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How to prep wool sweaters and coats for winter

Get your wool coats and sweaters ready to wear this winter without pricey dry cleaning.

Brian Bennett/CNET

Sweaters and heavy coats looking worse for wear? Try these simple steps to freshen up your winter apparel before cold weather arrives in force.

Not only will you postpone a trip to the dry cleaner, you might salvage garments you thought were beyond repair. From removing unsightly pills to banishing unpleasant odors and dirt, this guide will help keep your sweaters looking fresh.

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Zap ugly wool pills with a fabric shaver.

Brian Bennett/CNET

Step 1: Seek and destroy those pills

I used to love this green sweater. Woven from Merino sheep wool, I wore it for one season before I noticed it was plagued by heavy pilling. Pills, small balls of fabric on a garment's surface, form when one section rubs against another often. With sweaters it's usually fabric on the arms and sleeves that comes into contact with the sides of the body.

The fabric shaver in action. All it takes to smooth out pills is a light touch and a little patience.

Brian Bennett/CNET

My fix is the $13 (roughly converts to £10 or AU$17) Evercare Fabric Shaver. Currently only $8 on Amazon, the Shaver uses a trio of spinning blades to make quick work of balled woolens. First, place the sweater on a smooth, flat surface. Next, gently slide the battery-powered (two AAs) device over the affected wool surface. The shaver should gobble up pills with abandon, leaving behind uniform fabric.

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Wool coats can develop fabric pills too.

Brian Bennett/CNET

The shaver works well on wool jackets too. I zapped ugly pill balls from my trusty peacoat that I thought would never go away. It was a beautiful moment when they all but entirely dissolved before my eyes.

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Target unsightly stains and eliminate them.

Brian Bennett/CNET

Step 2: Spot clean stains

Ugly stains need extra attention. That's especially the case when the soiled item can't be washed by machine or hand. Case in point, my "dry clean only" wool coat. Somewhere, somehow I managed to dribble sauce on various parts of it -- mustard, ketchup, maybe barbecue?

To tackle the spots, I got hold of a bottle of Soak. This $16 (roughly converts to £12 or AU$21) wool shampoo concentrate is specially formulated for hand laundering woolens and knitwear but works as a spot cleaner too. To lift the stain, apply a few dabs of detergent. Next, give the area a light scrub with a cotton swab. Go over the spot again with a moist rag (or another swab). Hopefully any sign of the stain will disappear. That's what happened in the case of my coat's dark-colored fabric.

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Soak your sweaters and wash them by hand.

Brian Bennett/CNET

Step 3: Wash sweaters by hand

Wool fibers are fragile and can be stretched out of shape or torn easily. Subjecting these garments to the ruthless mechanical action of washing machines is a big no-no. Unless it's specifically certified to be wool safe, even a washer's "gentle" cycle is an unacceptable risk. A careful wash by hand is the way to go.

First I filled a clean sink or basin with about a gallon of water. Use either cold or lukewarm water, never hot. That's because heat is also a danger to the structure of wool. Next, drop in a small amount of Soak detergent. The directions recommend one teaspoon per gallon (128 ounces, 3.8 liters) of water. Give the water a swish to mix in the detergent.

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Let your items soak for at least 15 minutes.

Brian Bennett/CNET

You don't need to buy fancy detergents either. Regular laundry soaps like Tide work too. Just use sparingly and only basic versions without extra additives. Another option is plain white vinegar (8 ounces or 0.24 liters).

Now submerge your sweater in the solution and let it sit for at least 15 minutes. After that give the garment a few gentle swirls to release any trapped dirt particles. Remove the sweater and softly squeeze it into a ball to get rid of excess water.

Remember, don't wring it. Doing that will damage the wool fibers beyond repair. Another benefit of using Soak is that it's a rinse-free detergent. If you use tide or vinegar, you'll have to rinse garments again with clean, cool water.

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Roll wet wool sweaters in a towel to wick away moisture.

Brian Bennett/CNET

Step 4: Time to dry

Grab a large towel and place it on a flat counter or tabletop. Take your washed but damp sweater and spread it out across the towel. Next roll the towel and sweater up into a tight log. Unroll everything after a few minutes. Transfer the sweater to a fresh (dry) towel and let it dry (flat) for 24 to 48 hours.

If you don't want to wait that long and have a dryer equipped with a drying rack you're in luck. Use your dryer's "air fluff" no heat cycle, and the rack cuts drying time down to a few hours.

Step 5: Repeat if necessary

Once your sweater is dry its fabric should feel significantly cleaner and softer. It should also have a fresh, pleasant fragrance. Likewise, the dingy wool coats you've treated will look sharper. If that's not the case, like if a few stains refuse to vanish or an odd odor remains, repeat the process. A second time around might do the trick, especially when slightly more soap is used.