How to Care for Wool

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How to Care for Wool

Wool is a wonderful natural fibre people have used for over 3,000 years to weave, knit, and crochet garments and household linens. The oldest verified woollen cloth was found in Denmark and dates to approximately 1500 B.C. Most commercial wool today comes from Australia, New Zealand, China, or the United States. Hair, fur, and wool are essentially the same substance, although there may be minor cellular or structural variations from one animal to the next. There is nothing magical about wool that enables it to become a textile fibre; it is a little-known fact that cat and dog fur and even human hair can be spun into yarn. Still, wool is easier to collect in large quantities and far more culturally acceptable.

Despite its positive attributes as a textile, maintaining wool can be tricky, as wool is easily destroyed with improper care. Anyone who wishes to work with wool or own woollen items should be aware of how to best care for wool by cleaning and storing it well to help the fibre maintain its good qualities.

Positive and Negative Attributes of Wool

Wool fibre has many positive qualities but a few negative ones as well. The benefits outweigh the drawbacks, but wool buyers and owners should still be aware of these qualities.

Benefits of Wool

Wool is a natural, renewable fibre that is harvested from animals without harming them, although this point is debatable, as the living conditions of the animals vary widely and are at the control of the humans who raise these animals. Pure wool is lightweight, strong, and warm. It is also absorbent, flame-resistant, and wrinkle-resistant in general. Wool is well-suited for both woven and knitted fabrics as well as hand knitting and crocheting.

Drawbacks of Wool

Wool shrinks easily with improper care and turns to felt when washed in hot water. A wool garment does wear out and may even mat over time from the friction created by moving. Wool also attracts a certain type of moth whose larvae feed on wool, leaving holes in woollen items. Some people are allergic to lanolin (sebum that is excreted by the sheep's skin) or find the scratchy feel of wool to be intolerable. Finally, pure wool can be costly. Manufacturers often blend 100 percent wool with other fibres, such as acrylic, to reduce its negative qualities and add or enhance positive ones.

Types of Wool

The most common type of wool or standard wool is ovine or sheep's wool. Lambswool, also known as virgin wool, is taken from the first shearing of a young sheep and is considered to be the highest quality sheep's wool. Wool can be obtained from several other types of animals as well. Each type of wool has unique characteristics, as described in the chart below.

Animal

Wool Type

Positive Characteristics

Negative Characteristics

Alpaca

Alpaca

Warm, moderately strong, hypoallergenic, pill-resistant, lustrous

Felts, sheds, stretches

Rabbit

Angora

Soft, silky, fluffy, warm, durable, lustrous

Felts, weaker, inelastic, costly, difficult to clean

Camel

Camel

Soft, strong, warm, lightweight

Costly, sheds

Goat

Cashmere

Warmer than sheep's wool, strong, hypoallergenic

Stretches, pills, costly

Goat

Mohair

Silky, lustrous, strong, lightweight, flame-resistant, does not felt

Costly

Muskoxen

Qiviut

Shrink-resistant, lightweight, strong, soft, does not felt, hypoallergenic

Stretches

Vicuña

Vicuña

Warm, soft

Rare, costly

Sheep

Wool

Warm, strong

Scratchy, may cause allergic reactions

While some fibres are referred to as "wool" or "fleece" and others as "fur" or "hair", all of these items are essentially the same: keratinous insulating outgrowths from animal skin. No matter which animal the fibres come from, all wool requires the same basic cleaning and storage care to keep it in good condition.

How to Clean Wool and Keep It Clean

Because wool has the highest tendency to shrink of any fibre, washing should be kept to an absolute minimum. With proper care, actual washing or cleaning should be required only about every six months, perhaps at the beginning and end of a season. There are several ways to handle this cleaning process and extend the intervals between cleanings.

Layering Garments

One of the best ways to cut down on cleaning wool clothing is to avoid wearing it next to the skin. When a wool garment has no direct contact with dead skin cells, perspiration, or body oils, it should not smell or become dirty other than from environmental causes. In the case of a jacket, waistcoat, or jumper, one might wear a shirt, blouse, or tee shirt underneath the woollen item. Wool trousers and skirts are typically lined; however, if not, they can be layered over hosiery or even leggings. One might wish to layer lined garments to keep the linings clean.

Airing Out After Wearing

Another tip for extending the length of time between cleanings is to hang a wool garment immediately after removing it and allow it to air out. Air helps to remove moisture and odours, and hanging allows gravity to help pull out wrinkles. The item can be hung on a hanger on the shower curtain rod or a garment rack, or it can be hung outside in fresh air for a few hours on a dry day. Make sure the piece has plenty of fresh air and light; do not simply hang it back in the closet for airing, as this is not effective in allowing the garment to breathe.

Spot Cleaning

If a spot shows up on a wool piece, it is not usually necessary to wash the whole item. Applying soap, detergent, or a special stain remover to the spot is a good way to avoid unnecessarily exposing the entire garment to water. After rinsing the spot, blot it dry with towels and allow the piece to air dry.

Home Dry Cleaning

A woollen garment that has become a little smelly may simply need some freshening up. The at-home dry cleaning kits are a good way to avoid the expense of professional dry cleaning and care for woollen items. Most of these kits contain a spot remover and a special packet one places in a bag along with the garment to be cleaned. After the bag is placed in the dryer, the heat activates moisture to create steam; fragrances are also released to mask odours. The steam helps to release wrinkles without actually wetting the fibres.

Hand Washing

Some people automatically think of dry cleaning whenever they think of wool care, but keep in mind that dry cleaning was not invented until the mid-19th century, and wool has been used for thousands of years. It follows that many people did, in fact, wash woollen items. Hand washing is the safest way to wash wool and is far less expensive than dry cleaning. Soaking wool in cool water with very little movement usually does a fine job of cleaning and freshening the fibres, particularly if the practices of layering, airing, and spot cleaning have been observed.

Before washing wool, keep in mind that one must never do the following:

  • Add bleach. Bleach destroys wool.
  • Use hot water. Hot water shrinks wool.
  • Vigorously swish the garment. Agitation causes wool to felt.
  • Wring out the garment. This distorts the garment's shape.
  • Place the item in a tumble dryer. The piece is likely to shrink.
  • Hang a wet item. Wet wool is heavy and stretches out of shape quite easily.

Be sure to shake out a wool item before washing to remove as much dust and dirt as possible. Then, fill a tub or basin with cool to lukewarm water and a mild detergent created especially for wool. One could also use a non-conditioning shampoo. Allow the item to soak for up to half an hour with minimal movement. Drain the dirty water and repeat the process. If the water still appears dirty after the second soaking, continue to refill with fresh water and detergent until the water appears fairly clear. The final soaking should be in clean water to rinse out the detergent and remove any remaining dirt. Finally, blot the garment between two towels to remove excess moisture and lay it out on a flat surface to dry.

Dry Cleaning

In order to prevent shrinkage, one should have wool items professionally dry cleaned; however, this process should not be used too often, as the harsh chemicals eventually degrade wool fibres. Using the layering, airing, and spot cleaning tips, dry cleaning can usually be done as little as once a year. Be sure to allow dry-cleaned items to air out thoroughly before wearing or storing so that all traces of chemicals have a chance to dissipate.

How to Store Wool

Wool is notorious for attracting a specific wool-eating moth known as Tineola bisselliella. These moths are particularly drawn to dirty items, so always clean wool before storing it. Also, be sure that the wool is thoroughly dry before putting it away. Avoid storing wool in a damp cellar; be sure it is kept in a dry environment. Use the following additional tips for good wool storage practice.

Avoid Mothballs

Although people have used mothballs for over a century, modern wisdom says that mothballs should generally be avoided. They are foul-smelling and toxic, and possibly carcinogenic. Mothballs are particularly dangerous to children and pets, who may accidentally ingest them out of curiosity.

Be Sceptical About Cedar and Herbal Remedies

People have long touted cedar as a simple moth repellant, but the truth is that it likely has little effect. The strong smell of fresh cedar may mask the smell of wool, thereby diverting moths, but does not necessarily repel moths. The same goes for herbs such as lavender that are often used in sachets to keep with woollen items. Of course, there is no harm done by using these scents, so by all means, use them if desired. Herbal fragrances are infinitely more pleasant than mothball odour. Just remember that the fragrances must be quite strong in order to have an effect, so be sure the scent is one that is tolerable when worn.

Use Clear, Airtight Containers

Unlike the proverbial moth to a flame, a wool-eating moth prefers darkness. Keeping these moths from a wool stash is made easier by storing woollens where they are exposed to light. This does not mean keeping a light bulb burning in the attic or closet, however. A basement, attic, or spare room with a window is a perfect place to store wool. Clear plastic containers with airtight lids are ideal for letting light in and keeping pests out. Zipper-lock storage bags and vacuum-sealed storage bags are other good options.

Where to Find Wool

One can find wool at hobby shops, art shops, craft shops, specialty knitting boutiques, discount shops, department stores, bargain and closeout stores, and craft fairs. Some people sell pre-owned wool, either in full skeins or partially used after completing a craft project. Be sure to inspect this wool carefully, because if it has not been properly stored, it may be infested or mildewed and in poor shape for using. Wool is available online from retailers or from sources such as Internet auctions, where both brand-new and used wool is sold.

How to Buy Wool on eBay

Buying wool on eBay is a lot of fun and incredibly convenient. From the comfort of home, you can browse through thousands of colours and textures within a short time. To start shopping for wool, begin at eBay's home page and find the link to all categories. Click this link and then scan the available categories to find the most appropriate group. Continue clicking categories until you arrive at wool.

You can also shop by returning to the home page and entering a word or phrase into the Search field. You might try simply "wool" or a more specific entry such as "grey merino wool". After you click Search or press Enter, eBay redirects you to a page with all active listings that are tagged with your chosen search terms. You can then click on the appropriate category to narrow down the results if you wish, or you may start shopping from this point.

Either way you shop, eBay offers you many ways to customise your search and narrow down items within a matter of seconds.

Conclusion

Wool is a good, sturdy fibre for apparel and household textiles. Many people appreciate the fact that wool is natural and renewable. While wool has many good qualities, it does require proper care in order to stay in good condition.

Cleaning wool can do harm or good, depending on how it is carried out. Too much exposure to water can shrink or stretch wool, so extending the time between cleanings by layering wool, airing it out, and treating spots only is ideal. When it comes time to washing, hand washing is the only way to go. At-home dry-cleaning kits can be used to freshen a garment, and professional dry cleaning is appropriate once or twice a year for a thorough cleaning or in place of hand washing.

The main concern when storing wool is eliminating moths and larvae that feed on and ruin wool. Mothballs have little benefit and should not be used. Although scented woods and herbs are not 100 percent effective, there is no harm in using them, and some strong fragrances may mask the natural wool scent that attracts the moths. By cleaning wool before storing and keeping it dry, most moths can be avoided.

While it does take a little effort to care for wool, the effort is worth it. Wool is a wonderfully warm and soft fibre that looks classy and even luxurious at times. Keeping wool in good condition extends the life of the item so it can be used and enjoyed for a long time to come.

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