How to care for wool clothing

Why are we so afraid of washing wool? Wool is naturally stain resistant, odor resistant, crease resistant and in reality requires much less washing than other fibers. So why is our first instinct to dry clean wool garments or maybe avoid wool all together? After all, we are smart, intelligent people. We can take on this resilient wool fiber. I know what makes us cringe. I've been there too, it's the dreaded shrinkage.  I can not tell you how many times I have bequeathed shrunken sweaters and socks to my daughter or admonished my husband over wool care. But I do love wool and the natural benefits the fabric provides. I decided to do the research and uncover the truth about washing wool. And I'm here to tell you, caring for your wool garments does not have to be wrought with dry cleaning bills and anxiety. Let's address our wool fears one by one and walk away with a clear understanding of how to wash wool clothing.

First off, wool has naturally wicking capabilities and can be easily cared for without washing.  Before having to wash your wool products you can practice several steps toward proper care keeping your clothing looking fresh and lasting longer. 

Proper Care for Wool Fabric 

Treat stains, like small food stains, by spot cleaning with water and *mild soap or wool detergent (see below regarding mild detergents.)

Remove pilled fabric, lint, and pet hair with a fuzz remover or fabric shaver. Don't have either?  Pull a 6 inch piece of packing tape, make a loop with sticky side out. Then apply repeatedly sticky side to the garment pulling up free lint and pills. 

Air out wool sweaters after each wear on a drying rack, not a hanger. 

Avoid hanging wool on hangers. Instead, fold them and store them, ideally, in a cedar dresser drawer. 

Wash your wool sweaters one time at the end of the season before you place in storage. 

Keep pest away - Store wool knits in an airtight plastic bin for long-term storage. As an added bug deterrent, place a dry lavender sachet in the container.

Now that you are helping your wool last longer, the next steps is washing. Always check the care instructions. If the care label states the fabric is not safe for the washing machine, it is probably still acceptable to hand wash it. Many companies state dry cleaning as a catch-all to avoid at home mistakes. Dry cleaner is always an option, but this gets pricey and can add chemicals to your wool. For a more hands on approach I recommend hand washing until you are comfortable moving to a gentle cycle machine wash. To begin hand washing reference these steps:  

How to Hand Wash Wool Clothing

1. Add a bit of mild wool detergent into a sink or basin and fill with cool to room temperature water. Mild or neutral detergents have a relatively neutral pH level. Wool wash detergents are all mild and are suitable for washing wool in the washing machine and also for hand washing wool clotheswool blankets and other wool items. Using a delicate, mild detergent should be your go-to when hand washing or machine washing wool clothing. 

When selecting your mild detergent, if powdered detergents are used, it is always best to pre-dissolve the detergent prior to adding to the wash. This helps to prevent concentrated specks of detergent from coming into contact with the woolen products, which may cause holes.

Final rinse softeners or conditioners may be used, but be careful keep the amount down to minimum. Excessive amount of softener can lead to the formation of pills. This is because softeners tend to act as a lubricant and enable fibers to move out onto the surface of the sweater more easily tangling with each other to form the little pills.

Never use bleach, either chlorine or oxygen based, when washing wool.

2. Next, turn the garment inside-out, place under water and move it around to allow the soap to penetrate the fibers. DO NOT rub the fabric together and do not let it soak for longer than 10 minutes.

3. Rinse the garment twice to remove all soapy residue.

4. Avoid wringing out wool clothing. Instead, press or squeeze out as much excess water as you can. Then lay garments flat on top of a dry clean towel and roll to remove excess moisture.

5. Do not hang dry. To avoid stretching and to maintain the original shape lay wool items flat on a fresh towel to air dry avoiding direct sunlight. Carefully adjust the shape of the sweater to keep the original shape. 

How to Clean Wool in the Washing Machine

The most convenient option is, of course ,the washing machine. This is also where mishaps can happen. Most frustration stems from ruining our garments by mis-understanding the material and unintentionally shrinking in the wash. To back up, let's go to the source. We all know sheep's wool is made entirely of animal protein. Each strand is coated in tiny, sharp scales. On a sheep, these scales all point in the same direction, so they don’t tangle. They’re also covered in a natural oil called lanolin which protects the sheep’s skin and keeps the wool from shrinking or tangling. The processes turning virgin wool into yarn and fabrics strip the lanolin, stretch and twist the protein until they are pointing in every direction. That stretching and twisting make it easier for the scales to overlap and hook onto each other.

When you add heat and motion to the already distressed fiber, the scales latch onto each other. Individual fibers bind together, pulling the whole garment tighter together. AKA, shrinking it.  Modern wool garments are sturdier than ever. Today wool is treated to make it easier to wash without shrinking it. Let go of the shrinkage scaries and husband blame game with these steps and key tips.  

1. First prep your wool clothes by dusting off any surface dirt then turn inside-out.

2. Look for the washing machine delicate cycle. You machine may have a wool cycle, wool setting or hand wash cycle. Set to one of these settings. 

3. Use cold water and a mild liquid detergent (see above regarding mild detergent.) 

* DO NOT use hot water. Remember, applying direct heat to wool fiber is what causes the yarn to shrink.

4. Add an extra rinse to the wash cycle.

VIP - Very Important Point. Do not apply direct heat to your wool. Repeat, do not tumble dry your wool clothing. 

5. To dry wool lay the item flat in order to air dry. Use on a clean towel (see above.)

6. If you must iron a wool sweater be sure to use the coolest setting and lay a thin layer of cloth on top of the garment.

When cared for properly wool clothes can last for years (i.e my dad's letterman sweater and my grandmother's caring hand.) Feel confident making that wool sweater investment, knowing you now have the power to commit to the care and longevity of this beautiful fabric. Now that we have shed some light on old washing wool yarns we do knot need to feel sheepish. Okay Okay, predictable wool puns aside, feel free to test carefully with your new found power and remember - Quality care for your garment will pay off with a timelessness and versatility in your closet. Only time wool tell. ; )

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