All about…caring for wool fabrics

Welcome to the second part of our ‘All about…wool fabrics’ post. This time we’re going to look at why and how you need to treat wool garments a little differently to other types of fabric. Wool has lots of qualities that makes it easier to care for than you might imagine – and most importantly there’s really no need to wash a wool garment every time you wear it!

In this post I’ve gathered together the advice and guidance we’ve posted across our website and social media to help you care for your wool garments as easily as possible.

Before we start though – time to bust a myth. We’re regularly asked whether our wool fabrics are washable. After all – sheep get wet all the time – and who hasn’t been caught in the rain wearing a wool coat? That all sounds perfectly logical – but there’s a reason why a shop-bought jacket comes with a ‘dry clean only’ instruction. Washing a wool garment is a very different ballgame to getting caught in a shower.

Wool fibres are made up of a series of overlapping scales which makes wool cloth less absorbent than a fabric made from plant-based fibres. That’s why you can carefully brush down a wool coat and hang it up to dry without a problem. However if you do thoroughly soak a wool garment – and add heat as I explained in my last post – that’s going to risk shrinking it. Making your own jacket or coat doesn’t mean that your garment is going to behave any differently to the shop-bought one (although we like to think it’ll be better fitted and totally your style!)

What happens when you wash wool

I thought it might be helpful to show you what happens to a piece of lightweight wool suiting when you wash it. In the following examples the washing process was a warm hand wash using a delicate non-biological detergent. It was washed and soaked for about 20 minutes then rinsed and laid out to dry naturally before pressing.

Here’s a piece of wool I cut from a larger piece, then placed back in its ‘hole’ to demonstrate the shrinkage. (There’s a little fraying since I deliberately didn’t finish the edges before washing).

The cut piece was 18cm x 14 cm.

The amount of shrinkage here admittedly isn’t huge – less than 5%. It’s a lightweight wool in a simple weave – a wool crepe with its highly-twisted threads and weave structure would have shrunk much more. However that 5% would make all the difference in a fitted garment – it would add up to an instant reduction in 1.5 inches off a 30 inch waist for instance. Ouch!

It’s not only fit dimensions that suffer however. Wool garments more than any other tend to incorporate linings, interfacings, top-stitching and tailored elements that would all be pulled out of true once shrunk.

To demonstrate that effect, here’s a sewn sample of wool which I cut in two. The top piece was washed with the cut piece of wool pictured above; the other was left unwashed.

The sample at the top was washed.

Despite pressing, you can see that the corners of the washed sample are turning up and the edges are rippling. The reason is that the wool has shrunk fractionally but the (recycled polyester) thread hasn’t – and so it no longer lays flat. Turn the sample over and you can see more.

Here’s the reverse of the unwashed sample. You can see the lining is lying flat and the sample as a whole is flat too.

The lined side of the unwashed sample

This is the washed sample.

The lined side of the washed sample

Here you can see the lining ‘ballooning’. That’s because the polyester lining has not shrunk during washing – unlike the wool it’s attached to. Even on a small sample, that’s enough to make a big difference – and if this was a lined skirt or jacket you’d find excess lining fabric would affect the ability of your garment to hang or sit right on your body – quite apart from the fact that the shrinkage would have affected the fit.

That’s why our fabric care instructions will often warn you not to wash your garment since the outer fabric (e.g. wool) will react differently from a lining. Unless your outer fabric and lining are the same non-shrinkable fabric, you’ll always risk this happening if you wash a lined garment.

What you can do to take care of your wool garments

Just as the construction of wool fibres tend to make them less absorbent, they’re also more resistant to everyday dirt and to some extent, even stains.

Brushing and hanging

It’s worth investing in a good clothes brush since surface dirt can often be removed from wool garments by brushing. You can also freshen up a wool garment by hanging it somewhere where the air can circulate. Don’t just put it back in your wardrobe when you’ve worn it – let it breathe a bit!

If it’s rumpled or even creased, don’t take the iron to it unless you need to. Simply hang it in your bathroom while you shower and the gentle steam will relax the fibres. Smoothing and brushing will help refresh it too. Make sure you empty any pockets and remove brooches before you hang it – remember that in the presence of warmth and moisture the shape of your wool garment will transform to accommodate any lumps and bumps whether you want it to or not!

Spot-cleaning

Spot-cleaning is an easy and effective way of removing isolated marks and some stains from wool. This process prolongs the period between dry-cleaning in order to reduce stress on the garment, reduce cost and also reduce the environmental impact of dry-cleaning. We posted a quick video and tips on how to do this on our Instagram – you can click here to see the video. Here’s how to spot-clean a wool garment…

You’ll need the following equipment

  • A clean towel
  • A white napkin or kitchen towel
  • A clean piece of white cotton or a clean teatowel
  • A ruler (or bank card – something with a rigid edge)
  • Lukewarm water 
  • A delicate detergent e.g. Stergene for wool, viscose or cotton outer fabric. A mild astringent like white vinegar can also be used for cotton. 

Here’s what to do

  • Use the ruler end to remove loose surface dirt (the stain is rubbed-in soil on a fine wool). You do this by scraping and flicking across the stain. If it’s a liquid stain such as food, use the ruler to scrape off the excess taking extra care not to press the residue into the fabric.
  • Place the white napkin on top of the towel.
  • Turn the stained fabric over so the stain is against the napkin.
  • Wet the white cotton or tea towel & firmly dab the fabric behind the stain; this pushes the dirt down into the white napkin. Move to a dry area of the napkin and repeat as needed.
  • Dry naturally (direct heat will set any remaining stain).

Some extra tips

  • Don’t dab too hard or you’ll press the fabric out of shape.
  • This works for fabrics lined with polyester & some viscose linings but leaves a watermark on silk and acetate linings so if you can, test on the outer and your lining fabric before proceeding.
  • To avoid wetting a lining, move it out of the way or insert the towel and napkin inside the garment between the lining and the outer fabric (unpicking may be required!).
  • If you can’t isolate the wool outer from a silk or acetate lining then that’s the point where you’ll need to dry-clean the garment.

..and finally…

Garments made from wool are often seasonal – they reappear for the colder months but then return to storage for the summer. If you don’t store them clean and fresh then somehow those smells are even less appealing when they’re unwrapped for the new season – and they’ll have been all the tastier for moths during their time out of sight.

You don’t need to dry clean your wool garments before storage – but remove any stains and make sure you hang, brush and air them properly before storing. A light spray with lavender or tea tree water while they’re airing will neutralise any whiffiness (likewise if they’re a little stale when you unpack them then do the same).

Tuck them away with lavender bags or cedar blocks to deter moths (we tend not to have them so much here on the chillier east coast of the UK but Kerry reports that down in the south west they’re more of an issue).

I hope this helps reassure that looking after your wool garments needn’t be a big deal – but if you’ve any questions or suggestions then please post them in the comments below – we love a bright idea!

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