Time to put your woolens to bed


My tulips are about to bloom—a sure sign of spring and warming weather. They also signal that it's time to get your knits ready for a long nap! (I love how that red tulip is popping out of the yellow field. I think it's singing "I gotta be me!")


As warm weather approaches, so does the time to put our woolens away until the fall.

I don't like to put my sweaters away dirty, so I usually wash them all before gently folding them and putting them in their winter cubbies. If this seems like a daunting project, it is! Most of my older sweaters are made from wool or wool blends, so they have to be washed by hand and dried flat. It takes me a few days to wash them because I don't have a lot of room to let a bunch of them sit out to dry all at once; I have to wash and dry them in pairs.

I use one of the newer wool washes, Soak, which doesn't need to be rinsed out, and then I let the sweater sit in a dish rack so much of the water can drip out. After about an hour, I roll the sweater in a towel and stand on it to squeeze out most of the rest of the water. Then I work it back into shape and let it dry on a sweater rack. I turn it about two or three times to make sure it dries evenly. After the sweater is completely dry, I put it in the dryer on the fluff setting for about 5 minutes, just to get out any stiffness. Works like a charm!

Recently, though, I've started knitting sweaters using some of the wonderful superwash wools out there. I was skeptical at first—do they really go through the washer and dryer and not felt or stretch woefully and permanently out of shape? I wasn't brave enough to try it.

But then I read an article in the fall 2010 issue of Interweave Knits by yarn expert Clara Parkes. She reviewed several superwash wools and explained the process of making machine-washable wool.

Here's an excerpt from Clara's article.

A simple fact of wool is that, when submerged in warm soapy water and agitated, it will felt. The wool of some breeds felts more readily than that of others, but nearly all eventually will turn into a dense, solid mass of fiber. For centuries, people wither exploited this phenomenon to create beautiful fabric or avoided it by gently washing their woolens. But then the washing machine, with its lure of quick and easy care, and that's when the real work began to create a machine-washable wool.

The problem lies in the microscopic scales that line the surface of each wool fiber. When soaked, the fibers absorb water and the tips of the scales pop out, inviting permanent enmeshment with one another as soon as the agitation dance begins. The scales are there to protect the fiber, which is why we can't just peel them off. We'd be left with a brittle, chalky material we wouldn't want anywhere near out needles. Instead, scientists first tried to coat the fibers with a synthetic resin, figuring that the scales would no longer do any harm if they were glued down. But the resin interfered with wool's absorbency, making it rather sticky, unpleasant and difficult to dye.

The modern process takes a different approach: It involves treating the fibers with enzymes that nibble away at the outer edges of those little scales without disturbing their deep, overlapping roots. The result is a slightly smoother fiber that eagerly absorbs dye, breathes well, and won't surprise you in the washing machine. You'll find machine-washable wool in all kinds of yarns, including those shown below.

Filatura di Crosa Zara Plus (Tahki Stacy Charles)
Contents: 100% extrafine merino wool Put-Up: 77 yd [70 m]/50 g Construction: Nine 2-ply strands Care: Machine wash in lukewarm water, no bleach, dry flat, use a warm iron Recommended Gauge: 18 sts = 4" on size 7 (4.5 mm) to 9 (5.5 mm)

Spun in Italy from a higher grade of merino called "extrafine," Zara Plus is a perfect example of the power of the ply. Eighteen tiny strands of merino have been paired up and plied together into nine two-ply strands that have been further plied together, with all the twist going in the same direction during both steps. This construction gives a tremendous amount of spring and elasticity to the finished yarn while also strengthening those tender, delicate fibers. It's a splendid plump and bouncy yarn with great stitch clarity.

Alchemy Juniper
Contents: 100% superfine merino wool Put-Up: 232 yd [212 m]/50 g Construction: Four 2-ply strands Care: Machine wash gentle cycle, tumble dry low heat Recommended Gauge: 32 sts = 4" on size 2 (2.75 mm)

Sock yarns are ideal candidates for machine-washable wools because many people consider their socks clean only if they've been sloshed around in a washing machine. Juniper is one of the finest, most luxurious machine-washable sock yarns on the market. Made from an even finer grade of merino fiber, it contains delicate strands of wool plied together in pairs, and then four of those plied strands have been further twisted together in the same direction. The result is a bouncy, strong, and well-rounded yarn made even more perfect by Alchemy's exquisite handpainted colors.

Brown Sheep Lamb's Pride Superwash
Contents: 100% wool Put-Up: 200 yd [183 m]/100 g Construction: 3 ply Care: Machine wash, lay flat to dry or dry-clean Recommended Gauge: 18-20 sts = 4" on size 7 (4.5 mm) or 8(5mm)

We begin with the Number 2 pencil of machine-washable wools. Spun in the United States from medium-grade wool, Lamb's Pride Superwash comes in more than sixty colors. It renders all stitches evenly, with the slightly puffy finish lending a hint of the rustic to the finished product.

Here's my sister modeling my Sand Dollar Pullover. Doesn't she look great?

Clara inspired me to make a sweater out of Zara Plus, one of the superwash wools she reviewed.

I love Norah Gaughan, and I decided to use Zara Plus to make her Sand Dollar Pullover, shown at right. I love this sweater, both the design and the yarn. It goes through the washing machine beautifully, though I've only dried it once. I lay it flat to dry now, just because I'm a scaredy cat and I want this sweater to last forever!

To read more about washable wools, get your copy of the Fall 2010 Interweave Knits before it's gone forever!


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