Wednesday 22 July 2015

My humble thoughts on superwash wool

My sheepy friends from Bendi

Our lives are privileged enough to be able to enjoy the modern conveniences of washing machines and dryers and it only makes sense that we want our clothing to actually be washed in those machines. Maybe it is wool and other luxury fibres such as silk and cashmere's reputation for being high maintenance that makes people shirk away from buying and wearing everyday garments made of these fibres. Maybe an industry response to this was to make wool more convenient and hence developing a process that will allow it to be washed in a machine and not come out as a shrunken felted mess. Or maybe scientists just need to show how clever they are and they worked out how to "superwash" wool and everyone thinks it's the best thing since sliced bread. Well, I respect that those scientist are very clever but now that I know what is actually done to the woollen fibres to make it machine washable I am reconsidering my interest in superwash wool.

I'm not an expert but my basic understanding is that fibre, especially animal fibre is actually made up of lots of scales when you look at it on a microscopic level. When this fibre is agitated rigorously like it is in a washing machine the scales will get all jumbled up and and will mat together and become felt. That's all fine and dandy when you actually want to felt and object but if that's not what you want then you're bound to face the chore of handwashing woollens at some stage of your fibre loving life.

Now again, basic understanding here but when wool is turned into superwash wool it goes through the very unnatural process of being washed with chlorine to strip the fibres of the scales and then the fibre is coated with a plastic polymer so that the fibre is kept 'smooth' and it will not be able to felt when machine washed. 

There are some noticeable pros with superwash wool such as it absorbs dye better and hence it has become a bit of a favourite fibre among the hand dyeing community. I have also mentioned in a past post that I noticed that the superwash garments that I have knit for my kids have pilled less and that I was actually going to use superwash for their clothes in the future - but that claim was made before I learnt about the superwash process. I am not a super conscious eco person so I will not be purging all superwash from my stash never to touch it again. My only aim is to avoid it if I have other options and to challenge myself to discover more yarns that have been exposed to less processing.

I think it was sometime last year that the Swans Island Company released a Ecowash line of yarns to their range. They explain that they use a natural process to turn their organic merino wool into a machine washable yarn. Their technique uses and organic enzyme that will render the yarn washable and prevent it from felting. I am really interested in trying this yarn and hope to make my child garments from this in the future.

There are many reasons why I love wool and one of them is because it is a natural fibre and now that I know a bit about the superwash process I kind of wonder why would we submit this beautiful fibre to such and unnatural process. I handwash all my knits regardless of what type of wool I used to make it with so I don't actually have a good reason to use superwash wool. It is my own personal aim to avoid superwash and I am not trying to be an advocate for anti-superwash sentiment but I thought it was worthwhile explaining myself.

Ashley Yousling's Woolful blog has also got an interesting post about superwashing fibre and she is much more informed that I am on the topic. Check it out here if you want to read more. Also, Ashley's latest podcast episode (29) features Jackie Ottino-Graf from the Swans Island Company and she explains a little about their Ecowash line and discusses it's good points. I really enjoyed listening to the episode and I have a renewed interest in trying their yarn for a knit that I plan to do for Sir S.

I hope I'm not stepping on any toes and offending anyone in the fibre community. This is really just my humble opinion and I respect all who are involved in this industry that enables me to knit with a wonderful fibre.


  1. I read about the Swan Island ecowash process just this week too! I'm keen to try the yarn, but to be honest - I still find handwashing keeps handknits in their best condition, regardless of the yarn used.

    Superwash has let me down on numerous occasions by stretching or "growing" with wear and washing. I can't say I'm a fan of either the product or of the process used to create it, so I now tend to stick with my woolly yarns :) That said, a lot of indie sock yarn dyers use it for their base, so it can be hard to avoid all together...

    1. Thanks for your comment kgirlknits :). I agree with handwashing and though at times I'm tempted to throw one of the kids' knits into the wash I have never been able to do it in the end.

      It is hard to avoid superwash all together and there are just some times where I can't go past a particular colourway from an indie dyer. I guess the first step to changing habits is to have an awareness of where the yarn comes from and what processes it has undergone.