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Dirty Work:
How to Clean Your Handknits

The 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.

Hairy Matters
Animal fibers, like human hair, have an outer layer of fine scales that determine the overall appearance of the fiber. Harsh soaps can damage these scales and strip the fiber of any remaining oil.

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 new 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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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 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'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.

 Share your tips in the forums

Previous comments

"I get great results soaking, then gently hand washing with a 'green' dish soap--I use Seventh Generation, which I purchase by the case from Real Goods. I always dry my woollens on a rack outdoors; I use a sunny spot on our deck in winter." byham, 10/5/01

"I wash my sweaters by hand in a cold water wash and then put them in the washing machine on gentle and spin the extra water out of the garment and then I lie it flat to dry. I have been doing this for 30 years and have had great results."  Cynthia C., 01/30/01

"The easiest, safest and stain removing soap that I use and not only recommend but send as gifts is Eucalan. It is about $10.00 a bottle but one uses so little, finds it so mild and best of all NO RINSING. I have even used it for cleaning spots on my carpet and all my silk blouses. Guess I am just a satisfied consumer of this product."  Caryl G., 01/30/01

"I think if you have taken the trouble to handknit something then it's worth handwashing (in a good quality handwash/wool wash liquid), rinsing of course, the last rinse in a good fabric softner. I then give it a short spin and dry it flat. I press it under a damp cloth. In my opinion, the quality of handknits lasts longer if you take the trouble to handwash."  Lynn B., 01/26/01

"For about a year I have been using a powdered product called Forever New, which I purchase at a nearby dept store (Dillards). I think I first heard of it, or read of it, in Simply Beautiful Sweaters. It is fairly pricey, but I save it for use only with my fine knits. It retails for around $10 per 36 oz. I don't use it for panty hose or other washables. Knits are soft, but lively. There is a very pleasant, faint aroma, nothing that is overpowering or too sweet. I recently bought an extra bottle, just in case the dept store stops carrying it. That is how much I like it! I also like a drying rack to help speed the drying process along."  jtcorra, 01/26/01
Buy Forever New Online

"I recently made a sweater out of a mohair mix yarn that shed like crazy when I was knitting it. I figured that after washing it, the shedding would stop. But the first time I wore it, I left fuzz everywhere I went. I took it home and put it in the dryer on the air fluff setting. It took almost 2 hours, but it finally stopped shedding so much, but it is still plenty fuzzy and soft. It made the difference between a sweater that I was ready to throw away, and one that is now going to be one of my favorites."  cputnam1, 01/26/01

"Recently I've been using Dryelle to wash my sweaters. You place your sweater in a Dryelle dryer bag along with a Dryelle sheet (it looks sort of like a fabric softner sheet). In 30 minutes you have a clean fresh smelling sweater. It also comes with a stain remover solution, but luckilly I haven't had to try that yet."  Andrea, 01/25/01

"Eucalan in the washing machine, for both washing and blocking. I love it!"  echarvey, 01/25/01

"If the washing instructions allow for machine wash tumble dry, I find that putting that sweater or whatever in one of those mesh laundry bags for the wash and drying helps keep the shape and avoid unnecessary streching."  Mark, 01/25/01

"You may laugh, but the best thing I ever found was good old-fashioned enema soap. I started using it when I was nursing 40 years ago, used to wash my hair in it too. It's basically a pure mild soap solution. There may be branded names, if so watch for additives, but usually it is in one-gallon plastic containers."  Chris, 01/25/01

"As a hand spinner and reenacting 'suttler" of the 18th Century in Montréal, I wash upward of 500 Lb. of wool a year. Some of it comes directly from the sheep (who has never bathed, God love it, and is pretty dirty), and some I wash after spinning. I do camels, mohairs, cashgoras, angoras, and cashmere as well as many breeds of sheep. Some of my yarns are very expensive and I would hate to felt the lot!

Depending on how dirty the wool or yarn or garment is, I wash in cold, warm or hot water. The cleaning agent is either dish washing soap or one of the fiber soaps. The trick is not to agitate but to press the thing into the water after the soap has been distributed. I use the washing machine but turn it off completely during the soak. I leave the product in the soapy water 10 minutes, then press down with a plunger I keep for the purpose. Leave it another 10 minutes and drain the tub (remember the water is shut off.

When the tub is empty, I put in an old towel to balance the load and spin the heck out of it, making sure the object is kept in a clump. I remove the garment or wool from the tub and refill with clean water of the same temperature I used to wash to avoid a shock. I plunge the wool or garment back in and let it soak for 10 minutes. I repeat the closing of the taps so that the spurts of water that could hit and felt the wool do not happen. I spin with the old towel again, remove the wool or garment, give it a good shake and , since by now the piece is almost dry to the touch, either hang it on a PVC pipe or stretch it out. Drying time is kept to a minimum this way.

Before the knitters cringe at the thought of boiling hot water, I remind them that dyeing is done in simmering water from 20 minutes to 1 hour to set colour, depending on the dye stuff.

If the knitter is a little worried about the results, I suggest trying it with an old sweater."  Mickey, 01/25/01

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