The Skinny on Superwash and Non-Superwash Wool
Words to Increase You Wisdom from the Makers,
Wool is an amazing fiber! It is renewable, sheep grow a new fleece every year. It is both wam and cool, an active fiber that reacts to changes in body temperature. Wool is 100% biodegradable and will naturally decompose in soil in a matter of years, slowly releasing valuable nutrients back into the earth. It is 100% natural, with a blend of water, sunshine, air, and grass, sheep thrive to produce fiber and meat.
So, with this big picture in mind lets talk about superwash vs. non-superwash. With the convenience of clothes washers and dryers a demand for all apparel to be wash and dryable, decreased the demand for wool. Consumers were willing to forgo the amazing qualities of wool for ease in laundering their clothing. As a result, the process of super-wash was invented and now items made with superwash wool can be thrown in with the rest of the clothing in the washing machine and dried, although they will last longer if you don’t put them in the dryer.
The questions for you is…. do you know what is done to the wool to make it “super-wash?” I am embarrassed to admit that as a long-time fiberista I didn’t know the difference between regular wool and superwash, I was just in that consumer group that was relieved when my wool socks were caught in a pant leg and went through the wash/dry cycle they didn’t come out felted baby size.
Wool has Scales
If you look at a strand of wool through a microscope, just like your hair, wool has scales. Wool has more scales and those scales link together and allow us to spin the fiber into a long yarn. Those scales are also what keeps us from being able to agitate wool in the washing machine, or on the other hand, what allows us to make felt. As the wool is agitated those scales attach to each other more and more and this results in felting. To eliminate felting, the superwash process involves exposing the fiber to a chlorine gas that erodes the scales. After the scales are removed the wool is then coated with a plastic to fill in the places where the scales were removed.
After the superwash process of descaling and filling the descaled area with plastic, we have taken away several of the best qualities of wool. I don’t know about you, but when I learned the facts about superwash, it lost its appeal. Another thing that I have learned is that I was washing my wool garments too often. Wool fiber does not harbor scent, and under normal wear, unless you dribble egg yolk down the front of your sweater, with regular wear, a good washing every few months is quite sufficient.
How to Wash Wool Garments
We get asked quite frequently if our wool can be washed, and the answer is yes. Here is how I wash my wool sweaters. I have a top loading machine, I add a small amount of mild detergent and fill the tub with cold or warm water, leaving the washing machine lid open so it doesn’t move on the wash cycle. I hold the sweaters under water until they sink to the bottom of the tub. After soaking in the machine for 5-10 minutes I advance the washer to the spin cycle and close the machine lid. Because I use such a small amount of detergent, there is no need to go through a rinse soak unless the clothing is very dirty. I remove the wet sweater from the wash and hang it over my towel bar in the bathroom and leave it to dry. If you have a front loader use the gentle cycle and again a very small amount of mild detergent.
Currently Mountain Meadow Wool does not superwash any of our wool, we like to keep it as natural as possible. However, in the future we are considering investing in a sock machine, superwash wool may be necessary to satisfy those who demand a sock that can get caught in the pant leg and survive the trip through the wash.
I only use super wash for the very occasional gift to people who I know would never hand wash the garment. Right now it is a scarf for my sister who would have thrown her kids in the washer and dryer if she could have. I hate the stuff.
I am happy to learn about how to wash wool garments – thanks! The one item I make with acrylic yarn is baby blankets!
For a while, I had students that would tell me they didn’t want to work with wool because they wanted something washable. After I showed them how I made all my own socks and many other items, explaining to them how it is warm in winter and cool in summer. (Yes, I do wear my socks in the summer ) Little by little I noticed more people willing to try wool and amazed themselves with how much they love the result! What is essential is making sure we teach how to take good care of our things and be willing to own less of the best and eliminate a lot of cheap, inferior items that we think saves money. I’m very glad that more and more, I’m witnessing transitioning to supporting local farmers and shepherds. USA grown Thank you for all the hard work, it’s so worth your effort and we appreciate you!
I am trying to get rid of the remaining superwash yarn in my stash, by knitting a giant throw. I refuse to buy yarn from indie dyers because of the harsh processes of the super wash process and I suspect some of those bases come from overseas mills. I’ll make socks with bamboo, viscose, or tencel blended in, to get the socks to fit well, be non-scratchy and comfortable. The more natural the yarn, the better! The fashion industry tries to say that wool is bad for the environment and mentions the superwash process, which is misleading to consumers as not all wool undergoes the process.
I loathe super wash wool. If you want to knit or weave or crochet with plastic, then use acrylic yarn. Nothing wrong with that. But if you cannot be bothered to take proper care of objects that you’ve spent many, many hours making, then use acrylic and God bless you. Leave wool to be the magnificent natural resource that it is, and also have the good feeling of knowing that you are not contributing to the harm to the environment that the super wash conversion process causes.
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