How to Save a Discolored Wool Sweater

Finding myself alone with nothing to do on a Sunday afternoon, I decided to go out and do some thrift shopping.

One of the things I have been wanting for awhile was an Aran fisherman sweater. For those unfamiliar, these fisherman sweaters originate from the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland, where they were adapted from Guernsey sweaters in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. They are traditionally made of un-dyed, cream-colored wool, which is left un-scoured to retain its natural lanolin and is therefore water-resistant (hence, being awesome for fishermen).

In my opinion, fisherman sweaters look great on almost everyone, and I wanted one. L.L. Bean sells a cotton version (see also: my 2020 Fall wishlist), but I really wanted a wool sweater. I tend to get cold easily, and also wanted something that I could wear out hiking if the mood struck me. The thing is, brand-new sweaters tend to run between $70 and $100, and then I’d have to pay shipping (because, of course, no one sells these sweaters in Cleveland, Ohio). I’d perviously seen a few fisherman sweaters in a few thrift shops (brought back from vacations to Ireland, no doubt) so I decided to use my free afternoon to go out and look for one.

The Sweater

I found a great sweater at the local Goodwill for $19.99. That’s because it was severely discolored… seriously, it was almost pure yellow instead of the cream color it was supposed to be! The collar and cuffs were especially bad. Wool will discolor as it ages, but that discoloration can happen more quickly if it’s not cared for properly.

Reasons why wool can discolor:

  • Improper storage (airtight container)
  • Exposure to sunlight
  • Use of harsh cleaning products
  • Sweat and other bacteria from the skin
  • Moisture

I’m willing to bet that this sweater was donated by someone who didn’t understand how easily natural wool discolors, and also didn’t understand how to wash it. With a little work, I knew it could be cleaned up. The tag from the thrift store literally said “as is,” but I couldn’t find anything wrong with other than how yellowed it was.

First: Remove the Dirt

First, I hand-washed the sweater in my kitchen sink, to see how much dirt would come out simply by washing. There was a lot of dirt; the water turned a nasty gray-brown color almost immediately. I’ve heard you can machine wash wool if you have a front-loading washing machine without an agitator, but even if I had one of those, I’d probably still hand-wash all my wool. It’s not particularly difficult, just time consuming: fill up a large sink (I sometimes use my bathtub, especially for more than one piece or for larger pieces like blankets), add detergent (some people swear by Woolite, but I use my regular free & clear detergent), and gently agitate the fabric (being careful not to squeeze it or stretch it). After awhile, drain the sink, fill it with fresh water, and carefully agitate again… repeat until the water runs clear.

Second: Remove the Discoloration

After that, I laid the sweater out between a couple of towels and rolled them up to remove some of the moisture.

Then, I took a fingertip spray bottle and filled it with a 50-50 solution of white vinegar and water. Wool, being somewhat acidic, doesn’t respond well to alkaline cleaners… that’s the reason you should never use bleach on a wool sweater! White vinegar, though, is a fairly gentle acid that is perfect for cleaning wool. You can also use hydrogen peroxide, a weak acid, to clean wool, but I prefer white vinegar because it also removes odors. It is important to note that you should only use white vinegar to clean wool, and not rice vinegar, wine vinegar, or any other sort of vinegar.

The author wearing her bleached wool sweater
Enjoying my new-to-me, cream-colored Aran fisherman sweater.

I sprayed down the sweater, left it 15 minutes, then applied another coat of the solution. After another 15 minutes, I rinsed the sweater in the sink, and used a couple more towels to dry it out a little.

It took three or four spray-downs to lift all the discoloration from the sweater, a very time-consuming process but well worth it! At the end, I washed the sweater all over again, and laid it flat on a towel to dry. It took a few days to dry (I would flip the sweater over and re-shape it every day to ensure it dried all the way through) but the sweater looks almost brand-new! Next time it needs washed, I’ll repeat the vinegar treatment before washing, and hopefully that will lift the rest of the discoloration.

Third: Take Good Care of my new Sweater

Caring for wool property will keep it nice for years to come. Here are some tips to keep your sweaters looking fresh:

  • Wash wool and let it dry throughly before storing it; moisture will cause it to discolor and rot. Don’t hang wool sweaters in a closet; gravity will pull the fabric out-of-shape over time. Instead, fold sweaters loosely and stack them in a drawer or on a closet shelf.
  • If the item is going into “long term” storage (such as being put away for the summer), put it in a 100% cotton pillowcase or store it in a cedar chest to prevent attracting pests like moths and mice. You can also use lavender or other herbal sachets to keep pests away.
  • Don’t store woolens in plastic bags or airtight containers.
  • If you do find moth eggs or larvae on or near your woolens, have them dry-cleaned immediately, and treat the infested area with pyrethrin spray.
  • Don’t let your sweaters get dirty — hand-wash them every 5-6 wears, or immediately when they become smelly or stained. Dry them throughly before storing them or wearing them again.