Dirty Work: How to Clean Your Handknits

bubblesThe same instinct that tells you not to wash your hair with laundry detergent applies to yarn as well. Such harsh soaps can be murder on a garment you took great care (possibly at great expense) to create. So take heed.

All protein fibers, from wool to human hair, have an outer layer of fine scales that protect and impact the overall appearance of the fiber. Harsh soaps can damage these scales, render fiber brittle and chalky, and strip the fiber of any remaining oil.

When this happens, the yarn loses its luster and can take on a dry, lifeless appearance. It can also lose its color, causing unsightly fading.

Exploring the Options

Many knitters debate about the best soap for washing handknitted garments made of natural fibers. There is no absolute answer, but here are some general guidelines.

  • Woolite. Although marketed for the care of fine handwashables, including, of course, wool, Woolite has had a reputation in the past for being too harsh on fibers and stripping them of their elasticity. I still avoid it.
  • Eucalan woolwash. The biodegradable Canadian wool wash is actually a rinse. You soak garments in a small amount diluted in water for at least 15 minutes. Then lift them out, squeeze out excess water, and lay flat to dry.Eucalan contains a small amount eucalyptus oil, which is a natural moth repellant. It also leaves garments smelling delicious. It also contains lanolin, which helps enhance the natural luster of wool. But if mere soaking doesn’t leave you feeling clean enough, or if you’re allergic to eucalyptus oil, you can try the lavender-infused version of Eucalan.
  • Kookaburra woolwash. Also biodegradable, this concentrated water-based soap can be used either as a rinsed or rinse-free wash. It contains tea tree oil, a natural fungicide and bacteriostat, as well as lanolin, to keep your woollens soft and supple.
  • Soak. A biodegradable, phosphate-free no-rinse woolwash with three, more “contemporary” fragrances. Think Body Shop for sheep.
  • Ivory soap. I use Ivory dishwashing liquid for all yarn tests. It is mild, cleans well, rinses out easily, and leaves little residue. Just a teaspoonful in a large dishpan of lukewarm water will do. It’s also biodegradable and phosphate free.
  • Shampoo. Fiber is just like hair, so why not treat it that way. The key here is to find the right shampoo. Look for gentle shampoos designed for everyday use on normal hair.Stay away from any shampoos for oily or damaged hair. Common recommendations include Alberto V05 and any baby shampoo. We’ve found Neutrogena shampoos to be too harsh.A spash of white vinegar in the rinse also helps neutralize the soap residue and keep it from damaging the fibers, especially with silks.
  • Conditioner. For added softness, especially when working with potentially scratchy wools, many people like to finish their wash with a dab of hair conditioner. It leaves the yarn extra soft, can help retain or even improve luster, and makes it smell wonderful.

Don’t Go Overboard

The key with all these options is moderation. Just a small dab of mild soap or conditioner will do. Adding too much will do more harm than good.

The Basic Protocol

There are a few minor differences between washing cellulose, protein, and synthetic fibers. But in general, here are the steps you want to take.

  1. First, fill a large sink with lukewarm water and add a dab of a mild soap (see above for a discussion of the most popular soaps). Just remember that standard laundry detergents may be too strong and strip your fibers of their natural luster.
  2. Drop the garment into the water and tap it down gently until it’s fully saturated with water. Don’t rub or agitate the garment, just gently squeeze it until all the fibers have been saturated with water.
  3. Let it rest for a minute or so (or longer if you’re using Eucalan), then squeeze the garment together and lift it out of the water. Drain the sink, and re-fill the sink with water of the same temperature. (Rapid changes in water temperature can cause felting.)
  4. Lower the garment back into the water, gently swish the clean water through the garment a few times, then gather and lift, drain, and repeat until the rinse water runs clear.
  5. Then lay the garment out on a towel (or several towels) and blot out the excess moisture before reshaping it (some garments will need more tugging and prodding to resume their original shape, while others will be just fine) and letting it dry on a flat surface—either a few towels or a specialty drying rack you can get at most home stores such as Target.

Common Questions

Is dry cleaning OK?

Dry cleaning—a chemical process—can significantly damage natural fibers. I do not, ever, send sweaters to be dry cleaned. For truly precious garments, I soak them in Eucalan or Kookaburra and lay them flat on a sweater screen to dry.

Is water temperature really important?

Only where hot water is concerned, and the simple answer there is don’t! We find lukewarm to warm (120 degrees F maximum) water is the best solution if you want to get your garments clean. Soap breaks down more easily in lukewarm water, which means cleaner garments.

Washing particularly dark or richly colored garments in lukewarm water may result in a small amount of color bleeding. Deciding whether or not to take the risk is up to you.

What do I do if my colors bleed?

Depending on the dye process, many bleeding colors can be stopped in their tracks by the simple addition of a slosh of white vinegar into the wash water.

What’s the best way to dry my handknitted garments?

We all know that wringing garments dry is a no-no. Instead, try placing the garment in your washing machine on the spin cycle for 10 seconds. This will remove the excess water without deforming the garment structure. Any more than 10 seconds in the machine and you’re on your own!

Then you can place it on a sweater rack or any other flat, porous surface to dry—always away from direct sunlight.

Another older technique is to lay the garment flat on one or several towels, then roll it up and apply gentle pressure to squeeze out excess water. Then proceeed to lay flat to dry.

The reason you want to dry garments flat is to preserve their original shape. Hanging anything over the back of a chair will cause it to stretch out of shape.

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