You can get away with not washing wool significantly longer than you can with cotton or synthetics, but at some point the time arrives to freshen up. If you own items that are made from wool, that magical material that performs so well in the outdoors, it is advisable that you learn how to keep those sweaters, next-to-skin base layers, hats, and mittens clean without collateral damage.
Shrinkage. It Shrinks? Yes – well technically it is called felting or milling, a fascinating feature that is not even fully understood by the Scottish wool authorities. The simple explanation involves the fact that the cuticle layer of a wool fiber has raised scales. These scales catch on each other (think lobster trap) because once manufactured they don’t all point in the same direction as they do when growing upon a sheep. Makes sense, but it’s not quite right as experiments reveal that the scale edges have nothing to do with the directional movements of the fiber. I suppose what all this means is that felting occurs beyond the microscopic surface and is much more complicated than we know. Science and terminology aside, when you accidentally activate this unique property of wool, you end up with a shrunken garment. You are a little bit angry and not so fascinated by directional movement, which has left you with mini-clothes. To avoid this, follow these simple instructions: USE COOL TO LUKEWARM WATER ONLY. DO NOT PUT IN DRYER.
Pilling. Sadly, this will happen to wool even if you never wash it, but the process of washing aggravates the situation. When loose fibers come to the surface and are met by abrasive forces those pesky little pills are created. Rough washing will increase the likelihood that fibers will come loose, which are then subject to everyday wear. To help with the problem of pilling, turn items inside out and wash on a gentle cycle or by hand.
Extra tips . . .
The great thing about a piece of technical outerwear is that it always comes with complete care instructions. Always do what those labels tell you! For wool’s sake, listen to the label.
Do not bleach. This is too harsh and harmful for the fibers. Be kind to the fibers, use a delicate soap.
Dry flat. Wet wool will form to the shape it is placed in so don’t be a neat freak or a slob. It is best to avoid hangers or lazily leaving the item in a lumpy heap.
If you are paranoid about dropping your ultra cute, Après-ski, 100% cashmere sweater into a washing machine, you must take the time to hand wash. As this is not my area of expertise, I will provide this link to Martha Stewart and I’m sure she will be able to help. I am currently in the market for such a sweater, I am already paranoid, and hope to master the hand wash technique.
Conclusion: When the trip, or in some cases the long cold winter, comes to an end, wash your woolens. While remaining remarkably odor-free as it wicks moisture and keeps you warm and dry, eventually even wool gets stinky. Reward it for holding out as long as it did. You should also consider a soak in the tub or a bubble bath for yourself.