Washing Day: How to Wash Woollens So Moths Stay Away

27 April 2022
Bookmark This (7)

Sponsored in part by:

Ad description: Cover of the book Sheep, Shepherd & Land, and the words, "THE book about Canadian Wool, by Anna Hunter. Photos by Christel Lanthier. Buy now."

It’s Spring! And while I’m a huge fan of wearing and making woolly garments and accessories, I’m also very happy to be able to put them all away, when the weather turns warm.

I don’t just stuff them in the back of the closet—that’s asking for trouble. Animal-fibre items—ones made from wool, silk, alpaca, mohair, etc.—all need a wash before they are stored.

Why Wash

The danger to items in storage comes from moths, carpet beetles and other nasty insects that enjoy laying their eggs in animal fibres. When the eggs hatch, the babies nourish themselves at the cost of your clothes.

There are two important things to know about these monsters. They prefer to live in dark, quiet, dusty corners, undisturbed by movement or light, which is exactly the description of the cupboard where I stuff my sweaters in the spring. And they’re most attracted to fabrics that are “dirty”—items that carry dirt, food particles, discarded hair and skin cells, and oils from your hair and skin. (Ick.) Putting a sweater you’ve been wearing in the back of your closet, even if it’s not visibly stained or dirty, is basically sending out an invitation to have it eaten.

So before you put things away, give them a wash.

Divide your woollies into those that are machine washable and those that aren’t. Check the labels on the clothes, the fabric or the yarn; if you’re not sure, always hand-wash.

Why Method Matters

Wool fibres have scales on them that stand up when the fibres experience friction or agitation. These scales turn a once-smooth fibre into something like Velcro, causing them to stick to themselves. It’s a process we call felting. We tend to think of it as shrinking, although that’s not strictly what it is. When felted, the wool strands behave much like a collapsible umbrella, getting shorter and wider; a felted wool fabric gets smaller in length and width, but also gets denser and thicker. This process, unfortunately, is irreversible.

There are processes that treat wool to make it machine-washable, but if your garment isn’t made from the resulting superwash wool, a trip through a standard washing machine cycle will spell disaster (more on this below). You can felt in other ways, too: lots of friction or agitation, or rapid changes of water temperature in a hand wash is just as dangerous.

How To Wash

If machine washing, use the gentlest cycle possible, and perhaps unexpectedly warm (or cool) water is better than cold. (Very cold water can felt almost as well as hot water can.) For larger items, or knit, crochet or other stretchy fabrics, putting the items in a mesh wash bag helps them hold their shape.

Many newer washing machines have a hand-wash or wool cycle. These use warm water and very little agitation to gently clean items that would otherwise be at risk of felting. Note that this is distinct from a gentle or delicate cycle, and this setting usually has a limit on the size of the load; check your washing machine manual carefully. And if you’re uncertain about how your machine works, it’s not a bad idea to do a test. I washed a stained sweater that I found in the bargain bin at a used clothing store, before I was willing to trust the machine with my handknits; a small off-cut of wool fabric or a knit/crochet swatch that you know is at risk of felting works well for this, too.

If washing by hand, use a mild detergent—as below—and warm water. Avoid a lot of movement, as this can encourage felting. I’ve written a thorough tutorial about hand-washing here: How to Wash Handmade Socks (and Other Wool Items)

Although I mentioned it in that tutorial, this point is important enough to repeat: You need to squeeze most of the moisture out before you set an item to dry. You can do this by rolling it in a towel, or using the spin cycle of your washing machine. A high-speed spin—perhaps unexpectedly—is surprisingly gentle on your fabrics. Again, a mesh wash-bag is helpful for larger items. Some use a salad spinner for smaller items—it’s exactly the same principle as the washing machine.

image description: a overhead view of a bright pink plastic tub, which is full of sudsy water, and you can see a sweater half-submerged

What With

Don’t use any cleanser that has bleach, optical brighteners, or stain fighters in it—those all damage animal fibres. (Have you ever read the label on “Oxi-Clean” products? In very fine print it says not to use on wool and silk. It contains proteases, enzymes that break down proteins; wool and silk are protein fibres, and those enzymes are therefore very damaging to them.)

For my machine-washable woollies, I use an additive-free laundry detergent—think of the sort of cleanser you’d use for those with allergies or sensitive skin.

I am a big fan of the no-rinse wool washes: Soak and Eucalan are two common Canadian brands. They work in the machine, and for hand washing. You genuinely don’t have to rinse them out, but it doesn’t do any harm if you do.

What you’re looking for, ultimately, is a mild soap with a neutral pH. Baby shampoo or the mildest of dish soaps (Ivory brand, for example) work well for hand-washing. You can also get wool soaps, some of which are lanolin-enriched, which work well with rougher fabrics to moisturize and soften them.

How To Dry

For woven items, or smaller accessories and knitted or crochet pieces, hanging to dry works well. If you’ve got the luxury of an outdoor laundry line (or the ability to take a folding laundry rack outside), take advantage of it on a warm day; your items will dry quickly and smell lovely. Note that leaving items in direct sunlight for long periods of time can bleach them.

Most of my larger items I prefer to lay flat to dry, usually on top of a towel on my laundry rack, or on a mesh surface, or even the dog’s crate. I’m not a fan of laying things to dry on a table, bed or floor, because the air can’t circulate underneath and they will be slower to dry. And if you put a wet item down on a fabric surface, you can create mold, or get musty smells.

image description: a dog's crate, the door open, and a blanket and chew toy are just visible; there's a blue towel on top, and a handknit hat and sweater are lying on top of the towel

Not staged! Note, the dog is not in the crate when I do this!

Where to Keep Them

When they’re dry, put your newly clean woollies away for the season. Air-tight storage is best. I keep my garments in big plastic tubs (the same ones I use for my yarn). I use oversized self-sealing plastic bags for shawls, mittens, hats, etc. These are often sold as bags to store bedding; they offer the advantage that you can squish the air out of them as you seal them, saving storage space.

If you don’t have the space for the big tubs, and items are just going into the back of a closet or on a shelving unit, make sure that’s all clean, too: Dust and wipe everything down with a damp cloth. Sweep or vacuum the floor of your closet—nasty things enjoy hiding in closet carpets.

And what about your warm-weather clothes? Although the washing process is generally simpler because of the fabrics used—plant-based ones like cotton or linen don’t felt so are usually great to toss in the washing machine and even the dryer—all the same rules apply for summer clothes: Never put anything dirty away for any length of time.

Wash before store, moths no more!

Or something like that.

This might seem like a fair bit of fuss, but it’s nothing compared to the heartbreak of losing precious clothes to wool-eating beasties.

All images by Kate Atherley.

Copyright © Kate Atherley except as indicated.

About Kate Atherley

Kate Atherley (she/her) is a co-founder, editor and publisher at Digits & Threads and Nine Ten Publications. She has worked in the crafts industry in one way or another since 2002 as a designer, editor, writer, and instructor. She's authored eight books about knitting, from a next-steps guide for newbie knitters to the industry's only guide to professional knitting pattern writing. Kate lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her husband and their rescue dog Winnie.

Related Posts

Large Blanket, Small Loom: Rigid Heddle Blanket Project

Large Blanket, Small Loom: Rigid Heddle Blanket Project

Can you make a blanket on a small loom? You bet! In this tutorial for readers with some experience weaving on a rigid heddle loom, learn how to make a big, beautiful, lightweight blanket by sewing three panels together (or just make one panel for a shawl!).

Weaving Techniques: Hemstitch Tutorial

Weaving Techniques: Hemstitch Tutorial

Like many crafters, weavers need to pay special attention to the beginnings and endings of their projects. By hemstitching the ends of your woven work, you secure the warp and weft threads and prevent unraveling. Bookmark this step-by-step tutorial so you can keep it handy!

How To: Tablet Weaving with a Twist

How To: Tablet Weaving with a Twist

This beginner-friendly introduction to tablet weaving features a warped-in method that encourages newer weavers to explore their creativity—by giving classic patterns a colourful twist!

Get 10% off!

Join our mailing list to get special Studio Membership pricing! PLUS hear about new Digits & Threads content and community news.

Subscription success! Well done, you.