The previous few winters were not cold enough for us to pull out the wool sweaters more than once or twice. We only had a few scarves and mittens to dunk in Eucalan and all of our wool socks were washable. This is the first year that it has been cold enough for us to have accumulated and dirtied enough wool things for this to require ...duh duh duh....A Plan.
Our plan is multi-faceted.
2a) Wash by a different kind of machine. I bought a hand cranked tub that is supposed to make washing your woolens very easy to do. I let someone else do the first woolen load, which was a batch of wool roving. They put very hot rinse water in after washing the roving in cold water. That roving felted in less than 2 minutes. To be honest, it was a wool designed for felting so I shouldn't have been surprised, but still, 2 minutes? If you are going to use one of those hand cranked tubs BE CAREFUL to keep your water temperature even and that what you are washing is made from a fiber less likely to felt quickly. [Update: I sent a dingy and raggedy merino wool stole through the washer yesterday, intending to felt it and cut it in to pet squares. It didn't felt and the colors came out as bright and beautiful as the day I cast-off. Some wools don't felt as easily as one might think. Some felt by looking at them.]
3) Wash by hand. I am hand washing any accessory that won't make it through the machine or that I don't want to pay the cleaners for. Lightly worn items will get their usual dunk in Eucalan and warm water. Heavily worn items will get special treatment.
I tend to wash my woolens at a higher temperature than other people do, but I am okay with taking the risk. Washing at very high temperatures, especially if you agitate it, can potentially damage or felt the fiber. I do very little agitating, so I think the bigger risk of washing at very high temperatures is that some dyes will fade if the temperature is too high.
There is an excellent chart on wash- and light-fastness of various dyes here. It is a little technical, but I think the most important part is this:
the washfastness numbers for acid dyes are in no way comparable to the same numbers for other classes of dyes! The washfastness numbers here, for acid dyes, come from observations of the effects of gently washing the dyed item in cool water, at 105°F or below—only 40°C!—whereas the washfastness numbers for cellulosic fibers are for washing in water at a temperature of 205°F —96°C"In other words, wash your woolens--especially your brightly colored woolens *ahem*--at lower temperatures than you wash your cottons and linens. If you have ever done a load of laundry then I bet you knew that already. [Disclaimer: I am the handwasher of the house, but not the machine launderer. Despite a lot of discussion about how woolens ought to be washed, my socks routinely go through the wash and dry at scalding hot temperatures. Bless his laundry-doin' heart. I'd rather have slightly faded socks than be the one dragging the laundry cart down 3 flights of stairs and up a hill to the laundromat.]
I was going to give my process here, but then I found a much better tutorial on Fuzzy Galore's site. This is how I wash my heavily worn items, except instead of Dawn I use synthrapol since I have plenty on hand. I found a lot of other interesting and well-written articles on the site, too, so click around.
It is better for the wool to keep it store in acid-free paper or muslin in a clean and safe place. It is better for my own peace of mind to keep everything in plastic. If it were a precious heirloom in this house, then it would get wrapped in muslin and stored in one of those blue Ziploc Flexible Totes that have the mesh band at the top. It is a good compromise between protecting from wool pests while allowing the wool to breathe.
And...there we go! Winter is packed away, or it will be soon. Welcome Spring!
[Thank you to all the photographers who let me use their pictures under a Creative Commons license.]