Monday, March 15, 2010

Washing Winter Woolens

The sun is shining (sort of), birds are chirping and my seedlings have developed their first set of true leaves. That can only mean one thing. It's Spring! It is time to pack winter away!

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.
1) Ship some or all of it to trusted cleaners. I sent the non-machine washable sweaters and coats to the cleaners. I wouldn't send hand knitted or even nice machine sweaters to just any cleaners. I have had sweaters comeback crunchy with dry-cleaning solvent and frankly, that's kind of gross. My current cleaners hand washes and blocks my sweaters better than I can. I preauthorize them up to a certain dollar amount to fix snags, missing buttons and holes. Sending sweaters to the cleaners costs a little more than handwashing, but they can do all the sweaters at once and they come back ready to store for the summer. I have heard from customers that some cleaners will even block your newly knitted and crocheted blankets and stoles. What a great option for those of us with limited space!
2) Wash by machine. Many of my accessories and a few sweaters are made from yarns that can make the occasional trip through the washer and a rare trip through the dryer if necessary. Any hat, glove or sock made from sock yarn will get the thorough treatment. More delicate but washable items, such as a woven rayon scarf, will be put in a lingerie bag and washed only. Some machines have a handwash option. Take advantage of that if you have it (I don't) but BE CAREFUL, especially with softly spun singles or any other fiber that felts just by looking too hard at it. Just because the setting says "Handwash" doesn't mean it is really as gentle as washing by hand.

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.

4) Store it away. How long are you storing it? I have talked about my multi-faceted approach to inventory storage before. The short version is clean and dry fibers, plastic bag, plastic box, herbal repellents, cool room. I do something a little different for my woolens. The sweaters and accessories I will be pulling out again in 6 months are cleaned and stored loose in a plastic tub. If I will be storing for more than 6 months and it is not a precious heirloom then I put that item by itself in a plastic bag inside the tub. The plastic tubs are just a matter of preference, but they do off-gas which causes yellowing and they retain moisture, which can encourage mildew.

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.]


  1. Putting winter things away? It seems like it has happened all so quickly (the warmer weather coming). I recently washed a bunch of my handknits in the washing machine and it worked well. A half and hour soak in warm water with some Eucalan and then straight to spin. They laid out to dry on our bed and were dry by bed time. It was a first for a machine wash and I was very happy to find that it was easy enough of everything including a mohair sweater.

  2. You are absolutely correct. I have always lived in apartments with apartment washers that don't allow you to skip the agitation cycle. Maybe I should retitle it "washing by hand for apartment dwellers"? Thanks, Ariel!

  3. I'm wondering what cleaners you use/trust.... since I'm in St. Louis also and I have a few things I'd like to send out this spring.


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