Washing woollen knitwear-27th Feb 2022

Shaun the Sheep drying on the rack in the daylight

Washing Shaun the Sheep

I caught sight of Shaun the Sheep’s elbows in the mirror the other day and decided that Spring had come early and it was time for his bath.

Now, this is a joke. He does get washed as often as he really needs it but there is a difference in my mind in washing as needed and washing as a reflex when something has been worn only a very few times. I have never had children but, had things been different, I would hope to have taught them a few things about looking after their clothing well.

1) trying it on and then changing your mind doesn’t make it dirty.

2) do the sniff test and, if it passes, wear it again tomorrow.

I remember as a child getting a veritable thrashing from my Grandmother Hattie Louise, a life-long seamstress who had kept her family in clothing through the Great Depression, when she came into my closet to see if there were things I needed that she could make. She spotted a garment of mine that was wadded up and deposited on the floor. I don’t think she had personally made the neglected piece of clothing but that was not the point. SOMEONE had made it and I had not been respectful of that fact.

She was right to be furious with me.  When I had learned to sew and make a few bits of clothing for myself,  I understood her fury much better. Clothing, like food, is someone’s hard work. And, in parallel with the food industry, the past 60 years have seen us devalue clothing, food, and the people in those industries  because it is, in most cases,  not our sweat that is producing those things.  As long as food and clothing can be produced by people who are in a position to be paid very little for their sweat, we can carry on using those things with uncaring abandon. I hope this is changing now.

I have no idea how many hours I spent making Shaun the Sheep. I did not raise the actual sheep or spin the wool he was knitted from so I had already missed out on that part of the equation.  However, knitting him was a commitment of time and energy from me that has kept me motivated to look after him for all these years.

100% wool. The term that strikes either joy or terror into many a knitters heart.

Joy first.

I love knitting with real wool. It behaves in a completely different way than acrylic and other man-made fibres. It is warm in winter but can be cool in warmer temperatures, too. It washes well, if done properly. It lasts a long time but biodegrades completely at the end of its useful life.

Now the terror.

I think this is mostly around maintenance.  It needs to be stored clean and dry as wool moths don’t get their name for no reason at all.  It can shrink (a lot!) when washed carelessly. It is expensive to buy 100% wool yarn which is ironic as sheep farmers are burning fleeces as they are paid so little for them. You would think someone would see the value of closing that particular economic circle, and it is starting to happen but it is a slow process. Buying the fleece from a sheep farmer is a very cheap way forward for the home knitter, but then the wool needs sorting, washing, drying, carding, and spinning before you can get the needles out. I am still working on all of that.

At last we get to the nub of today’s stream of thoughts. We have become so used to being able to fling things in a washing machine and then into the tumble dryer that we are astonished at what happens to 100% wool when the cleaning process  is done in that way. You get doll clothes. Ask my sister!

Some modern wool has been treated in a way that makes it machine washable. I try to knit socks with that type.

If you could see wool under a microscope, you would see that each strand has scales all along the length. When two strands are rubbed together, the scales on the strands catch each other and hold fast. This is what makes it possible to spin wool into yarn to knit with so successfully. So there is that part of it. The other thing that can happen when washing is temperature related. With wool, it is best to avoid temperature shock. If you start with the water just hand hot, make sure the rinses are that temperature as well.

Shaun’s bath went like this:

  • Fill my largest stock cooking pan (as I said yesterday, more than just one use) with hand hot water (well, just a bit cooler than that to be safe) and add a capful of wool wash. Lower the cardigan into the water, pressing down to get it all saturated. Now, go away for 20 minutes and leave it to soak.
  • When you return, wash by gently pressing down on garment. You can squeeze gently it but do not wring it. I had a situation recently when I asked someone to wring out a wet towel for me and what that person did next made it clear to me that the term “wring” may not be well understood. Forgive me if you know but here’s a picture:

It is the twisting motion that is so damaging to wool as it locks the fibres together. That is called felting. Sometimes this is done on purpose. I have even heard of a process where a really HUGE sweater is knitted first and then deliberately put into a very hot wash to shrink it down on purpose to the size wanted. This process also makes the sweater into a double thick garment. I mean to try that someday. Maybe.

  • a fair amount of dirt came out in the first wash so I decided to wash it again. I lifted the garment out and just rested it in the sink away from the plug hole so that the water I was pouring away was not going on the sweater. Refilled the pot with the same temperature water and added more soap. When time to rinse, did three rinses with all same water temperature as the first until no more soap was coming out. I put the sweater back into the empty pan and pressed while it was on its side to get as much weight of water out as possible and then lifted cardigan and pan down to the washing machine, put the garment in and put it on an 800rpm spin only. Please make sure no water comes into the machine as this can felt the wool. 800rpm is fast enough to get the water out but not stretch the garment.
  • When spun dry, I put it over the drying rack in the dining room and pulled it up to the ceiling to dry completely.

As this is a photo journal, I get to add as many photos as I like and, I like this one:

Shaun on the rack at night

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1 comment

  1. Well, I haven’t hand washed any wool item for over 15 years! What is wrong with the wool cycle on a washing machine with wool wash? Then dry flat
    The photo is gorgeous. All The Dutch golden age of painting hues. So clever to have knitted Shaun the Sheep yourself. So talented.


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