'I would love something like this but wool is so itchy and it shrinks!'
You would not believe the number of times I have heard this!
Wool is one of those contested fibers, it seems like you either love it or hate it. Maybe you had an itchy-handed-down jumper that was 15 years older than you as a child that put you off it forever, or maybe you have been washing and caring for it wrong your whole life but never knew it. Well, I'm here to change your wool world forever.
There are a few factors to think about when caring for your wool, and I will take you through every step I can think of in handy sections for you.
This guide is for 100% wool garments and accessories, however, if you have something that is a wool blend or you aren't quite sure of the fabric contents this guide should get you to where you need to be.
Why is Wool 'Itchy'?
Let's start at the beginning... What makes wool itchy in the first place?
There are a few factors here that play off one another to create the overall feeling of wool: Fibre Makeup (Microns), crimping and processing.
This Woolmark article on merino wool teaches us about what makes Merino so soft: Microns. In lamens terms, the thinner and more concise a fibre's microns are the less course the fibre is, therefore it makes finer wool and irritates the skin less. This quality is what makes merino and cashmere so expensive. Lambswool is often graded in terms of the thickness of its fibres, and different breeds of sheep produce different thicknesses of fibres depending on their genetics. But even coarse wool has unmatched properties, often being reserved for rug making for its hardiness.
Crimping is the next thing up. If we zoomed out from the picture above you would see the differences in crimping of each strand. Think of curly hair, when it's frizzy it's also soft, you can see how each strand is not straight. That's crimping. This allows the wool fibre to mesh better, creating a stronger and softer yarn. This also contributes to its ability to trap air and create a layer of insulation. This makes a wool garment warmer in the winter and more breathable in the summer than something like acrylic which becomes very sweaty.
How the yarn is processed can also make a difference. If the wool is being mixed with another fibre that is more irritable (think tinsel yarn or lurex) It overall creates more itch. Most machine knitting yarns that I use to create my pieces (Shameless Plug) are waxed to allow them to run through the machines without breaking, catching or damaging the yarn more than necessary; and if the wax is not washed out fully it can create a slightly rougher feel to the garment. There is also something to be said about how the fibres are spun, with certain plys feeling softer than others, however, this information is a well-kept secret in the mills to make their products the ones to buy.
So yarn is lots of tiny crinkly strings clinging together as they are spun and coated with wax... Cool!
What Can Makers do?
Obviously, I can't speak for everyone, however, the general process of creating a woollen garment has similar building blocks.
Step 1. Design/Source/Test
The design phase can be broken down into a phenomenal amount of work and detail, however, since this post, is about the crafting/ making process I think I'll save that breakdown for a later post.
The care for a garment begins at its inception. Any fabric and its nuances will react differently to the same care steps, so it's my job as the maker to ensure you the consumer have as little trouble as possible when trying to care for your garments.
Now knitters and crocheters, you will roll your eyes at me, but you really do need to make tension squares if you plan on selling or gifting your pieces. And it's always good to make a few to run wash tests. 3 is usually the golden number for me:
1 to wash normally as most people would in their homes, bung it in the washing machine on a normal wash at 30° and see what happens.
2 to handwash in your preferred way to get the best results you possibly can, treat it like gold dust.
3 to wash and tumble dry. Despite most advice not to tumble dry, accidents happen, so it's worth checking how tumble drying might affect your work and also whether or not you might want to include that in your finishing process.
Tumble drying my knits after their first wash has some people on the fence, but this is exactly why I tension swatch. For some garments like scarves, bags, berets etc. I want to create a thicker, denser fabric that insulates you but can also be sewn and cut without much consequence. Tumble drying acts as a method of speed felting in this instance. Tumble drying also pre-shrinks the garments, making them less likely to shrink when you wash them at home.
How to Look After Wool at Home
So let's get down to brass tacks... here are the steps I would take when washing your knits at home.
The first piece of advice is to wash your knits as little as possible! washing clothes does more damage than wearing them, so unless absolutely necessary, it's best to avoid washing where you can. The washing process can be broken down into 3 key elements: Water, Soap, and Agitation.
Warm Water. you need this to be warm enough that it helps soap break down and lift dirt, however, you don't want to burn yourself in the process.
Soap. Usually, if it's just a general wash any hand-washing detergent will work, I personally prefer to use a gentle handwashing soap that doesn't require a lot of agitation. Sometimes there are particularly stubborn stains, oily food stains, grease, etc. for which you will need a soap that is best for breaking down oils... my favourite is classic fairy liquid. Name-brand fairy liquid is ridiculously efficient at breaking down oils.
Agitation. You need to agitate your knits in order to release the dirt and oils, unfortunately, this is one of the things that can lead to shrinkage if done too much, so the best thing you can do is to gently rub and rinse your soapy knits in the warm water and then let it sit for a while. A cup of tea later and your knit is ready to be rinsed out.
30° or Bellow. I think that this should be standard for all your washing, but really the lower the temperature the better when it comes to machine washing.
Detergent Only. When it comes to knits the worst thing you can do is condition them. As mentioned before, makers endeavour to remove the waxy coating from the yarn before selling because it makes it feel rougher and less cosy and warm. Conditioning your fabrics is essentially adding a waxy coating back in. It's also why your towels are no longer soft and don't dry you as well anymore.
Agitation. Any machine washing setting includes agitation, so setting your machine to a delicate setting with less movement will do just as much as your knits need. I would warn against extra spins, more movement than necessary can cause your knits to shrink, especially as they start to dry.
Firstly I want to say... DO NOT TUMBLE DRY if you don't know what you are doing!!
Trust me when I say that nearly 100% of complaints about shrinkage come after someone has bunged it into the tumble dryer.
So what should you do instead?
Wring it out. Get as much excess liquid out as you can without roughing up the fabric too much.
Stretch it out flat to dry. Drying it flat is preferable to hanging it dry as hanging can cause the knit to come out of shape, which means when it's dry it will be slightly harder to block. if you arrange the knit in its proper shape to dry then the last step will be easier. (but I do realise that not everyone has the space or time to lay all their knits flat so just hang them, it's not the end of the world!)
Blocking. This is what will make your knit look nice and crisp again. Once it is bone dry you need to reset its shape to what it should be. First, you will need to set up your iron to a high steam setting with plenty of water in it, you are going to use a lot of steam. Essentially, you are ironing your knit without directly touching the iron to the wool, instead, you blast it with steam which will soften and reset the fibres memory, allowing it to fall into a more regular shape.
And that's really it! There are a million tips and tricks you can find, but this is what I have found works best for me and my knits, and I hope this makes you feel more confident in keeping your wardrobe at its best.