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.

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Linda December 14, 2020

Good information! I will not be using super wash again!

Woolies December 14, 2020

I knit all natural toys. When I was first aware of superwash, I was very curious. As soon as I found out how this process occurs, was completely turned off. Have NEVER used it. Awful!

Jackie Holifield January 14, 2021

I have been learning how to spin the last year. I have been told that there are sheep that produce a wool that naturally does not felt. So why don’t we use that to make socks from and forget about the superwash stuff. I think Cheviot is one of the sheep breeds. Maybe find a US source for it. Loved your article.

Susan Waite January 14, 2021

As a yarn and textile crafter for decades, I too am embarrassed that I did not understand the Superwash process until I read your article. All I knew is that it was a bit funky on the fiber—wow, is it ever!!! So glad you guys wash, comb and spin our Cormo flock fleeces into the glorious range of super-soft finished yarn products (EarthStar Naturals) that everyone here in Montana seems to love. Natural is always best! And I am so glad that you do not offer the Superwash processing option at Mountain Meadow Woiol! Thank you, Ben & Karen and fine crew! <3

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