Did you know that wool isn’t one specific fiber? I think of “wool” as an umbrella category for the fibers of many animals including a variety of sheep, goats and camel-like animals to name most. It’s grown around the world, but mostly in Australia.
Most wool can be and should be hand washed. Very few wool fabrics are alright in the washing machine. The main reason is that wool likes to felt and therefore shrink. When washing wool, never use heat and don’t agitate! Both agitation and heat will assist felting.
Note: Please experiment carefully with wool crepes. Crepe fabrics shrink significantly. Lined wools should also not be washed in water. Unfortunately, when these garments are made at the mass production level, designers don’t account for shrinkage of the two fabrics plus all the interlinings. Washing lined garments will not only change the appearance of the exterior fabric, it will also, most likely, deform the garment as the layers of fabrics and interlinings shrink at different rates.
Here are a few wool fabrics that should and should not be washed in water:
Top left is a lined wool crepe skirt. Washing it would significantly change its appearance and crisp tailored form (I'll share some of my own tricks for washing lined garments in the future). Top right is a lightweight merino wool sweater-knit. This is what it looks like after a few hand washes. The knit texture was slightly more even before it was washed, but I don't mind the subtle irregularity since it doesn't affect size or fit. Bottom left is a wool blend (including spandex) turtleneck knit top that can handle the mild agitation of a gentle machine cycle. I've had it for years and it still looks almost like new though it should be noted that I've never put it in the dryer. Bottom right is a wool jersey knit that should not have been machine washed. The placket area is lined to reinforce the buttons and button holes, and you can see that are didn't shrink as much or at all. Bottom right
The best way to wash most wool, including bulky hand-knit favorites, machine-knits, most wovens, merino and cashmere, is as follows:
1. Add a few cups of warm water (not hot) to a bucket. Add about a teaspoon of liquid soap and mix. Fill the rest of the bucket with cool water.
2. Add the wool garment. You’ll notice that wool takes a minute to absorb water. It may even just sit above water unless pushed under. That’s because it has natural water resisting qualities even after lanolin (natural wax secreted by wool bearing animals) is removed from the fiber. Completely submerge wool until you see it absorb water. Gently massage areas that may be more soiled such as the pit, collar and cuff areas. Be careful not to unintentionally begin felting the area by rubbing too firmly.
3. Let soak for at least an hour. Discard water and rinse. Be careful not to agitate too much. Try squeezing instead of wringing to get most of the water out.
4. You may want to put your wet wool garment in a quick machine spin cycle to expedite drying time. No rinse, just spin!
5. Lay flat to dry. Set it on a mesh rack in a bright room with good air circulation or outside for several hours. Wool, especially knits, will deform if hung to dry. Wool may take a minute to begin absorbing water, but once it does it can hold up to three times its weight causing it to severely stretch if dried on a hanger. A woven wool blouse that fits perfectly on a hanger might be one of the only exceptions.
Hopefully you’ve learned something new about wool. If you’re hooked and want to learn more, visit me at E.M. Wolfman Books on 9/17 for Long Live Cloth, a workshop about fiber and garment care or at Britex Fabrics for Warp x Weft: Textile 101 workshop.
In the meantime, be well, let me know what you think of the guide and check back for the silk manual coming out in a few days.