry clean only’ but wool is washable, right? Also, the dry cleaning does nothing for the pilly cashmere and both wools get shiny elbows. What’s the best way to get rid of the pills? And how do I rid myself of the shiny elbows that are a testament to my love of my favorite sweaters?

Sweet merciful Hestia, lady, you just asked, like, fifteen questions in one! But you know? They’re all really good questions so I’m gonna go put a pot of coffee on to brew and then get cracking. I may or may not spike that coffee. It’s the time of year for spiked coffee, don’t you think? With what do you like best to spike your coffee? Why am I spending so much time talking about spiked coffee when there are so many sweater-care questions to answer? Why am I adding questions to the mix? I’ll … stop now. Sorry. I spend a lot of time alone breathing in chemicals.

Washing Cashmere & Wool

Dry Cleaning

Dry cleaning is a perfectly fine option when it comes to caring for your sweaters. It’s maybe not the best option, but it is perfectly fine!

Let’s go through some of the pros and cons of dry cleaning, and certainly I would encourage you to add to this list if you have pros or cons you’d like to share with the class.

Some of the pros are: It’s someone else’s responsibility; garments may lose some of their softness when hand washed rather than dry cleaned; dry cleaning is far less likely to lead to shrinkage and/or color loss (though with hand washing, generally shrinkage and color loss are not extensive).

On the other hand are our cons: It can be harsh on fine fabrics, shortening the lifespan of the garment; it’s not always effective when it comes to smell removal; it’s expensive.

Hand Washing

Hand washing is hands down the best option for getting wool and cashmere sweaters clean, but it’s also kind of a pain in the tush to do. I would not be a good friend and Clean Person if I didn’t come, um, clean about that. So to speak. Mostly it’s a pain because those sweaters are not as easy to manipulate as are other garments that you’d be likely to hand wash, such as bras. Or your favorite slippers! They’re large, and then they’re wet and large and dripping all over the place and then the house may wind up smelling of wet wool for a few hours and right. Basically we should all be sainted for hand washing our sweaters.

Because we just talked about hand washing techniques at great length in the previous answer, so let’s go through sweater hand washing instructions in the manner of a lightening speed round.

Detergent-wise, you want something mild. You are by all means welcome to spring for a pricey bottle of woolen or delicates wash—Eucalan, Soak Wash, The Laundress and Tocca make good ones! As do many, many other brands so by all means tell us what ones you swear by—or you can buy a bottle of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, which is marvelous on sweaters. It also has the benefit of being quite widely available, and relatively inexpensive.

Water-wise, stick with cold. I know you know this but using hot water on wool will leave you with a lovely wardrobe of toddler-sized clothing.

The biggest difference when hand washing sweaters is that this should be a fairly fast process. The longer the fibers are saturated the angrier they get, and the less likely they’ll be to fall back into line. So what you’re aiming for is a 3 to 5 minute soak. To maximize the sweater’s time in its bath, gently press down on it while it’s submerged in the wash water. That will aid in impregnating the fibers with the detergent and release any buildup of dirt, oils, skin, etc.

To rinse, drain the sudsy water and refill the sink with clean water. Do another couple of presses to release as much soap as you can, drain the sink again, and do one final rinse in the same manner. Rinsing sweaters under running water can be too much for the fibers to handle, so avoid doing so if you can.

Machine Washing

Like dry cleaning, machine washing is a convenient option and also a perfectly fine one for you to consider. The thing is that “perfectly fine” isn’t exactly a resounding endorsement. That’s because wool and cashmere don’t like to be over-handled, which means that machine washing can wind up going sideways for you. So just be aware that it’s the riskiest of the three choices you have laid out in front of you. To put it another way: When it works, it works great, but when it doesn’t it’s a giant mess.

If you do decide to go the machine washing route, here are the things to know about: Use a mild detergent; choose the gentlest cycle available; if you don’t have an especially gentle cycle, place the sweaters in a protective mesh baggie; always use cold water only.

Drying Sweaters

If you’ve hand washed your sweaters, the first step in drying them is to press down on them while they’re in the (drained) sink to push out as much water as you can from them before rolling them up in a clean dry towel to extract more water. Tempting though it may be, do not wring a wet sweater—wringing is too tough on the fibers.

If you’ve machine washed the sweaters, the final spin cycle should have performed a similar function to the pressing and the rolling in a towel, which means you can skip right to the air drying stage. When it comes to wool, always lay garments flat to dry; since wool is quite heavy, hanging a wet wool sweater (or slacks or a dress or whatever), will cause it to stretch out. Cashmere can either be laid flat or on a drying rack.

Pill Removal

There are a couple of categories of pill removal tools out there, and some work better than others. With that, here are four popular options for you to consider if you’ve got pill-y clothes that you want to restore to their former glory.

Sweater Combs: Think DFuzzIt and its ilk. These are generally really easy to find, but I’ll confess that I’ve never been all that impressed with them. But others have good luck with them, so they’re absolutely worth mentioning in a discussion of pill-removal tools.

Razor Blades/Safety Razors: These options are best reserved for when you find yourself in a pinch—they work, but they’re also likely to nick the fabric, causing a hole. The trick is to use a very light touch and go slowly; if you’re the impatient type this might not be your best option.

Sweater Stones: The sweater stone is essentially a pumice stone for your sweaters. I have to confess that I’ve never used one! Mostly because it seems to me that it’s functionally similar to the sweater combs I’ve not had luck with BUT I mention it because I have a friend who SWEARS by the sweater stone, so.

Lint Shavers: I’m trying to come up with the best way to express to you how much I love my lint shaver, and how to ensure that you understand how very, very strongly I recommend it and here’s what I’ve got—if I had to choose between my lint shaver and never drinking wine again, I would need to spend a lot of time considering my answer. And then I’d choose the wine because hello? BUT I’D THINK ABOUT IT. Anyway. Lint shavers! They’re pretty awesome.

Shiny Elbow Triage

This is one area where I hope the readers chime in with any tips they’ve got for removing shiny patches on clothing; I feel like this is an area ripe for the kind of secrets that get passed down from Grandpa Tailor and Grandma Seamstress and I want to know those secrets!

There are, however, a few things I already do know about the occurrence of shiny elbows on clothing—shiny patches occur when the fibers become crushed and dry out due to normal wear and tear. I can also share with you one method for removing, or at least lessening the appearance of, fabric shine: Place a slightly damp piece of cloth down over the shiny areas and then, using a steamer or steam iron, apply a goodly amount of steam to the area. If the shine is particularly stubborn, spray the area directly with white vinegar, place the ironing cloth—oh right, that’s the name for the slightly damp piece of cloth, an ironing cloth—on the garment and continue to apply steam.

The Squalor Archive: Armpit Stain Eradication | Blood Stain Removal | Booze Stench Elimination | Brightening White Towels & Sheets | Cleaning Car Consoles | Caring for Athletic Clothing | Cat Pee | Dirty Ball Caps | Dog Mess on Carpet | Filthy Couches | Football Glove Care | Gasoline on Clothing | Grain Moth Infestations | Grease/Rubber Stain Treatments | Gross Computers | Guests & Bedbugs | Halloween Cleanup | Karategi Cleaning | Ketchup Stains | Laundering Bathmats | Lube Stains | Makeup Debris in Bathrooms | Makeup Stains On Upholstery | Marijuana Stench | Mayo Stains | Melted Microfiber on Enameled Cast Iron | Menstrual Cup Care | Mildewed Towels | Moldy Trousers | Mustard Stains | Nail Polish Stains | Odor Removal for Non-Launderable Items | Oven Cleaning | Pee-Smelling Bathrooms | Rank Roller Derby Pads | Rust Stains on Clothing | Scorched Pots | Scummy Glass Shower Doors | Semen Stains | Sheet Changing Cycles | Sheet Changing Etiquette & Tricks | Skidmarks | Stained Tennis Whites | Stinking Sinks | Stinky Feet | Sunscreen Stains | That Orange Stuff In The Shower | The Great Bra Washing Extravaganza | Toilet Mold | Towel Laundering Cycles | Treating Testicular Odor | Wax Removal Techniques | When Butter Attacks | Yellowed Fingernails | Yellowed Sheets | Yellowed Swimsuits

Jolie Kerr is the author of the upcoming book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (Plume, February 25, 2014); more cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.

Squalor appears on Jezebel and Deadspin on alternating weeks.

Image via WimL/Shutterstock.

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