Have you ever noticed that some machine-washable wools behave differently than others? It’s not your imagination.
There is no single, universal process for shrink-proofing wool. A handful exist. The most common is Chlorine Hercosett, which involves exposing the fibers to a dilute chlorine solution and then sealing them with a synthetic polymer known as Hercosett 125.
The downside to this (and similar processes) is that it requires lots of water and potentially polluting agents, which can easily find their way into our rivers and groundwater. While some manufacturers dispose of far cleaner wastewater than others, it’s still a concern.
Making matters worse, you’ll never know how a particular wool yarn was processed. Sometimes the yarn company doesn’t even know. You can only swatch, wash, and hope.
And then there’s Rosy Green Wool.
A quick glance at Rosy Green Wool’s extra fine Merino yarn belbels reveals something different: a Global Organic Textile Standards-certified mark.
This indicates that no potentially dangerous chemicals or pollutants were used in any part of the making of that yarn, from the sheep to the scouring, processing, dyeing, or even distribution. The GOTS mark also indicates compliance with a whole set of social criteria ensuring worker welfare.
What makes the GOTS mark unusual is that it shares the yarn label with the internationally recognized symbol for machine-washability. Without chemicals? How did they do it?
Textile scientists have been working for the last decade to develop “greener” machine-washable wool processes that require less energy and generate less pollution. Two have entered mainstream production and gained GOTS certification: EXP and plasma.
EXP (named for Ex-Pollution) uses natural enzymes and biopolymers to do the work of the chlorine and Hercosett. The plasma process, on the other hand, produces no wastewater and uses no chemicals, just a mix of non-polluting electrons, ions, and free radicals. Both are extremely promising.
Rosy Green Wool asked not to go on the record about which of the two processes it currently uses. But either way, the company offers a welcome alternative for those of you who’ve vetoed superwash because of environmental or humanitarian concerns. I should also note that the wool in this yarn comes from Patagonia, where mulesing is not practiced.
For this review I chose the bulky incarnation of Rosy Green Wool’s extra fine Merino. It’s called, fittingly, Big Merino Hug.
This yarn gets its girth from five worsted-spun plies that are loosely twisted together. What seemed rather languid, almost stringy on the skein sprang to life the minute I put it on my swift and began winding it into a ball. The yarn kept jumping over the top of the winder cone and making a jumble. It was almost as if the fibers weren’t able to absorb the static being generated by the winder.
That energy continued on the needles. To test the wool’s clinginess, I picked a slick pair of Addi Turbo Rockets and cast on. By the end of the second row, the yarn started to twist back on itself. I’d pull a generous amount out of the ball, run my fingers along it to even the twist, and it seemed to do the job. But I was worried that the pent up twist would change the appearance of my stitches.
Ironically, while everything else tightened up, the last stitch on each row was completely open, with all five plies standing side by side waiting for the needle to snag them. They were the only plies that snagged while I knit.
I noticed a faint left-leaning bias in my swatch.
I washed one swatch by hand using warm water and mild soap, and I washed an identical swatch in my ASKO front-loading washing machine on its lukewarm setting. To simulate the friction of a full-sized garment, I added two small woven dishtowels to the wash.
The handwashed swatch took its sweet time settling down into the water. It washed and rinsed clear with very little fiber residue left in the wash water. When I blotted it, the wet swatch had a hint of that citric acid smell from the dyehouse. But it was happy to be prodded back into shape and left to dry on a terrycloth towel.
The hand-washed swatch dried to an expanded gauge from 4.5 stitches per inch (unwashed) to 4.25 stitches per inch. But wait, it gets more interesting.
The machine-washed swatch did not fare nearly as well. It emerged in a shaggy state, with little white dishtowel bits enmeshed in the fuzz. If that had been a sweater, I’d have been devastated. However, the gauge was unchanged.
I went back to the label and studied it more closely. Most of the references on the web simply said “machine washable,” but look again and you’ll see two very important things on that international washing machine symbol. First is the number 30, which indicates washing at a maximum temperature of 86 degrees. (I double-checked, and my front-loader heated the water to 85 degrees.)
But second, and perhaps more important, is the presence of two lines beneath the bowl symbol. Following Lion Brand’s handy chart, I saw the fateful words: “Machine Wash, Gentle or Delicate.” Ah.
I knit another swatch and tossed it into the machine along with two, now extremely clean dish towels. The swatch emerged in beautiful shape, with no change in gauge whatsoever.
By the very nature of their Merino designation, these fibers are going to fall squarely in the range of soft. I couldn’t detect even a hint of prickle after spending the day with a swatch tucked against my skin. If anything, the fibers have the dry, cottony feel of a fine cashmere.
Abrasion is the real issue, especially in machine-washable wools where the scales have been diminished. I appreciate the presence of five plies for strength and stability. It took quite a bit of friction for the pilling to begin. Once it did, the pills were easily plucked off my hand.
I love that we, in the handknitting world, are early adopters of the newest, greenest shrinkproof treatments for wool. We may be practitioners of an ancient craft, but we’re still leading the way.
According to the label, a size 38 to 40 sweater will require 600g, or six skeins—putting a sweater in the relatively attainable range of $132. For fibers of this quality, produced with an integrity that is traceable and auditable at each step of the way, that’s a very fair price.
I only wish there were a big asterisk around that machine-washable icon on the label, or better yet, actual words instead of an icon. As in, “Wait! Don’t just toss this in the machine! It must be on the gentle / hand wash setting.” (Which is how many of us already wash our woolens, machine-washable or otherwise.)
Most of us hear the words “machine washable” and assume one thing—that we can toss the finished item in the washing machine, maybe even the dryer, without worry. That is absolutely not the case here. Any gifts will need to come with clear, detailed instructions.
All the more reason to knit those swatches first, and wash them exactly as you plan on washing the garment, right?
Sophy0075 | March 5, 2018
Excellent to know. I loathe using superwash because of the chemicals and the fact that communist China does 99+% of all superwash, but when knitting for new moms who don’t knit, their tired eyes cross when given hand wash instructions. “Hand wash cold” or “machine wash, gentle cycle, lay flat to dry” won’t terrify them.
Den | March 5, 2018
Not sure I’d ever call superwash ‘green’. I prefer the real thing.
Wendy Peterson | March 5, 2018
I’ve found the same lack of clarity with other ‘machine washable’ yarns – the label actually shows you’re supposed to use the Gentle cycle on the machine. What’s the point of that – I’d rather use an untreated wool since they also cope with the gentle machine cycle!
But more importantly, why won’t these companies tell us what process they are using exactly? How can we judge if we are happy with what they’re doing to our wool unless they tell us? Are we supposed to just trust them?
nellmarie | March 5, 2018
Thank you for the info. I do use superwash when knitting for the younger grandchildren as I know their mothers are not going to handwash. But my i’ll look for this wool and give it a try.
P.S my 16 year old grandson just graduated to hand wash only and he now handwasahes his sweaters from Grandma!
trish | March 5, 2018
I’m so glad to see this yarn going mainstream! And equally glad that you were able to talk a bit about WHY knitters need to consider where their yarn comes from and how it affects the environment, people and especially the animals! There is so much suffering in the wool industry and few want to hear about it. Now there is an option 🙂 As a hand dyer (and an organic and environmental enthusiast), years ago I dyed a similar yarn – it wasn’t GOTS certified but I knew the “paper trail”. Sadly customers weren’t interested as they really wanted the vibrant colours on superwash wool. I have a couple of items knit (and woven) out of that yarn and it is definitely my favourite. I can enjoy wearing it knowing full well everyone was treated with great kindness throughout. Thank you so much for reviewing this yarn!
Mary-Anne | March 5, 2018
It looks to me from the photos that the handwashed swatch still looks better than the delicate cycle machine washed swatch. This is why i wash all my woolens by hand regardless of their machine washable status (and I don’t wash them often) – they just look better.
Judy Rose | March 5, 2018
Your swatch shows a stitch which is unacceptable (to me). The left side of the stitch is firm and tight, but in many place the right leg untwists into individual plies. I just frogged a project for just that reason. Doesn’t it bother anyone else?
Clara Parkes | Author | March 14, 2018
Hi Judy! Ah, that is a factor of the direction of twist and ply in the yarn in relation to how they sit on your needles. You’ll also notice that the ply shadows in the left side of the stitch all point in one direction, while the ply shadows in the right side of the stitch all run vertically. I wouldn’t disqualify the yarn because of it, though.
36berkeley | February 23, 2019
Yes, that bothers me too when I am knitting. I like my yarn to stay plied 🙂
36berkeley | February 23, 2019
Just want to point out that they didn’t do it “without chemicals”. If it was the EXP process, enzymes and biopolymers are both chemicals. In fact, all forms of matter, man-made and naturally occurring, are chemicals. Sheep, human beings, water, air, metal, plastic, food, dirt – all made of chemicals. The claim is that the process creates non-felting wool without using harmful or difficult to dispose of (polluting) chemicals.
Also, the plasma treatment uses electricity and equipment, both of which have to come from somewhere. Equipment has to be manufactured in factories, from materials that are mined and processed, maybe also from petrochemicals. The equipment has to be housed in a specialist processing facility. Maybe it generates a lot of waste heat. And the electricity to run all this has to be generated. The actual final stage of the plasma process may be non-polluting, but what about all the supporting infrastructure?