How Is Wool Made Machine-Washable?

Any wool (or protein fiber) is washable by hand and, often, in gentle cycles in cool water. Machine washable wool – wool that can be made into garments that can be tossed into a washing machine with no worry of shrinking – is readily available. Yet for years I have been reluctant to knit with machine washable wool; the wool always felt “different” to me, though I would be hard pressed to explain to someone exactly what “different” means. (Pic source)

In Fibre Facts (1981), Bette Hochberg sheds light on why machine washable wool has always felt “different” to me:

This wool is sometimes treated with chemicals to destroy the scales on its surface. This can decrease strength and durability, and impart a harsh texture to the wool. A less damaging method is to coat the wool with a resin which forms a thin plastic skin over each fibre. This film of plastic masks the surface scales, so they can no longer interlock.

Ms. Hochberg warns, however, that machine washable wool

will not behave like natural wool. When each fibre is sealed in plastic, so are some of its desirable properties. The finest qualities of wool are not used in such yarns.

Bette Hochberg wrote Fibre Facts in the ’80s, so I wondered how technology has changed in making wool machine washable. According to e-How:

Today, manufacturers bleach wool fiber to remove its outer layer and then add enzymes that eat the scales. The resulting yarn has a more lustrous appearance than untreated wool. These alterations also affect how the fiber takes dye, so make sure that any washable wool is colorfast.

Australia’s Michell uses:

KROY ‘Deep Emersion’ technology which is recognised globally as the best method for producing machine washable wool fibre. This method involves the continual immersion of wool sliver in a shrink-proofing solution, resulting in a fibre that holds supreme longevity and durability over synthetic materials, whilst retaining its shape and integrity. …

Another way to make wool fiber machine-washable is to blend it with other fibers that do not have scales. Yarn companies often add plant fibers like linen and cotton to keep the wool from shrinking. Man-made fibers like nylon, polyester and acrylic are also blended with wool to make it machine-washable.

The extra steps to process wool to machine washable wool explains the (generally) higher cost per skein than non-machine washable wool.

Over the last 10 years, I have knit five times with machine washable wool. I used Baby Ull (wool) from Dale of Norway to make blankets for my then-unborn grandchildren (so that was several years ago); a sweater out of Di.Ve’s “Zenith” (for the grandson); and a poncho and a sweater out of Dale’s “Falk” (for the granddaughter).  Okay, to be honest, I had a few more projects from machine washable wool:  I knit several Pineapple Stacks hats (pattern by Rebecca Marsh) from the yarn remaining from those projects!  (That pattern’s been a joy to knit!)

When I gift garments from machine washable wool, I always include instructions on washing, particularly noting that though machine washable, they should never be dried in a dryer!

Here is a useful chart of laundering symbols – many of which we see on yarn labels. (Source)  If you’re really bored, you could always pop over to the Federal Trade Commission website and read up on the “Care Labeling of Textile Wearing Apparel & Certain Piece Goods” (16 CFR Part 243).

Posted in Fibers, Miscellany | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

“But It Itches!” – Part II: What to Do

So the question remains: Assuming the wearer doesn’t have allergies to wool as described in my previous post, why is some wool sometimes itchy to some people? There is more than one explanation.

Though not allergic to wool, anyone who feels the “prick” or “scratch” from wool is feeling the end of a wool fiber that is sticking out of the yarn. Who feels the itch and to what extent depends on the person (a thin-skinned toddler or an adult?), the diameter of the wool, how the wool is spun, temperature (wear a sweater in the heat and you may feel some itch!) and how wet is the wearer’s skin (the more moisture, the more the wearer will feel an itch).

Microns: The diameter of a wool fiber is measured in microns – short for micrometer. (A micron is 0.001 mm, or about 0.000039 inches – or 1 billionth of a meter.) While the micron range of a wool varies depending on breed, it is also affected by the sheep’s age, nutrition and health. The lower the number, the finer the fiber.

According to The Naturalist, “a wool that averages 24 microns or more is likely to [have] at least 5% of fibers over 30 microns, and therefore trigger a prickly sensation. And about a third of wool with average fiber of 21 microns will still have enough 30 micron fibers to make it scratchy.”

Qiviut – spun from the underwool of the Arctic Musk Ox – is very fine and soft; it ranges from 11 to 13 microns. Wool from the Merino sheep usually ranges from 13 (though can go as low as 10) to 25 microns. The wool from a Cashmere goat is in the 14 to 18 micron range. Yak fiber has a micron count from 15 to 19 microns. While mohair averages in the low 20 micron range, it gets thicker as the animal ages which means the yarn spun from it will be harsher. In 2010 we saw a new world record with a 10 micron fleece from New South Wales (Wikipedia). (For more information about sheep and their wool, check out

Woolen or worsted spun yarn: Wool fibers are both prepared and spun in different ways depending on whether the spinner wants a woolen or a worsted yarn.

  • Worsted yarn: The fibers are combed to remove short fibers leaving the remaining fibers parallel and similar in length. The worsted yarns tend to be harder, stronger and smoother.
  • Woolen yarn: Fibers are uneven in length so they do not lay parallel. The yarns tend to be softer, fuzzier, retain more hair in the yarn, and have more stretch.

For more information about fiber, here are a few sources you might find useful:  Bette Hochberg’s classic  Fibre Facts (1983); In Sheep’s Clothing (1995) by Nola and Jane Fournierand The Field Guide to Fleece: 100 Sheep Breeds and How to Use Their Fibers (2013) by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius.

What to Do With Itchy Wool:

FIRST: People who regularly work with wool have a couple of methods to “soften” scratchy wool. Try washing your wool skeins or the finished garment in a basin of cool water with – in no particular order – (1) plain white vinegar, (2) hair conditioner, or (3) glycerin.

SECOND: If you find a garment itchy, there are several things you can do:

  • Wear another layer under it!
    • A woman could wear a camisole and a shirt under the sweater.
    • A man could wear a t-shirt and a shirt under the sweater.
    • Line your wool slacks or wear leggings or tights underneath them.
  • If you find that the neck and cuffs of a wool sweater irritate your skin, knit a cotton or silk facing on the reverse side of the neck and cuffs or line the neck and cuffs with fabric.
  • Knit a boatneck neck into your wool sweater so there is no high or tight neckline that might rub your skin.

Something to keep in mind: The person who laments (boasts?) to you that her/his skin is simply too delicate to wear wool is most likely NOT allergic. More reasonable assumptions you could make is s/he might be wearing wool that is:

  • high-micron (coarse),
  • loosely spun (so a lot of fiber ends stick out),
  • not well cleaned (thus retaining a lot of organic materials), and/or
  • treated with nasty chemicals (used in preparation, dying and/or cleaning).

Or maybe the person is sweating as she/he talks to you. :)

Posted in Crocheting, Dyeing, Fibers, Knitting, Miscellany | Tagged , , , , , , | 62 Comments

“But It Itches!” – Part I

Two years ago, I wrote a two-part post about itchy wool.  According to my WordPress statistics, it continues to receive a lot of visitors.  So I decided to repost!  Here’s the first!


I have lost track of how many (non-textile) folks who, while admiring a wool sweater I knit, sadly lament:  “Oh, I can’t wear wool; I’m allergic to it.”  (Source of pic at left)

Highly unlikely.

What’s the most common description of a person’s claimed allergy to wool?  “It itches.”  That is not an allergic reaction.  Further, there could be other factors one could be reacting to, including (but not limited to):  laundry detergent, the dye and/or mordant used to color the yarn, the chemicals used to dry clean the wool, the chemicals involved in original processing the wool, and organic matter (e.g., dust and pollen) remaining in the yarn.

With that in mind, here are allergic reactions to wool:

  • If whenever wool touches your skin you develop a bumpy, itchy rash resembling hives or eczema, that could be allergic dermatitis.
  • If you’re near wool and your nose starts to drip and itch, that may be allergic rhinitis.

  • If you develop pink, itchy, puffy eye irritation after each exposure to wool, that may be an allergic reaction in the form of conjunctivitis.
  • If you are driving a friend home and she’s in the front passenger seat of the car and you have a big bag of wool yarn in the back seat and she starts wheezing and having difficulty breathing, she could be having an anaphylactic reaction to wool.  Unless someone’s got an epi pin, either the wool or the passenger has to get out of the car.  (When this happened to me – I was the driver – I had to strap my precious wool to the top of my car and head for a hospital.  In this case, the wool was a blend, and it turned out she was reacting to the angora in the blend.)

So in conclusion, you may be allergic to wool if …

  1. you start to wheeze, have difficulty breathing, your nose begins to drip or itch or you quickly develop conjunctivitis when sitting in the proximity of wool, or
  2. you take off your wool clothing to find hives and sores (that weren’t there before you put on the clothing).

If you think you are allergic to wool, you might want to visit your physician and have a skin prick test.  You may find you’re allergic to things you would never have suspected!

What about the itching?  Ahhh, that’s coming in Part II.

Posted in Crocheting, Fibers, Knitting, Miscellany | 37 Comments

Knitting & Baking

While I have been knitting a lot (!) over the last couple of weeks, I have become near obsessed with baking – most especially bread.  On my last birthday Thor gave me a panasonicPanasonic bread machine.  I love love love it; it pulled me back into the bread making I gave up in the mid-1980s.

BreadMachineCkbkAfter I worked my way through Beth Hensperger’s The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook I wanted to try making bread the way I used to so many decades ago.  But now my hands are older (as am I!), so kneading heavy dough by hand was something I knew I couldn’t do anymore.

LaurelKitchenThen I dug out my old, now ratty copy of Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book and read thee encouraging words to people kitchenaidwhose hands weren’t up to kneading bread:  Use a machine with a bread hook like the KitchenAid mixer!  (Mine is now close to 20 years old, but it works perfectly well!)

I got bored using conventional  yeast leavening so decided I needed to learn how to make sourdough starters.  I first made a rye Humphreystarter.  As I had to feed it twice daily for several days before using it (now I keep it in the ‘fridge so need to feed only weekly), I decided it should be named.  Meet Humprey (named after Humphrey Bogart, of whom Thor does amazing impressions).

ryeloafUsing Humphrey, I started experimenting with rye breads: here’s one.  (I apparently laid the measuring tape next to the bread for comparison.  As you can see, the loaf is much larger.  :) )

Now I’m experimenting with different breads, some using starters, others not.  Here’s a picture of a trio I served at a dinner for friends.  The bread on Triothe left is a “corn rye” (using a rye starter – and I upped its sourness by leaving a half an onion in the starter for a day – but which, despite its name, contains no corn).

The middle bread (the top of which I should have slashed), is a Norwegian grovbrød (“coarse bread”).  The grains in a grovbrød vary; for this one I used a sour rye starter with graham flour.

The bread on the right is a New York-style Jewish rye.  I did not use a rye starter on that bread but, to increase its sourness, added juice I poured out of a jar of home preserved Kosher dill pickles.

Humphrey continues to thrive, and he’s been joined by another sourdough starter:  a San Francisco-style sourdough starter (as of yet unnamed).  This starter has been much more finicky than Humphrey ever was, but I think it’ll end up being fine.

All this baking means as I knit, I am surrounding by the aroma of freshly baked bread!  Thankfully it’s difficult to eat and knit at the same time.  :)



Posted in Cooking | 28 Comments

Knitting For “That Time of Year”

As my daughter pulls out the proverbial stops, as it were, for Christmas, and though I’m a person who belongs to no religion and celebrates no religiously-themed holidays, I simply cannot disappoint my daughter and grandchildren by appearing on their doorstep in December as Mormor (Grandmother) Scrooge.

I refuse to join the hoards of crazed shoppers who mob shops as soon as Thanksgiving is over, but I will stay in the quiet of my own home, pick up my needles and dig through my yarn stash.  Thankfully, there’s only a few people I knit for at Christmas:  three related to me by blood and two by marriage.  And I start that knitting in the summer, which is why, in October, I have only one more holiday item to knit!

erase_ublysweaterAfter seeing this book, however, I realized I’ve become THE grandmother who gives her grandchildren a hand knit sweater and “something educational” - a book, globe, microscope, art sets and the like.  Oh dear.  (I hope I’m not one step away from putting a package of tube socks in their Christmas stockings.)

Now my grandson is a gentle soul and wears anything I knit him because it’s from ME (reminding me of me – a child in sunny Marin County, California, who wore all the ski sweaters lovingly knit by her  grandmother back in Sørlandet).  My granddaughter, however, is the kind of child who lets you know what she REALLY thinks of your gifts.

Case in point:  I recently sent the grandchildren some puzzles, and they Skyped me the day they received it.  Grandson O thanked me enthusiastically and told me he loved puzzles.  My Granddaughter F thanked me but leaned into the camera and whispered “but I don’t really like puzzles.”  :)

This explains why everything  and anything I knit for Granddaughter F is some bright (blinding) shade of pink.  As that’s her favorite color, it allows her to find something she can honestly say she likes about her hand knit gift, even if it’s only the color!

Are your children and grandchildren brutally honest about the hand knit items you give them?!

Posted in Knitting, Miscellany | 25 Comments

It’s Getting Toward “That Time of Year”

… or “Steeling Myself for Christmas!”

Raised by a fundamentalist Jehovah’s Witness, I turned my back on organized religion long ago.  To my surprise, though I raised my daughter without organized religion or any related holidays, she’s become the Martha Stewart of holidays.   In fact, her garage is lined with shelves groaning under the weight of storage boxes containing an array of decorations appropriate for various holidays.

erasexmasboxChristmas seems to have become her personal favorite, as suggested by the many boxes in the garage marked “Xmas.”  As soon as Thanksgiving is over, the Thanksgiving decorations are returned to their box, and she opens the Christmas boxes and transforms her house into what would be described as a winter wonderland.  In fact, I think my grandchildren start counting the days until Christmas as soon as the first autumn leaf falls to the sidewalk!

This, of course, impacts this non-holiday-observing woman:  I show up for a week or two visit around Christmas and am included in the festivities.  Yet I know no Christmas songs – in either Norwegian or English – and any Christmas “traditions” I know only from watching Christmas-theme movies or listening to holiday songs.  And no matter how many times I’m compelled to listen to Christmas songs, nary a line of lyric stays in my head.

What I can do, however, is cook.  So on holidays I pull out my grandmother’s handwritten recipe book from husmorskol (housewife school) and start baking for my daughter and her family.

erase_ironIt goes without saying that I ready my three Jøtul jerner (irons) to make those goodies my mormor (grandmother) made with me and, 20 years later, with her first greatgrandchild (my daughter).

The rectangular goro jern (the iron on the far left) is used to make thin, rich cookies decadent with cream, butter, a dash of cognac, some lemon zest, sugar, cardamom, flour, a dash of potato flour and an egg.

I make krumkake (with the iron on the far right), one of Norway’s oldest cookies, with a dough laden with butter, eggs, sugar, cardamom and flour (and a dash of water).

In the center is my old vafler jern (waffle iron) with which I will make the spruced up version of the traditional Norwegian waffles, rommevafler,  by adding sour cream.

Here’s my dilemma:  As we no longer live within easy driving distance of my daughter and her family, how do I bring the gjerner with me this year?  Driving south means two days driving and through high mountain roads in the snow.  Flying is easier but I’m not sure I could get my jerner past the TSA folk! (I haven’t gotten over their confiscation of a set of my knitting needles soon after 911!)

Any ideas?  :)

Posted in Knitting, Miscellany | 22 Comments

Fibers, Part 3c: Cellulosic Fibers – LEAVES

Leaf fiber is just that: fibers from plant leaves.  Leaves are cut from the plant, and then the fiber is removed (cut, pulled, scrapped or split), from the leaf.  The commonly used leaf fibers come from abacá, sisal, henequen and piña.

erase_abacaplant Native to the Philippines and sometimes referred to as “Manilla hemp,” abacá (which is not a hemp), is related to the banana tree (pic).  It is a commercial crop grown in Costa Rica, Ecuador and the Philippines.  While originally used to make ropes, floor mats, erase_abaca_matstable linens (pic), and even clothes, shoes and handbags, “now most is pulped and used in a variety of specialized paper products including tea bags, filter paper and banknotes” (Wikipedia).

erase_pineapplePiña is obtained from leaves of the pineapple plant (pic).  While like abacá it is used to make household furnishings, unlike abacá its pale fibers are soft.

erase_pinaIts fiber preparation is laborious: “[T]he leaf has to be cut first from the plant. Then the fiber is pulled or split away from the leaf. Most leaf fibers are long and somewhat stiff. Each strand of the piña fiber is hand scraped and is knotted one by one to form a continuous filament to be handwoven and then made into a piña cloth” (Wikipedia).

Thankfully, weaving with piña was recently revived in the past 20 years in the Philippines.  The resultant fabric is sheer and a little stiff.  (It can also be combined with other fibers, such as silk.)  “Pineapple silk is considered the queen of Philippine fabrics and is considered the fabric of choice of the Philippine elite” erase_barongembroidery(Wikipedia).  In the Philippines, these fabrics are erase_barongembroidered and used for clothing, such as the Barong Tagalog (Tagalog dress) in the picture to the right worn by President Magsaysay and Vice-President Garcia at their inauguration in 1953.

erase_sisal erase_potterybarysisalYou may have seen rugs made from sisal (such as those sold by Pottery Barn) or sisal in wallpapers.  As explained by Natural Fibres, “After harvest, its leaves are cut and crushed in order to separate the pulp from the fibres.”  Sisal fiber is coarse and hard, “unsuitable for textiles or fabrics. But it is strong, durable and stretchable, does not absorb moisture easily, resists saltwater deterioration, and has a fine surface texture that accepts a wide range of dyes.”  Natural Fibres also notes that “it is used as reinforcement in plastic composite materials,” such as automobile components and furniture and that it has the promise of becoming a substitute for asbestos in brake pads!

While erase_henequenHenequen is, in this post, listed last, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, it is the third most important leaf fiber.  “The henequen plant is native to Mexico, where it has been a source of textile fibre since pre-Columbian times. It was introduced to Cuba in the 19th century, becoming the country’s chief fibre crop by the 1920s. The fibre is sometimes referred to as Yucatan, or Cuban, sisal.

erase_liquordehHenequen is in the  agave family and is used for brush bristles, rope and twine.  Like sisal, it is degraded by salt water, so if you’re a sailor navigating the oceans, you’d be well advised to not use henequen rope.  :)

Interestingly – and unlike the other leaf fibers discussed here, it is also used to make an alcoholic drink:  Mexico’s Licor del henequén.

This ends Part 3 on cellulosic fibers.  I am working on future posts that compare the qualities of the various fibers I’ve covered.  I hope readers are finding these posts if not useful at least informative!




Posted in Fibers | 6 Comments