How to get your stale-smelling clothes ready for sweater weather

Proper storage will prevent future-you from cleaning today’s sweat stains.
Person putting on a fresh knitted sweater
Did you rummage through your winter clothes just to find that special sweater, only to find out it stank? Yes, we've been there too. Mukuko Studio / Unsplash

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When the temperature drops and it’s time to take your winter gear out of storage, you want it to be fresh and ready to go. If you did your homework last year, you’ll find clean clothes wrapped in a fabric softener-smelling swirl of delight. 

But if you’re reading this, chances are that’s not the case. You’ve probably stumbled upon some funky-smelling shirts, ghost stains you swear were not there six months ago, and—oh no!—a moth-ridden mess that used to be your favorite sweater.

Nothing you can do about that last one (sorry), but there’s a lot you can do to make your cold-weather garments feel nice and crisp at the start of the colder months of the year.

Fight the odors of winters past 

There are lots of reasons the clothes you stored months ago might have a weird smell, the most common being humidity. If your garments were sitting in a cardboard box in a basement or some other dark, damp place, moisture might have crept in and left your corduroy jacket stinking like a tiny, windowless bathroom. 

But before you shake your fist into the air in rage, you should know that it’s probably your fault your clothes smell bad. 

“Any garments being put away for seasonal storage should be cleaned first. The worst thing to do is put items away for storage that are soiled,” says Jerry Pozniak, CEO of Jeeves, a luxury dry-cleaning firm in New York City. 

[Related: Stain removal tips from a Buckingham Palace-trained butler]

Unless you thoroughly washed everything that came into direct contact with your skin before you put it away, it’s highly likely that sweat, grease, and dead skin cells (body soil) might have transferred to one of your garments and decomposed over time. This is especially true if your winter wardrobe features a lot of synthetic textiles, like the ones you’d find in performance gear. These fabrics don’t breathe as well as natural fibers, so they hold on to your sweat and humidity. 

But the stink is not only months-old sweat brewing over the summer. As you may already know dark, damp, stale-aired spaces of any kind are a breeding ground for bacteria. And your dead skin cells (which are all over your dirty clothes) are the perfect snack for these tiny microorganisms, who metabolize your filth and turn it into a nose-scrunching stench. 

So your clothes reek—what next? You can try a deodorizing spray and airing out your garments in a bright, dry place. If the weather permits, hanging them outside might also do the trick, but if you don’t have the space for it, Pozniak, who’s spent 38 years in the laundry business, recommends popping your clothes in the dryer on the “no heat“ or “air dry” cycle. Keep in mind that this will only get rid of smells if your clothes have a slight hint of staleness to them, which is natural after months of sitting still in a confined space. 

But if the stench is due to gross months-old sweat or the result of mildew, you’ll have to wash it. If you really want to avoid doing extra laundry, you can always try an antibacterial spray, but it’ll probably be more efficient to bite the bullet and load the machine. 

Spooking away phantom stains

You definitely wouldn’t have stored something had you known it had a stain on it. But then you find spots you hadn’t seen before, and you wonder if you need to book an appointment with the eye doctor. It’s not your eyes—some stains just appear while your clothes are tucked away. Again, the likely culprit is body soil. 

Sweat and dead skin cells get into the fibers of your clothes even if you only wore them once. And just like a bitten apple browns over time, areas on your garment where your body soil might have accumulated can become visually stained. 

If you know anything about stains, you know that time is your enemy—the longer you let them sit, the harder they’ll be to get rid of. This is why pre-treating stains is critical. Yellow stains respond well to low-pH removers, which you can find in stores or in your cupboard in the form of vinegar

But you should have one important consideration with this household cleaning staple: pure vinegar is acidic and can damage fabrics containing silk or rayon, by causing discoloration, shrinkage, and even corroding elastic fibers over time. Before you pretreat any stain, check your garment’s laundry care label carefully. 

For vinegar-safe textiles, you can dilute the soiled spot by rinsing the fabric, pouring a mix of a couple of drops of high-quality laundry detergent and a tablespoon of vinegar directly onto the stain. Rub it gently or use a soft-bristled brush, and let it sit for 20 minutes before putting the garment into the washing machine. 

For non-vinegar-safe fabrics and large or tough stains, a soak will probably give you the best chance at success. Start by pre-treating the stain with laundry detergent or an enzyme-based stain remover, and continue by soaking the garment in a mixture of one part of low pH stain remover and 10 parts of water. Leave it for 30 minutes to an hour (depending on how big or difficult the stain is) and stir every five minutes. Don’t rinse the soak—finish by washing the garment with the rest of your laundry and use warm water in your load if you need a little oomph. 

Don’t forget that heat sets stains, so as soon as the cycle is done, check if the spot is still there before you put your clothes in the dryer. If it is, repeat the process and wash the garment again. 

When your sweaters become vermin food

We don’t think you need us to tell you that if you find holes in your clothes, it’s game over, more often than not. But you may still be able to save them—it’ll highly depend on the amount of damage and the creature that’s been dining on your clothes.

“Moth damage can appear as irregular holes or white moth ‘trails,’ which may look like lint,” Pozniak explains. “If you suspect moth damage, you need to have that garment dry-cleaned as soon as possible to kill the larvae.”

As an alternative, check your clothes’ care label, and if the textile can handle it, wash it in a hot water cycle. Getting the help of an expert might be the easiest option, though, as most of the time the natural fibers moths use as grub will be damaged by hot temperatures. Finally, and just as a precaution, wash all the clothes that were in contact with the affected garments, and thoroughly scrub whatever container they were in. 

This is a good approach if there’s anything you can (or want to) salvage. If a piece of great sentimental value is among the fallen, you might want to go to an expert and see if they can sew new life into it or turn it into a new garment or accessory. We’re sorry for your loss.

If the holes you find are not due to the presence of moths but rodents building a warm little nest in your winter gear, just throw everything away. Because mice and rats don’t discriminate based on the purity of your sweater’s wool blend, the damage is likely to be more extensive than whatever moths can do. Plus, you will not only be dealing with ripped fabric but also with animal droppings, pee, and saliva, which can cause allergies and even illness due to hantaviruses.

How to properly store your clothes for next winter

No one wants to start glorious sweater weather by doing a bunch of laundry, so follow these tips to keep your clothes in tip-top shape for next year. 

Do not store unwashed clothes

We hate to keep singing the same tune here, but we’re going to: wash your clothes before you store them for the season. This is especially important for garments that sit in direct contact with your skin, like base layers and undershirts. 

Body soil is the root of weird smells and stains, but to add insult to injury, moths find dirty textiles especially tasty—your soil is their seasoning. Their larvae feed on what you’ve left behind, so when you store that nice wool sweater before giving a proper wash, you’re just providing a buffet for a family of fiber-munching insects. 

“The most important factor is to put away your items for storage clean,” Pozniak says. “I have seen clients in tears after telling them about moth damage.”

Boost that scent

Give your clothes a nice smell by using scent beads in the wash. Then, when it’s time to put your garments in storage, consider placing dryer sheets, floral or coffee sachets, or cedar blocks between your clothes. You can even slip scent beads into small mesh or organza bags so their aroma rubs on the fibers. These can help neutralize odors and transfer some nice perfume directly into the textiles. 

[Related: How to make your own laundry detergent]

Fold your knits, never hang them

Pozniak recommends folding cashmere and other pieces containing a high percentage of wool, and storing them (ideally individually) in fabric garment bags. This will allow the fabric to breathe and protect it from vermin. 

And don’t worry too much about squishing your sweaters. Pozniak says that even if your garments are a wrinkled mess when you remove them from storage, you will not have harmed the fibers. Just steam your crumpled-up knits to get rid of any creases and return them to their fluffy glory. 

Use quality hangers 

Garments like wool coats should be hung in garment bags and using appropriate hangers. Don’t use the wire ones from the dry cleaners—get wooden, wide-shouldered ones that will help maintain the shape of your outerwear. If you want to invest, choose cedar hangers, which will not only infuse your clothes with a nice woody smell, but will also help keep moths away. 

Get some accessories

Products like moth balls and traps, and cedar bags can also protect your clothes from moths. Meanwhile, sturdy, air-tight containers are a great way to prevent any kind of critter from getting their grubby little paws on your favorite garments. Just make sure to pile them up correctly, as potential cracks may turn plastic bins into prime rat real estate. To keep knits fresh and wool coats lint free, Pozniak recommends the combs and lint removers he and his team use at Jeeves. 

Buying more accessories for your clothes may seem silly—especially when you’ve already spent a lot of money on them. But this is an easy way to make your garments last longer, which won’t only get you more bang for your buck in the long run, but is also more sustainable.