How to Clean Wool

"You see that sweet little number over there, Billy? She's got other talents besides just producing wool."

I was once the proud owner of a green, knit, button-down wool cardigan. It was extremely Cobain-esque, and I was madly in love with it. It was brilliant. And then it was over. I only got to wear the thing two or three times before my beautiful bride-to-be washed it—and dried it—in the dryer. The thing started as an XL and came out of the laundry room small enough to fit a frickin' garden gnome. That was probably four years ago. I still bring it up every chance I get. On the bright side, it was a valuable lesson on cleaning wool for both of us.

If you haven't had to clean wool before, don't be scared. It's really not that bad. People have been using it and cleaning it for centuries. It's possible that your wool garments don't even really need to be cleaned. Wool just doesn't get dirty like other fabrics do. Many items, like wool coats and wool jackets, only need to be cleaned once or twice a year. There are a couple reasons for this. First, wool has what's called an epicuticle. This is a waxy layer around the hair fiber that sheds and repels fluid. This also makes wool pretty stain resistant. The other reason is that wool has a neat antistatic property that keeps it from attracting dirt and dust. Don't get me wrong, though; it does get dirty and sometimes your wool coat, wool sweater, wool hat, or whatever other piece of wool clothing you have needs cleaning. If you have just spilled something and need to spot clean wool, immediately grab a clean white cloth and blot (never rub) as much of it out of the wool as possible, and then proceed through this article. If you just want to clean wool, proceed at your own pace.

How To Clean Wool Garments

Garment brush. It sounds simple because it is. Sometimes you can clean wool, and prolong thorough washing of wool, simply by hitting it with a garment brush. Garment brushes work well for removing any dirt and dust that may have collected. It's also good for getting rid of little crusties of unknown origin. Just take a few minutes and go over the entire wool garment with the brush. Make sure you are brushing lengthwise. Use a damp cloth for finer wool.

Washing wool. Wash wool by hand with a gentle detergent. Use any detergent that says "wool safe." You can also use baby shampoo or dish detergent. Wash out the sink, fill it with cool to lukewarm water (never hot), and add your detergent. Stir the detergent in gently by hand and submerge the garment. Squeeze the wool very gently all over to make sure water gets everywhere, and allow it to soak for about five minutes. Depending on how soiled the garment is, you may wish to repeat this step with fresh water.

Rinsing wool. Nothing earth-shattering here. Remove the wool garment, set it aside, empty your soapy sink, rinse the sink out, and put the plug back in. Next, you'll want to refill the sink. It is important, to avoid shrinkage, to get the rinse water as close to the same temperature as the wash water was as you can. For this reason, you may want to check the temp of the wash water before draining. Now put your wool garment in the fresh water and gently push it around. Consider it rinsed.

Drying wool. If the wool garment being washed is small enough, remove it from the rinse water and place it in a colander to drip dry for a few minutes. Then take it out and very gently squeeze some more of the water out. Never wring wool. If the wool garment is too large for a colander, skip to the squeezing. Always dry wool by laying it flat. Never hang it to dry. Allow 2-3 days for drying. It's a good idea, before you begin the washing process, to lay your wool clothes out on a large sheet of paper and trace them. This is so you will have a guide to help you reshape the wool for drying.

Pressing wool. Sometimes, after you wash wool, it will need a little ironing. You should always press wool with a steam iron on the wool setting. When ironing, make sure the wool itself is still a little wet. If possible, press the inside of the wool (the part that would go against your skin) and not the outside. Always use a pressing cloth. If you are pressing napped wool, do it on top of a terry cloth towel. When ironing wool, always do it by pressing, never by rubbing.

Storing wool. Now that you know how to clean wool (and dry it), you should probably know how to store it. Well, Einstein, guess what? It ain't that hard. Just make sure that it is clean and fully dried before storage. Dirty wool is more attractive to moths. Put the wool in an airtight container with some cedar chips and some mothballs. Make sure the mothballs don't have any direct contact with the wool. Put them in some cloth bags. Store wool in as cool an area as possible. Finally, and this is important, whether you intend to store the wool long term or just until the next time you want to wear it, do not put it on a hanger (especially if it is knit). Hanging wool can cause it to stretch and become misshaped which, in turn, will make you look like a hobo the next time you wear it.

Other Wool Care Tips

Now that we know it's not always necessary to dry clean wool, let's look at a few more things you can do to take care of and protect your wool clothing all by yourself.

-Do not rub wool against itself. Self rubbing causes felting and blindness.

-When the need to spot clean wool arises, do so with white vinegar and rinse with fresh, cool water.

-Showering with friends is always good, especially if that friend is made of wool. Wool doesn't really hold wrinkles all that well. Sometimes all you need to do to get rid of wrinkles in wool is to take it into the bathroom with you when you shower. The humidity will allow the wrinkles to fall out.

-Never dry wool in direct sunlight. It will fade.

-When laying wool out to dry, don't be afraid to use pins for shaping. You want to make damn sure your wool dries how you want it to. The process of shaping wool garments is known as "blocking."

Natural Wool Cleaners

Eucalan. Eucalan is an excellent alternative to dry cleaning wool. It too is nontoxic, biodegradable, and phosphate free. It also contains lanolin, which is nice for keeping your wool soft. It comes in four scents: Eucalyptus, Grapefruit, Lavender, and Natural Unscented.

Seventh Generation Delicate Care Laundry Detergent. It's a mouthful, but it's great stuff. Like the others, this stuff isn't toxic, it's biodegradable, and there's no phosphates. It's also kosher, hypoallergenic. and not tested on animals. Order some. Now.