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Just as a general rule, I would say that hand washing would be more gentle than mechanical agitation.

You’ve posted recently about merino wool so I’ll assume you’re referring to this.

First question is why are you washing? Is the garment soiled. A steamer should work well to freshen it up.

If hand washing is to time consuming and your time is far too occupied by looking for the perfect shirt to wear untucked (sorry my friend, I couldn’t help myself!) then wash on gentle with the garment in a mesh bag. Make sure you use a detergent designed for wool and cashmere.
 

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is there a true difference between the two?
I refer you to the first paragraph in SG_67's post above.

could one safely use gentle or delicate cycle in place of hand washing?
That's pretty much an impossible question, since all washing machines aren't the same. However, in *my* washing machines (the current machine and two previous ones) I have been washing cashmere, camel and lambswool on the wool cycle for the past 18 years or so without experiencing any problems at all.
 
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