Ask Unclutterer: How should I store sweaters this winter?

Reader Mary Margaret submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

How do you store your sweaters, and how often do you clean them? Most of my clothes are nicely organized, but sweaters continue to be a problem, especially now that fall is upon us. Here’s the situation: My boyfriend and I share a reach-in closet, and all of our sweaters are stored on the shelf above the closet rod. They start out nice and folded when they’re clean, but after they’ve been worn we usually just toss them back onto the shelf, and it always just ends up as a big messy pile. The issue is compounded by the fact that these garments are worn frequently but not washed (usually the site of folding) very often since a) they don’t get that dirty (no contact with sweaty human skin) and b) it is expensive to dry clean, which many of them require. I know there have been some forum discussions about what to do with “wear again” clothing items, but the issue isn’t so much WHERE to put the sweaters as how to keep them organized when they’re there.

It appears that your closet storage is very similar to the closet I had in my last house. I’ll share with you what I did, and then ask you to check the comments to read even more suggestions from our readers. Every week I’m surprised by how creative and amazing our readers’ suggestions are.

I want to begin by discussing sweaters in a general sense to give you an idea of why I do what I do. Natural fiber sweaters — cotton, sheep’s wool, cashmere (hair from the undercoat of a Cashmere goat), mohair (hair from an Angora goat), angora (hair from an Angora rabbit), silk, etc. — are highly susceptible to being eaten by bugs and little critters. Even natural fibers blended with synthetic materials — polyester, rayon, acetate — aren’t safe from hungry pests. The most famous enemies of the sweater are moth larvae, specifically the larva of the Tineola bisselliella Common Clothes Moth, who make a feast out of the keratin in the fibers. (Keratin is a protein found in hair, and those larvae need energy to eventually become brown winged creatures.)

Clothes Moths love dirty sweaters most of all. If a sweater has dead skin cells, sweat, food, or any other type of organic matter on it, this is the area where they will begin to dine.

Start by having all your dry-clean only sweaters dry cleaned (this chemical process will kill any pests on your sweaters) and washing all your sweaters that can be laundered at home. After you dry the sweaters you washed at home, you will want to toss them into a garbage bag and put that bag into the freezer for three or four days. Freezing the sweaters will kill any pests that may have survived the washing process. If you start by doing this cleaning process you’ll know that your storage system will be pest free going forward.

Next, you’ll want to store your sweaters in clear, thick, air-tight, plastic containers. Clear is great because you can see into the box, and plastic is good because the vast majority of pests won’t eat through it the way they will eat through fabric and cardboard. (Mice will chew through plastic if highly motivated, but you didn’t mention a mouse problem, so you should be fine.) I recommend getting four sweater boxes so you and your boyfriend can each have one box for absolutely clean sweaters and one for clerty sweaters (clerty: sort of clean, sort of dirty). Clothes moths and many other pests aren’t super fond of the oil from cedar wood or the scent of lavender, so get your hands on some freshly sanded cedar chips or blocks, lavender sachets, or other anti-pest products containing camphor. Put these deterrents in your four boxes to help ward off any pests that might sneak in when you have the lid off the box or that you picked up while wearing the sweater.

After wearing sweaters, just toss them in the clerty box (you don’t have to fold the sweaters, just be sure to put the lid on the box every time) until you decide to have the sweaters cleaned. I clean the sweaters that don’t touch my skin usually four times during the winter. Sweaters that touch my skin I clean every time I wear them. After your sweaters are cleaned, you can fold them and return them to the totally clean sweater box. Separating the sweaters reduces the likelihood that all of your sweaters will be destroyed if you accidentally get pests in your clerty bin. Finally, be sure to label all the bins so you don’t mix clerty sweaters with your clean sweaters.

This method is incredibly simple, protects your sweaters, and keeps them from looking messy or falling off the shelf onto the floor.

Thank you, Mary Margaret, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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35 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: How should I store sweaters this winter?”

  1. posted by Amy Putkonen on

    Wow, this is great advice. I must get myself a clerty box! Here’s to sweater season!! Yeah!

  2. posted by Pru on

    Anyone have any tips not involving a freezer? weather is not yet cold enough outside to use ‘nature’s freezer’ but we never have any room in our tiny freezer atop our tiny fridge.

  3. posted by Karen on

    How common is it to have bug problems with clothing? I’ve lived in cheap apartments with bugs in the kitchen, bugs in the bathroom, bugs around windows and doors – but in 40 years, I’ve never had a problem with bugs attracted to my clothing, at least not for clothing that was stored inside my house. (And when I used the laundromat, I often had dirty clothes sitting around for several weeks.) I can understand being cautious, but it seems like a lot of extra effort to store your everyday clothes in plastic boxes for a problem that seems fairly unlikely in my experience.

  4. posted by Lilly on

    I am a knitter who works with a wide variety of animal fibers (wool, alpaca, cashmere, silk, qiviut, mohair…)and I know that most of your dry clean only sweaters would do much better with a gentle hand washing than the harsh dry cleaning chemicals. The ‘Dry clean only’ is often suggested to save the vendors from litigation from people who would Agitate or Wring the wet garments, thus destroying them.
    Here is an odd little video about how to do it.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.....re=related

  5. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Pru — You can dry ice your clothes, too. I’ve never done it so I don’t know specifically how to do it (a few web searches might yield you exact procedure advice … I just know you don’t want the dry ice to touch your clothes, only the fumes). That might work, especially if you have a moth infestation. If you don’t have an infestation, the cedar chips or lavender are likely all you need for prevention.

    @Karen — Different parts of the country have different infestation levels. I’ve found moth larvae in my super protected closet on a polyester shirt before … I think larvae drop on you as you walk outside. It’s kind of gross, actually. I know certain wasps and spiders eat the larvae, so if a place is really pest ridden, the other pests may be taking care of the clothes moths …

  6. posted by Celeste on

    Agree with Karen above, I have not had a moth problem (knock wood). I also have a very small closet and a fairly small wardrobe, so nothing really gets a long chance to be left alone for an infestastion to get going, I think.

    If I wore wool against my skin and there were no spills on it, I would just hang it up or fold it up to wear another time before dry cleaning. I only wear them in really cold weather, and I favor looser sweaters, so it doesn’t seem like sweat and oil are a huge problem. Clerty sweaters I hang at the left end of my hanging rod where I’ll see them first, separated from the general population.

    I will add that I generally feel pretty lucky when I get more than one wearing out of a dry clean only garment; it doesn’t happen a lot.

  7. posted by Melanie on

    Don’t natural fibers need to breathe?

    I’ve always read that it is not good to store natural fibers in plastic, but rather in canvas.

    This system seems seem excessive. I wear sweaters year-around (cold office!) and clean them whenever they start to feel or smell dirty (just like all my other clothes). Don’t make it so complicated.

  8. posted by Sooz on

    For those who have never had a clothing moth problem, well, neither did I – until I moved into an apartment facing a garden.

    While I guess it’s possible for moth larvae to get in ON your clothes from the outside, I have never experienced that. Let me put it this way: for all the years I lived in my first apartment, it didn’t matter how many sweaters I wore & threw onto a chair & left there – no problem. But once I was in the garden apartment, THEN somehow moths got in (my upstairs neighbors facing the direction of the garden also all have moth problems).

    For those who think Erin’s advice is an over-reaction, let me tell you that it doesn’t take much for moths to get a foothold & then it can be maddening to try to fully get rid of them.

    In my case, I have a beautiful 8 x 10 wool rug in the bedroom, with the bed (on a metal frame) over part of it. The moths ate through a small spot on the rug that’s underneath the CENTER of the bed frame – a place I was not careful enough about vacuuming. That seems to have given them a foothold. From there, it was goodbye to a lot of nice sweaters – I was astonished at how much damage these tiny moths (their larvae, actually) can do.

    I vacuumed like crazy and spent a fortune on dry cleaning & re-weaving. (And I want to add that my dry cleaner AGREES with Lilly’s comment above that fine sweaters are better off being hand-washed in Woolite and dried flat!) I spent another fortune on insect lures/traps (from insectslimited.com) – these traps are meant to *monitor* the problem, but trapped insects are no longer flying around your home, reproducing.

    And, as Erin said, moths are attracted to keratin – so they will feed even on pet hair that has been shed. Keratin is also in feathers.

    One of the costs of living in my home is having to be always aware of & alert for a possible moth infestation.

  9. posted by Katie on

    If the OP’s focus is on organization alone, then I think the bins are overkill. If you have room on your hanger, try one of the hanging shelves (the canvas ones sold for dorm rooms). That way even if it’s thrown back in there the pile doesn’t get overwhelming and even a half hearted folding effort looks more put together. I’m short and have a hard time managing piles at the top of the closet – I have what you have. The hanging organizer allows me to reach the sweaters and I find it much easier to put back. If moths are an issue try cedar chips, but since you didn’t indicate that just organize away!

  10. posted by Mary on

    I am wondering if anyone has had any experience dealing with carpet beetles. Their larvae love wool, and my husband and I have lost clothing and sweaters to them. They prefer the most expensive items, naturally. I am mentioning this because Erin’s precautions make a lot of sense to me, though we are afflicted with carpet beetles, not clothes moths. We just haven’t found a scent that deters them. We have stopped buying wool for the most part. (And we have all the wool we have left stored at a dry cleaner over the summer.)

  11. posted by winterjulie on

    Not to be confused with clarty which is the Scots work for dirty and disgusting! (in some parts of Scotland it will be pronounced clerty!). Interesting idea though.

  12. posted by winterjulie on

    whoops that should have said word not work!

  13. posted by Kathy on

    On the topic of clothes storage: I just moved back to the Northeast (New Jersey) & my mom was saying that I should store clothes that have elastic on the first floor because the temperature & humidity level is more stable. She says upstairs varying temperatures (really hot/humid in summer and really cold in winter) can make clothes lose their elasticity. Anyone else have a similar experience?

  14. posted by Sooz on

    @ Mary: I’m not familiar with carpet beetles, but the insectslimited website has detailed info, and they sell traps (for monitoring purposes). I don’t know if this would be helpful to you, but you may want to see this page from their site (scroll down to carpet beetles):

    http://www.insectslimited.com/museum

    (And no, I am not affiliated with this company in any way; I’ve simply been very satisfied with their products in battling my own clothing moth problems.)

  15. posted by Mary on

    @Sooz: Thank you! I will look it up. I have to admit I have not been able to find much on the web that has been of much help, probably because most advice and products target moths, which are a more common problem. However, I don’t think I have come across this site. Again, thanks!

  16. Profile photo of

    posted by camellia tree on

    I live in a house and definitely have moth problems :(. After they much up your cashmere you definitely start to take them seriously. I had only heard of reweaving recently so I will definitely be trying this.

    I recently read about keeping sweaters in individual plastic bags. Some of you will definitely think this is overkill, but to me it would be worth it to keep the sweaters moth-free. Anyone tried this?

  17. Profile photo of

    posted by camellia tree on

    oops, “much” in first line should be “munch”

  18. posted by marjoryt on

    Different climates, different problems. Here in the south, we don’t worry about moths much since we don’t wear wool, cashmere and like. Instead, we worry about mildew, which appears out of the air on virtually anything. We’ve learned to NEVER put away anything dirty or damp, do make sure air circulates, and monitor the clothing (unopened closets attract problems). We have to be especially careful with underarms and seams, which collect more moisture.
    Just how hot is it here? It was 89+ with high humidity today. My son and his friends were in the swimming pool on Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, New Years Day, April Fools….you get the idea.

  19. posted by Marie on

    And here I thought my winter clothing chest would be pertinent!
    Well, in case anyone finds it useful, we store our winter-season clothing in a separate chest of drawers. (We have variable weather, and it’s impractical to move everything around seasonally. I also dislike the piles-in-the-closet dilemma.) In the dresser, I get the top two drawers, separated into sweaters and turtlenecks/long-sleeved knits, and my husband gets the next two. The bottom drawer is seasonal sports gear ranging from swim suits to workout clothes to camping fleece.

    The sweaters are rolled up or folded and interspersed with pine/cedar sachets and other moth repellants. Anything of machine-washable material gets washed with the weekly laundry. Wool/silk/rayon gets either hand washed about once a season (we have a short winter season), or every couple of years, I will take an armload over to be drycleaned. I like the idea of a clerty box, though. I have a clearty chair that airs out whatever has been worn recently. After airing out, non-washables go back into the drawer. I’ve been lucky with moths and mice, but given the conversation here, I’m rethinking my strategies.

  20. posted by D on

    um…moths lay eggs, they don’t drop larvae.

  21. posted by Amelia on

    @ Pru: If you’re looking for a non-freezer option, a black trash bag left in a car parked in the sun can also work.

    Also, you’ll need to repeat the freezing/thawing process a couple times– while the freezer will kill larvae, it won’t destroy the eggs. You’ll need to let your items warm up for a couple days, and return to the freezer to kill any newly-hatched larvae.

  22. Profile photo of

    posted by bandicoot on

    i think that clerty is my new favourite word!

  23. posted by Elizabeth Young on

    Larvae don’t “drop in,” the moths fly in and then lay their eggs where their larvae are most likely to survive!

    That said, I store my precious cashmere and other woolen items in a dresser drawer. I add a few blocks of cedar wood wrapped in tissue paper around the edges of the drawer.

    For long time storage (a season), I use plastic boxes with the same cedar blocks. I just move the sweaters and the blocks at the end of winter.

  24. posted by Sue on

    “…..the issue isn’t so much WHERE to put the sweaters as how to keep them organized when they’re there.”

    To get back on the OP’s question, there are wire vertical dividers that you can put on closet shelves to corral your folded clothing.

  25. posted by Mary in TN on

    Love “clerty” — Erin, you crack me up!

  26. posted by Joanne on

    Air the clothing out after wearing and before storing. Store folded in dry cleaner sweater bags. They have fabric panels so the sweaters can breathe and they stack nicely.

    http://www.cleanersupply.com/p.....0&y=0

  27. posted by miggiepdx on

    My favorite tip: unwrap bars of soap and scatter liberally throughout your clothing storage drawers, bins and baskets. I use a Chinese soap with a strong ginger scent. The bugs hate it. I don’t have to deal with awful chemicals, and we never run out of soap.

  28. posted by OogieM on

    Freezing will increase the hatching rate of the eggs left. The only sure solution is heat treatment or fumigation with things like original mothballs (which BTW will also kill the eggs)

    Woolite is also one of the most harsh things to clean fine woolens with, use a wool wash (I like Eucalan but there are many choices, ask any spinner or knitter what their favorite is) or a shampoo you like. I use very hot water, soak but do not agitate and be sure to rinse in the same temperature and dry flat.

    Cedar, lavender and the like do not kill moths or their eggs or larvae. All they do is confuse the moth sense of smell making it a bit more difficult for them to find your natural fiber clothing to lay their eggs in.

  29. posted by Pammyfay on

    How to keep the sweaters/turtlenecks looking neat on the shelves? You should try rolling them. Doesn’t take as much concentration as folding them evenly.

  30. posted by Anita on

    My 2 cents:

    How to store sewaters: if your problem is that they don’t seem to stay neatly folded for long, then you have 2 options: either make yourself fold each sweater neatly every time you put one back on the shelf, or change your storage strategy to something you’d find easier to stick to (rolling instead of folding is an option, a closed bin that you just toss sweaters into is another).

    How often to wash them: my sweaters get smell-tested every time I take them off, and they go into the laundry basket or dry cleaning bag at the first sign of smelliness.

  31. posted by Suzanne on

    I store my sweaters in a cedar trunk, when it get’s full I know I need to get rid of a few. Ikea also sells some great inexpensive zip up cases that work well for storing off-season clothing.

  32. posted by tba on

    I agree with Lilly about the cleaning process, and I think this needs to be highlighted again:

    Dry cleaning is absolutely unnecessary!

    Here’s what you should do instead: Fill your bathtub with handwarm water, add washing detergent for wool, make sure it gets fully resolved in the water. Then put your sweaters in it and let them get fully soaked in the water. You can leave them in the water for a couple of hours. Then let the water drain and rinse the sweaters with fresh cold water while they are still lying in the tub. When they are rinsed out fully, let them dry in a lying position. You can put towels on your drying rack and lay the sweaters on them. Don’t wring them, but you can gently squeeze water out of them.

    And if you think this is a rude way to treat dry cleaning sweaters: I’ve talked to people who work in dry cleaning stores and this is exactly how they actually clean the clothes. Unbelievable, but I swear it is true.

  33. posted by *pol on

    I have carpet beetles AND moths. I have no carpets left in my home, and much to my dismay, I saw cocoons and casings BEHIND the baseboard trim when we ripped up the carpets. We also have a long haired dog and a fluffy cat. It’s an uphill battle fighting the little pests. Mothballs were a terrible mistake. The smell simply won’t come out of the garments I stored with them… the smell is worse than the tiny moth holes!

  34. posted by Mel :) on

    HIGHLY recommend the book “Tiny Game Hunting” — excellent book. Gives complete description of the insect, its preferred environment (thus helping you find the root of the problem in your house or garden), and how to avoid/eradicate safely and as nontoxic as possible.

    For sweater storage, we have shelving by our back door that rotates summer stuff (sun hats, swim bag, etc.) with sweaters in the winter. It makes it easy for me when dealing with sweaters left around the house (4 people in 785 sq ft!). Summer sweater storage is plastic bins with lavender (natural repellent) laundry sachets from TJ’s. And of course, don’t have more sweaters than you need :)

  35. posted by WilliamB on

    To store:
    1. Organize the above-bar shelf using wire separators or wire shelving. This will keep the sweaters from tumbling into each other.
    2. Fold the sweaters carefully, so they lay flat. I haven’t tried rolling but the theory is sound.

    How to clean without degrading or warping the fabric. This works for wools (sheep, cashmere, etc) and cottons. It could work with silk – the issue is that most silk dyes are not colorfast, so I have them dry cleaned unless the label indicates it’s washable. I have no idea how to hand-wash linens and I *certainly* don’t want to iron them.

    1. Wash: dissolve cleaner in warm water (I like Eucalan also, and agree Woolite is terrible for wool). Get sweater thoroughly wet and swish around. Rinse in more warm water by swishing and scrunching.

    2. Drain: draining the water, then squishing or scrunching (or walking gently if you’re using the tub) in the sink; then laying on a towel, roll the towel, the squish or step on the towel. You can repeat this with more towels to get more water out.

    3. Then lay flat, ideally on a fabric mesh drying surface, ideally in an area with air movement. Wait.

    Note that wools are very forgiving as to shape, and so can survive more vigorous handing. Cotton is not forgiving, so don’t let it get distorted (picking up a heavy wet garment by a sleeve, dragging it around on the dyring surface).

    I find hand-washing heavy sweaters a drag but since I need to do it only rarely, it’s worth it to me.

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