“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 sheep101.info.)

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:ย  Bette Hochberg’s classicย  Fibre Facts (1983); In Sheep’s Clothing (1995) by Nola and Jane Fournier;ย and 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. ๐Ÿ™‚

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About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
This entry was posted in Crocheting, Dyeing, Fibers, Knitting, Miscellany and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. I think there are so many points where chemicals are added to what eventually becomes the yarn for sale in stores … ๐Ÿ˜ฆ >

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I will be trying all three on the hooded pullover I knit and sent my grandson for his birthday recently. He says it’s scratchy. ๐Ÿ™‚

    >

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  3. Rebecca says:

    Excellent suggestions and a logical approach to using natural fibres.

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  4. thetinfoilhatsociety says:

    And don’t forget the chemicals they use to burn the vegetable matter out of the wool! I am not sure that stuff ever really comes out, even with many washings.

    I spin also, and I’ve given my friend who says she is allergic handspun wool. It does not make her itch, and she now says she has a lanolin allergy which may be more correct, or she may have issues with the industrial chemicals as well. I hand process my fleeces or send them to a local mill which uses only natural plant based soaps in the wash.

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  5. Yes indeed! Thank you. (And who knows what’s left in the yarn after it goes through the mill’s process!) >

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  6. Deb says:

    Really interesting post. I buy my yarn un-dyed direct from the mill. Sometimes it is a little scratchy. To prep my yarn I scour it and mordant it. Then I dye in natural dyes and rinse with Ivory liquid. By the time I have done this the scratch is completely gone. Same yarn, but soft and scratch free. Even after the scouring and mordanting it is softer. I thought you may find this interesting.

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  7. fabrickated says:

    I agee that the cheap stuff can be very nasty. And how frightening about angora – I find it fine and baby alpaca is quite soft. Generally avoid face and neck as they seem more sensitive. And I am absolutely fine woth qool over a base layer of cotton or silk. You have obviously done alot of research on this!

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  8. Yikes! I assume you stay with higher grades of cashmere? The mohair goats raised at higher altitude and very cold temps produce a finer fiber. I’ve felt some lower grades that were VERY rough, poorly processed and badly spun. Thor gets horrid red rashes from ANY sort of wool if touching his skin – and I’ve tried them all: various grades and spinning forms of sheep wool, cashmere, mohair, qiviut (which might work for you – have you tried it?), camel, alpaca, llama and yak. But he can wear them over shirts, so when I knit him wool sweaters, I knit silk/cotton linings for necklines and cuffs and a full lining for wool hats. And he has an anaphylactic reaction to angora … eyes and throat swell and breathing becomes horribly labored. (I had to give all my angora away. I don’t even keep it in the house.) >

    Liked by 1 person

  9. fabrickated says:

    I tend to steer well clear of cheaper wools and stick to cashmere now I can afford it. I dislike the feel of coarse wool, most especially on the face or head. I don’t think I am actually allergic to it, but if I wear a hat in something other than cashmere it creates a red patch on my face, which a day or two later develops into scaly dry layer of scabby skin that eventually sloughs off. It is almost as if the wool is sucking my oil out of me!

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  10. Alpaca tends to be a smoother fiber than most wools, but it can vary depending on the age, health and type of alpaca (huacaya or suri). Also, the staple length and quality of the cotton fiber can vary as well. I avoid knitting a heavy or cabled sweater from it; both cotton and alpaca will stretch.

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  11. Toni says:

    Thank you for sharing. I recently bought a alpaca/cotton 50/50 blend. I’m working with it now and I was worried about the garment being to itchy.

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  12. bylalaknits says:

    No your right I market them that way but could also be for a lady. I have a couple that aren’t so “little girl” maybe I should say for ladies.

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  13. Oh, my mistake! When you wrote you made purses for “girls” I assumed “girl” as in not adult women. >

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  14. bylalaknits says:

    Really these could be for adults too .

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  15. Pretty little purses! Have you tried making felted purses for adults too?

    >

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  16. bylalaknits says:

    I knit them first on needles before I felt the take a look let me know what you think http://www.etsy.com/shop/bylala

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  17. I have seen some lovely felted purses! Do you knit/crochet and then full them or use a needle or board?

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  18. bylalaknits says:

    Wow very indepth! Thanks for the post. I do work with Wool, but I felt it to make little purses for girls.:) Very interesting!

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  19. I hadn’t thought of hot water hand washing contributing to redness and itching. Good to keep in mind.

    I once knit an alpaca scarf that was very scratchy. It was a single ply bulky weight wool, so after carefully inspecting the wool (which clearly I should have done before knitting it), I realized there were long, kinky hairs (perhaps guard hairs) that were included in the spun yarn. It was those that were scratching my neck!

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  20. purpleneedle says:

    I know that Itchy hands (and/or feet) can also be caused by swelling.

    Also when you wash your hands with hot water in order to feel warm during the cold season that may cause redness and itching. Moisturizing soap and room temperature water help avoid such reaction.

    btw, I heard about the hair conditioner and tried it with my alpaca scarf and did not work for me. l need to try the other options.

    interesting topic, Thx ๐Ÿ™‚

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  21. I am glad you find this post useful. You might find Part I (why wool can itch) informative too. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Like

  22. Mellissa says:

    Reblogged this on Chic 'n' Fish and commented:
    As I am learning about wool.. this is a good article !

    Like

  23. I just sent you longer instructions re dealing with your antique skeins. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  24. What an absolute treasure trove!

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  25. Skein them into hanks, wash well, dry, then reball or re skein. There is a good chance the scratchy problem is nothing more than lanolin that has hardened over the years! Let me know!

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  26. PS…regarding my vintage wools question…
    Not one of the yarns that I just received are available anymore.
    They would have been purchased either before or soon after I was on the earth, and I’m turning 46 yrs. in a little over a month….that’s how old these skeins are…they are all “bug” free.

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  27. SOS…. I just “inherited” some beautiful but VERY itchy wool yarns from my mother, which had belonged to Her mother. She only gave them to me recently, finally deciding that she had no use for them.
    My Grammy, her mother…, she had a buying compulsion for everything. So when she bought yarns, she bought 20 or more skeins per dye lot.
    Some of the colors that she picked (almost all multis) are a little odd, but no odder than some of the painted fiber that I’ve spun.

    What I wanted to ask-
    Can I try to soften these yarns before crocheting, knitting or weaving them?
    OR
    Should I use them and just felt everything that I make?
    There are a few cashmere colors, but most are from Italy, Germany, France and are SOOOO scratchy, that as a modern spinner, I was actually shocked to feel them…

    Thanks for any help.

    Anne

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  28. Thank you for posting these suggestions! I’m curious if anyone has tried the various rinses and had success with any of them? Please post results and if you’ve been successful!

    Like

  29. msmichy says:

    I too often wondered why some people itch with wool, now I know. Thank you so much your post. Not, that I knit much, or crochet much with wool, but this is good to know.

    Like

  30. Good points! Thank you for adding to the discussion.

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  31. itwasjudith says:

    I think, as it has been briefly mentioned, that a very important factor is also that of how the material (any material really) is processed and treated. Different regions have different regulations about how production can be made (i.e. avoidance of certain chemical treatments, etc). I suspect that sometimes, certain production processes make use of substances that are potentially aggressive, and thus cause – among other effects – a reaction on the wearer.

    I wonder if wearing ecological wool makes it any easier for people who get a rash on the skin? If that’s the case, they may be reacting to the chemical substances in the wool, rather than to the wool itself. Although, again, it also depends on the processing that the eco-wool undertakes.

    As a comparison, I am intolerant (not allergic) to preservatives and colorants in food, like those usually found in ready-made items. I can eat those foods, but they are not easy for me to digest and I’m better off with food not containing them.

    Bottom line: a production and processing that uses safe substances and high-quality materials, may lower the chances of an intolerant reaction by the wearer.

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  32. I am sorry you were hurt by my discussion of wool allergy, but as you get hives – that’s an allergic reaction (as I noted). My Thor, as I shared, has that same reaction. He can wear certain wool sweaters, but only over shirts. Have you tried a pima cotton (long-stapled) blend with a little merino or a mostly silk blend with a little wool? Of course, your skin might be too sensitive to be tricked like that! I would be as frustrated as you if my skin were as sensitive yours! (It would give me a great excuse to stick to silk. ๐Ÿ™‚ )

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  33. Rynn says:

    Hey!
    I just wanted to comment that your suggestion for conditioner and glycerin was very informative! However, I can’t help but feel slightly hurt from your comments about people “allergic” to wool. I myself am an avid knitter, and I love to spin, dye and look at wool. I’m not allergic, as you’ve (accurately) stated that most people are not – but I do have very sensitive skin. This is not something that’s fun or worth bragging about. It actually really sucks not being able to wear this beautiful natural gift, and it’s always a dilemma when telling others about the “condition” – “sensitive skin” makes you sound prissy, and “allergic” makes you sound like a hypochondriac, so what is someone supposed to say? I love to work with it, and can do so without trouble, but the hives and itchiness that I get when even a bit of wool touches my neck or wrists (when over a shirt or other liner) is both real and annoying. I’m constantly buying beautiful wool yarn for projects for others because I just can’t wear it myself. I actually stumbled upon this post googling ‘alternatives to wool for sweater’ or something like that (I don’t want any work-intensive cables to become flat and lifeless, and the garment too heavy and stretched out to last the ages……… and what else can stand the abuse of time but wool?!?!?! T_T). I was actually very excited when the record was set for the finest merino wool, and as a spinner I’m aware of micron count and crimp. I’ve used alpaca for many things in the past, but of course, as you mentioned, its memory isn’t as great as wool, so garments will stretch out of shape over time. But this awareness doesn’t spare anyone itchy ears or red, irritated skin, and I don’t see why a person’s preference for comfort over looks should annoy any lover of natural fiber and great yarn.

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  34. I do not have a lot of experience working with acrylics. I know making acrylic yarn is a chemical process. I would direct you to my post about how synthetic yarns are made at https://sweatyknitter.com/2012/09/13/beyond-artificial-yarns-synthetics/. That might give you some insight or ideas.

    Readers: Any ideas?

    Like

  35. June says:

    I knit acrylic yarn. Would it be the same for acrylic. I’ve been using acrylic for years without a problem but lately, my hands started itching while knitting. Is this an allergy, sensitive or what?

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  36. A predicament! I think you have two choices: Buy and wear a long-sleeved thin undershirt of silk. (I used to wear them all the time under work clothes when I lived where the snow arrived the first week of October and left sometime in May!) And yes, definitely try each of the three rinsings. One of them may do the trick. Keep in mind, however, that your sweater may also be made of low-grade cashmere, poorly spun cashmere, or of a pattern that doesn’t best use the cashmere. Those three could also be involved, and then the rinsings may not do much good. But definitely yes, wear the sweater after each of the rinsings and see what happens. (Also, if you’re sweating in the cashmere, that can exacerbate the itching.)

    Good luck, and let me know!

    Like

  37. Kelsey says:

    I have a long sleeve, fitted, blazer looking cashmere sweater. It’s fitted and that’s why I like it – I wear a cami underneath – but my arms itch like crazy. There’s no way that I’ll be able to fit a long sleeve underneath my long sleeve cashmere. What would you recommend for that? Does glycerine, conditioner or vinegar work best? Should I try all three? I absolutely love this sweater, I feel professional wearing it, but spend more time at work itching myself than getting any work done. Any additional advice would be appreciated! This post is great though – it at least gives me somewhere to start. Thank you ๐Ÿ™‚

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  38. Ahhh, time to knit a pair of knitting gloves! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Like

  39. Oh this is me! I have to wear turtle necks with wool sweaters. I only knit with non-wool yarn. I would like to find knitting gloves so I can knit with wool as several of my family members can wear wool without any issues and I know it’s warmer.

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  40. I rub yarn on the back of my hand or the side of my face to determine how itchy it’s going to be, it’s not scientific but it gives me a good idea of whether it’s going to be a pain to wear, especially as I knit a lot of baby stuff. But myself, wool seems to be something that is only worn over countless layers these days so I can’t complain so much. I’m still remembering wool dresses though. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  41. handstitch says:

    Me, first? I thought so too, Karen. It’s the chemical apparently the manufacturer used back in the 80s and before. I am ultra chemical-sensitive. Now, I rarely have the issue. Just happy camper when I find silk ๐Ÿ˜€

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  42. You’re the first silk allergy I’ve heard from! My friend’s reaction to angora is the only one of its kind I’ve heard of. But I’m glad to know it doesn’t bother you any longer. You’ve made a good point: processing from mill to mill undoubtedly varies too!

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  43. Thank you for visiting my blog and reading the post. I’m glad you found it informative!

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  44. Awesome post and informative. I def. plan to revist this information again. -Nizzy

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  45. handstitch says:

    Then, there is the memory playing tricks on the mind. For one obvious example, the way mills process mohair nowadays are very different than they used to be. Today’s mohair feels much softer, finer, less itchy than they once were. Same for silk (yeh, I now it’s not wool–but same applies.) I used to love raw-silk garment but my throat would start to scratch and respiratory track irritated. Now, I don’t have that issue.

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  46. Everybody likes to feel special! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  47. Thank YOU. I’m glad you found it interesting.

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  48. Always handy info when the cocktail conversation lulls. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  49. You are probably right – which makes me wonder if people just like to think they’ve got extraordinarily delicate skin or something. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  50. If it’s a problem in the winter, you could add a layer of cotton socks against your skin. I’ve done that before, but it always makes my feet feel even bigger than their dainty size 11. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  51. iknead2knit says:

    Interesting. Thanks for reading.

    Like

  52. ethgran says:

    I feel smarter and smarter about wool. Thanks!

    Like

  53. Useful info! It’s probably worth noting that if someone has decided “Wool itches. Period.” you won’t likely change their minds. For those who are more open minded, though, this is a great resource. I had no idea merino has the potential to be softer than cashmere!

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  54. caityrosey says:

    Thank you for your discussion of the itty bitty pokies. That’s what I always feel in my socks when my feet get sweaty.

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  55. I wonder what kind of wool you got from SP and how it was spun … but then some people are fine with scratchier wool. The stiffest yarn I ever used was MANY years ago and, I think, from Green Mountain Spinnery. It was an overtwisted yarn. I think it would have been find for weaving something like a wall hanging, but I did not like it for a garment. I ended up trading stash trading with a weaver, so it found a new, good home.

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  56. Thank you … my goal is to help all of us wool lovers to respond to our critics. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  57. Thank you for reading. I enjoy writing these posts!

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  58. Thank you for reading! Thankfully I have always loved the feel of wool, perhaps because as a child in Sรธrlandet I wore long woolen underwear hanknit by my mormor! On winter evenings I have been known to wear oversized sweater I knit out of Lopi some 15 years ago over camisoles … I find the scratchy fiber comforting and cozy!

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  59. Really terrific information! I was just talking to a guy at work who insisted that wool makes him itch, then he was running his hands over a swatch I had just knit (from wool) and was surprised to find it *didn’t* itch. ๐Ÿ™‚ Oh, and I got a wool from Schoolhouse Press that I can’t stand — it feels dry and stiff, although the people at Schoolhouse Press insist it’s a popular yarn. They suggested soaking it in conditioner (the kind you’d use after shampooing your hair), something I had already tried. They are kind enough to take back the unused skeins.

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  60. Tina says:

    Great post!

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  61. Thanks for these informative posts.

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  62. Great post! Thank you for your advise. I had heard about hair conditioner – especially on alpaca fibers – but not the other 2 options! You always enlighten me!

    Like

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