Dear Handy Andi,
I received a wool sweater for Christmas, and I’ve never owned anything made from wool before. How do I launder it without shrinking it?
– Amy, Maine
Wool is an exceptional fabric for so many reasons; It’s renewable, very warm, naturally water repellent, resists stains and odors, looks great, and can be extremely durable. Unfortunately, it can also be tricky to care for, which is probably why it’s much less common than it once was. Both price and convenience have led to the increased popularity synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, and of cotton, which, though natural, has none of wool’s other beneficial characteristics. And that’s a real shame, because washing wool isn’t really all that difficult, once you know what to do.
The first thing you have to understand about wool is that it’s essentially hair. Just like human hair, wool fibers have hundreds of tiny scales running along their length. If rubbed the wrong way, these scales can cause the fibers to mat together, just like hair that hasn’t been brushed in a long time. Many people think that it’s the heat from a dryer that will shrink a wool sweater (or hat, or scarf, or any other wool item you may own). It’s not. It’s actually the agitation from the washing machine that does it. Even the gentle cycle can cause the fibers to rub together and mat up into a lumpy mess, leaving you with a hand-me-down for a toddler. That process is called “fulling,” and to prevent it from happening, you’ll need to wash your sweater by hand.
Before you relegate that new sweater to the Goodwill pile, daunted by images of yourself scrubbing away on a riverbank, beating your clothes against a rock, be reassured that, when it comes to wool, less is more. Even the gentlest attempts at scrubbing wool could damage the fibers. What you’ll be doing is more like soaking than what you think of as “washing.”
But before you get started, you’ll need to find something to wash it with. Most commercial laundry detergents, including the deceptively named Woolite, are actually soaps, which means they are very alkaline and can open up the scales in the fiber and damage the wool. You want something with a lower pH than soap. While there are specialty detergents out there you can buy, dish washing liquid will work just as well, as will a nice shampoo. After all, anything that leaves your hair feeling soft and smooth should be just as kind to sheep hair. Just try to opt for something without added conditioners or perfumes, unless you want to walk around smelling like shampoo.
Pour about a quarter cup of your chosen detergent (or dish liquid, or shampoo) into your kitchen sink, or a large, clean bucket, and add few inches of hot water. The idea that hot water causes wool to shrink is a myth. It’s agitation, not water temperature, that causes shrinkage. Now, push your sweater into the water, ensuring that it gets soaked entirely through, and — this is the most important step — LEAVE IT ALONE. Walk away. Resist the temptation to swish it around in the water, rub it, or touch it in any way. Just let the water and detergent do their work.
In about a half an hour, drain the sink or pour the water out of the bucket, gently press the excess water from the sweater, and remove it from the sink or bucket before refilling it with cold water. Then put the sweater back into the water and allow it to rinse for another half hour or so. Repeat this step one more time.
After gently squeezing the excess water out of the sweater, following the second rinse, lay the sweater out flat on a large, thick towel. Cover it with another towel, and roll all three up, like a great big Swiss roll, pressing hard to push out more of the water. Whatever you do, do not twist or wring the sweater. Unroll it, and lay it out on another clean towel to air dry, making sure to leave it in its natural shape. You can stretch and pull a little to reshape it, if need be, but try not to overdo it. After several hours, flip the sweater over to let the back side dry. Keep doing this until it feels completely dry. If you have a sweater rack, you can also lay it out flat on that, to allow for even drying on both sides. Once the sweater has dried, you may give it a quick tumble in the dryer, to soften it up. Do not try to dry it in the dryer, though, as this can cause fulling.
Because it doesn’t absorb sweat and body oils as readily as other fabrics, wool doesn’t need to be laundered as frequently. Once you’ve worn a wool garment, you can simply hang it up to air out for a few days before wearing it again. Wool is also less prone than cotton and other fabrics to becoming stained. If you spill something on wool, you may be able to just brush it away or rinse it out before it sets. If you do stain a wool sweater, take it to a professional dry cleaner. They are experienced at removing stains without damaging the fabric.
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