How To Make Your Sweaters Last Forever – Q&A with Alterknit

Alterknit studio in New York

J.Crew sweater, Alterknit studio in New York, sweater in need of repair

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with my sweaters for as long as I can remember. I love the way they look, love the way they feel, and love how warm they are – especially since I’m perpetually cold in the winter. On the other hand, I hate that they never last longer than one season because they wind up with holes, pills or various forms of destruction from my laundry routine. Alterknit’s owner Miriam Mades educated me on why these problems occur, how to prevent them and even how some of them can be fixed.

J: What is the best way to avoid problems from storing sweaters?

AK: Washing is the number one most important thing to do [before storage]. People feel they don’t want to wash cashmere or whatever else. You need to wash it – either by hand or in a gentle cycle in your machine. Or dry cleaning. Some people are anti-dry cleaning; I personally alternate between hand washing and dry cleaning.

You have to be careful if you do something by hand or in a machine that the water temperature’s cold enough because [with] wool and cashmere, the fibers will felt if the temperature’s too high, which is how they make boiled wool. Those garments or products that we know as boiled wool – they make that by taking knitted wool and dipping it in very hot water, then drying it and that makes the stitches/fibers lock and it becomes very durable and water-resistant. So you have to be very careful not to wash at a high temperature.

But the number one thing is food. [Insects] go for the protein in the food that’s been left on the sweater. You might have been at a party and had a little spritz of something (you know, white wine) and you flicked it off or some food and you schmeared it off. It’s still there and they go for that. So clean your clothes.

J: I mistakenly stored my sweaters in the attic and when they were unpacked, I found a few holes from moths and they’re a bit stale. Can that sort of thing be fixed?

AK: Yes, absolutely it can be fixed. We take yarn from the garment itself and use that to fix the holes. So better to bring it to us before you wash them, because agitation will make the holes worse.

before and after sweater repair images from Alterknit

Alterknit – before and after sweater repair images

J: I’ve attempted to wash sweaters at home – unsuccessfully. They come out very stiff. Would you say that that was due to the felting or is there anything else that can cause that?

AK: It’s the heat and the agitation together that cause the fibers to break down and then they lock. And that’s what makes the stiffness. What we like about knitted garments is that they move with us, unlike a woven garment that’s stiff, that has no natural elasticity.

Another thing your readers might like to know is that what we like about cashmere in particular is that it’s very soft. It’s soft because technically it’s a very short-hair fiber. So a lot of people will complain that it pills a lot. It’s the nature of cashmere for it to pill. So it’s par for the course – something to just kind of live with. But again, you might have noticed, it also will felt. So you just want to be careful that you’re not agitating…and you’re not using hot water. And the other thing is that cashmere gets softer when you wash it with water. You might have noticed that in your own clothing. The fiber blooms because it’s a short-hair fiber. That’s what gives it that kind of cloudy look – you might have seen over time as you wear it, it almost feels softer. The fibers are short, so when you wear it and it’s in use, it pulls off a little bit form the twist, so it blooms. So it feels softer.

You just don’t want to put it in any sort of hot water situation that’s going to mess with the fiber and then shrink the garment. You don’t want that either.

key rules to follow when washing sweaters

key rules to follow when washing sweaters

J: So, for people who want to try to hand-wash their garments at home, you’d recommend cold water and any kind of mild detergent?

AK: Any detergent that you like that smells good, because the smell’s going to really stick when you wash by hand. Just [wash] in some cold water. You can gently agitate, rinse one or two times, don’t wring it out after the initial rinsing. Just press it together, like it’s a ball, and get as much of it off as you can. Get the water out. Then lay it on a towel, roll it up in the towel to take some of the moisture off. Then leave that to dry on a sweater drying rack or you can just lay it on top of a towel, like in your laundry room or on top of your machine. In New York, it’s a little bit harder. Finding a place on your hardwood – that’ll work.

J: I’ve had some sweaters that seem like they grow over time – they seriously stretch. Is there any way to avoid that? Can it be fixed?

AK: Linen and cotton can have that effect. Washing it will shrink it back. If it’s way too long, Alterknit can shorten it. We take garments in on the side and we also shorten sleeves and waist hems. What we do is remove the ribbing at the bottom. We’ll remove the extra length and then we return the original hem. And we do that stitch by stitch; we don’t sew it on the machine. So it looks like you bought it that way.

J: I’ve also had sweaters that have quite heavy buttons, which wind up drooping down. Can that be repaired in any way?

AK: Yes, we can fix that for you. One option is to bring it to us, and we can put a backing on the button band area on the back, like a ribbon, for just that purpose. And we definitely can reattach them with no problem.

J: In your opinion, if I’m a customer looking to invest in nice sweaters, what are your favorite materials and construction?

AK: Well, I personally love, obviously, cashmere. It’s soft, you can wear it without a layer, you can wear it with a layer, you can wear it close to your skin if you want, and it’s comfortable. It’s also a very very warm fiber. It can often be warmer than wool, depending on the quality or the breed of the wool. To me, you need a few basics: obviously v-necks, turtlenecks.

J: Are there any typical problems that you guys see coming in that you think people could easily avoid?

AK: The first way to getting a hole is a snag. And if you just kind of deal with the snag or if you just pull it through the back, eventually the snag’s gonna rip, and once it rips, it’s gonna make either a horizontal or vertical run in your garment. Then the whole thing just starts to unravel. So the main thing I can say is: when you get a snag, you gotta get it to us. We’ll ease the snag back in it if isn’t broken. But the snag is the one that if you get it, don’t just think oh you can let it go and wear it for a while more. It’s better to bring it to us and they can always send us a picture before –  to save a trip to our location or, if they don’t live in New York, send a picture and we can do a lot from a picture.

J: How do I get my sweater repaired by Alterknit?

AK: We are located in Manhattan Wardrobe Supply, which is a great resource that you may want to check out anyway. I’m friends with the owners and as we’ve been growing, they’ve just sort of let us have a drop-off kiosk there. You go to the location, you fill out a form and you leave your garment there. That’s one way to get a garment to us. The other way is to send it to us in the mail. if you live in the city, we do pickup and delivery from residential doorman buildings in Manhattan, so that’s another option.

Get a sweater repaired by Alterknit New York

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