Washing Handknits:
Kookaburra Woolwash
Kookaburra Woolwash

I began this review with a personal bias: I've always used Eucalan Woolwash for my handknits. But to be fair, I knew I needed to cover the other products on the market.

Several readers wrote to me about Kookaburra Woolwash, so I put it at the top of my list. Its water-based formulation is free of enzymes, phosphates, peroxide, or alkali.

As is Eucalan, Kookaburra Woolwash is biodegradable and enriched with lanolin to keep woolens especially soft and lustrous. But where Eucalan features eucalpytus or lavender oils, Kookaburra Woolwash has tea tree oil.

Extracted from the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia (a member of the myrtle family and native to the coast of New South Wales, Australia), tea tree oil is known for its natural fungicide and bacteriostat qualities. In other words, it deters molds, mildews, and allergens, such as dust mites.

Putting It to the Test
I decided to pit Eucalan and Kookaburra in a head-to-head competition. I've already published a full-length review of Eucalan, so this review will focus on the Kookaburra side of the contest.

But to do so, I needed two items made of identical materials and exposed to equal degrees of dirt. I chose to test two pairs of handknit socks—one in a shimmery smooth cabled Italian merino and another in a dry, four-ply superwash merino that I'd dyed by hand.

Both Eucalan and Kookaburra are so concentrated that you only need a small amount in your wash, and both recommend that your water be lukewarm. That's what I did in two sinks. Mind you I'm not a tremendously filthy person, but the water in both sinks took on a slightly colored hue. With two identical clear glasses I took samples from each sink. (After the bubbles settled, I hoped to see what each soap managed to extract from the socks.)

While Eucalan strongly recommends that you don't rinse, Kookaburra only mentions it as an option. To keep the playing field perfectly level, I removed both socks without rinsing. I squeezed the excess water out and blotted them on side-by-side towels (identical towels, no less!). I repeated the test with the second pair of socks, and then I sat back and waited for the winner to reveal itself.

Time passed, and I checked my glasses of wash water. The bottoms of the glasses contained an equal amount of stray dust and fine fiber particles.

The Eucalan glass still had a film of fine bubbles on the top, the Kookaburra had none. The Eucalan glass was clear, the Kookaburra glass had a faint yellow hue to it—but then again, Kookaburra has a naturally darker shade in the bottle.

My socks dried. I touched them, I smelled them, I held them under the light, I took them outside, I put them on my feet, and yet I couldn't tell any difference between the Eucalan- and Kookaburra-washed ones. They looked and felt equally clean and supple. So much for that "scientific" test.

What's the Diff?
The Kookaburra marketing materials tend to focus on the tea tree oil and its antifungal, antibacterial qualities. From a pest threat standpoint, this makes little difference with wool because protein fibers aren't susceptible to molds and fungi—they are susceptible to moths. (But Kookaburra is also recommended for cottons, linens, silks, and any other fine washables that are prone to mildew.)

But that's only one part of the equation. The strong, almost medicinal scent of tea tree oil could possibly mask the scent of sulfur present in protein fibers, throwing moths off track and keeping them from settling in your woolens.

This is my own theory, mind you—I found no claims of moth-prevention on the Kookaburra Web site. I know the eucalyptus and lavender in Eucalan help deter moths. I should note that Kookaburra also offers a lanolin-free, lavender-infused version called Kookaburra Delicate. There you'd have the lavender to deter moths, but no lanolin to keep your wool supple.

Another part of the equation: rumor has it tea tree oil is also effective against athlete's foot, burning feet, and so-called "foul body odor," which make it perfect for laundering all your handknit socks. (I'm not suggesting that any of us has those afflictions, mind you, but we might know someone who does.)

The antibacterial qualities of Kookaburra may be more important for the washing of sheepskin, where dust mites and other allergens would be more prone to thrive—and in that regard, Kookaburra is a clear winner. It is also ideal for washing bedding, down pillows and comforters, and sleeping bags.

And the Winner Is...?
Despite my attempts to be scientific, my tests revealed no clear winner. And because I am not a chemist, I'm not qualified to compare the other ingredients in each wash. Instead, I must take my analysis to a purely superficial level.

First, packaging. Eucalan comes in white bottles with pink or lavender lids and labels. Kookaburra comes in clear plastic bottles with a cool self-measuring compartment and a sheep on the label.

And second, smell. Eucalan has a distinct eucalyptus or lavender overtone, depending on which product you're using. Kookaburra has a sharper, almost medicinal scent that quickly gives way to a warm, rich soap fragrance that reminded me of the after-shave my father wore when I was a kid.

It's a clean, soapy smell with forest overtones, and it lingers gently on the finished garment. For this fragrance alone, I will definitely make space on my laundry-room shelf for Kookaburra. You'll need to smell it for yourself to decide what you think.

Vital Stats
Many yarn stores carry Kookaburra Woolwash, and you can also purchase it directly from the manufacturer. It comes in two sizes: a 16-ounce bottle with self-measuring compartment ($8.95) and larger standard gallon jug ($49.95). Spinners who process raw fleece may want to try the stronger Kookaburra Woolscour.

(Review date April 2006)

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