Friday, April 17, 2015

Care of the Hand-Knitted Sweater: Classic Wool

(Reclaimed from Bubblews, where it appeared on February 5, 2014. Photo credit: Victoria Cooley. More about the wool sweater shown here at

Wool is basically the fur of soft, cuddly animals, and is best washed as you would wash an animal. Adjust the water in the sink to about body temperature, add a mild soap like Woolite or Eucalan, and gently swish the wool through the water without stretching or rubbing. Squeeze out soap. Rinse thoroughly by running water, as close to body temperature as possible, slowly through the wool. It’s important to rinse out all the soap; soap will irritate the skin and make you think you’ve become allergic to your wool sweater. Squeeze out the water and, working quickly but gently, spread the wool back to its original size and shape and secure it while it dries. You can use a box of straight pins to hold the wool against a big piece of cardboard, buy special wires called “Blockers” to construct reusable adjustable frames for each of your wool garments, or even buy boards cut to the shapes of socks, shapes, or mittens, on which to dry wool pieces. (Wool berets were traditionally stretched over a dinner plate to dry. Wool stocking caps are best dried on a wig block.)

Some wools are treated with chemicals that reduce shrinking and matting—a little—when the wool is machine washed. Gena Greene tries to avoid these wools since these chemicals also irritate the skin of anyone who tries to wear them. All wool, regardless of how many harsh chemicals have been soaked into it, will shrink if not stretched out to shape while wet. All wool will also mat or felt up if it’s wrung, rubbed, or squeezed together. 

Because cleaning wool is such a chore, we recommend not wearing large wool garments next to the skin. Coats and blankets don’t need to be washed as often as shirts do. Wool is supposed to smell like a clean, healthy, cuddly animal.

An alternative method of cleaning wool, misleadingly called “dry cleaning,” was used in the twentieth century and is still practiced in some cities. We don’t recommend it. The chemical fluids used to remove odors seldom completely cleaned the wool, frequently harmed the cleaners, and never did the environment any good. You may, however, be able to find a professional wool washer who will clean a wool sweater with the care it deserves.