Unless your knitted objects are intended to become heirlooms, they’ll probably get a bit dirty and need cleaning at some point. Knitted fabrics can be frustrating, in that we spend a lot more time and effort making them, and then they go and require high amounts of maintenance, too! Personally, I just tell myself it’s like wearing couture– rare, one of kind pieces that are totally worth the effort. Also, I go for the easy-wash yarns.
Washing wool yarn: A practical example
Most yarns come with their care information on the label. For instance, the label for my Jaeger Extra Fine Merino DK (which just happened to be right next to my computer), says that to clean this 100% merino yarn you should: “Dry clean or handwash in soapflakes; do not soak; cool rinse; do not wring; short spin; do not leave wet; reshape and dry flat away from direct sunlight; use damp pressing cloth.”
“Dry clean”: This is somewhat unusual, in that most knitting yarns don’t recommend, or in some cases advocate strongly against, dry cleaning. Dry cleaning uses a number of chemicals for the cleaning process, and these chemicals can be bad for the yarn. I definitely follow label instructions when it comes to whether or not one can dry-clean.
Next, the label says you can “handwash in soapflakes.” Soapflakes is pretty specific– not detergent (dry or wet), for example. Again, most detergents are harsher than yarn can take, particularly wool yarns, which benefit from preserving a little of their natural oils. Harsh detergents strip out that oil, making your lovely lush wool into a dry, brittle substance closely resembling Barbie hair.
Speaking of hair, animal fibers are exactly that– hair! (With the exception of silk). For that reason, they can be successfully washed in person shampoo. Again, to preserve the natural oils, don’t use a clarifying shampoo or a shampoo “for oily hair.” Instead, use a regular shampoo, no conditioner, and rinse.
There are also woolwashes, like Eucalan or Kookaburra, which are specially formulated to clean animal fiber garments with a minimum of agitation and a maximum of ease. Most of these woolwashes are no-rinse, meaning you simply add the garment to the water/wash solution, swish it around gently and let it sit, and the dirt and stuff will gradually be worked out of the fabric and lie on the bottom of the washing container. This obviously minimizes wear, tear and chance of felting.
“Do not wring”: This yarn is made of animal fiber, and animal fibers (again excepting silk) will felt under conditions very similar to those that occur in washing. The ingredients for felting are agitation, hot water and an animal fiber. Wringing is somewhat like agitation, and could induce some felting. It’s also hard on yarns made of delicate fibers like merino, and accelerates pilling.
Instead of wringing, you can get all the water out by putting the yarn in the dryer for a “short spin.” If you’ve ever cracked the dryer door while the machine was running, you’ll see that the dryer drum doesn’t agitate (go back and forth) like the washer bowl does. Instead, it just spins around really fast. This will force the water out of the knitting without causing the knitting to rub up against itself and get all felty.
“Do not leave wet”: because like most things not designed to stay in water for long periods of time, yarn fibers will break down if continuously damp. Also, mold.
“Reshape and dry flat away from direct sunlight”: Animal fibers, especially wools, have memory– they keep the shape that they dry in. Silk, always the exception, has no memory. Cotton and animal fibers are middling; they’ll hold their shape until gravity causes their natural drapy tendencies to assert themselves. And yarns, like everything else, will fade in sunlight.
“Use damp pressing cloth”: Again, animal fibers are like human hair. Prolonged exposure to high heat damages wool fibers, just like it damages peoples’ hair. If you have to iron your knits, put a damp cloth between the fabric and your iron. Personally, I rarely iron my knits, but I will steam them on occasion, using the steam setting on my iron and keeping it about an inch above the fabric.
Wool yarns shouldn’t be washed often. Frequent washing loses the yarn’s natural oils and dries it out. I usually wash my wool garments every… well, actually, I don’t wash them. I steam-iron them when they need to be de-wrinkled, but other than that, I leave them alone. I just try not to sweat too much or eat hot dogs while I’m wearing them. I also usually wear something under the wool garment, which keeps my various personal oils and dirts from rubbing off on the wool as fast.
How I Washed that Yarn
Here’s a picture of a swatch I knitted from the Jaeger and washed using my usual technique for wool yarns. This is the technique I also plan to use for the final sweater.
- I don’t trust sinks (I spit in one and clean raw chicken in the other), so I washed this swatch in a plastic Glad container. First, I filled the container with lukewarm water.
- As it was filling, I added some hair soap– in this case, Suave shampoo for regular hair.
- Once the container was full, I swished my hand around to create more bubbles and dissolve the shampoo.
- I added the swatch, pressing gently to submerge it so it absorbed the water.
- I let it soak for 15 minutes.
- I removed the swatch and squeezed it gently to remove a big part of the water.
- I lay the swatch on a handtowel, then rolled up the handtowel and walked on it on the kitchen floor to get rid of the rest of the water. Don’t wear socks for this step, your feet will get wet!
- I unrolled the towel, lay out the swatch, blocked it with a few pins, and let it dry.
You can see the swatch is wrinkled– I foolishly unpinned it before it was completely dry, and then dropped it on a couch cushion. It dried slightly wrinkled, and will be wrinkled until I wash it again.
Most knitting yarns don’t have instructions nearly as detailed at the Jaeger. They just say “Hand wash. Dry flat.” And that will take care of stuff pretty well for you. When in doubt, wash a swatch in your theoretical washing solution and see what happens.
Cotton yarns can usually be machine-washed, as can acrylic yarns. Cotton yarns in general are easier to care for, mostly because we all own a good amount of cotton clothing and know how to treat it. The “delicates” setting on washer and dryer are ideal. Unless the cotton is mercerized, though, you should expect some shrinkage in the wash, so if you plan to wash it that way, wash your gauge swatch too so you’re knitting for the right final dimensions.
Linen and Hemp
Plant fibers such as linen and hemp are a special case. Both become softer over multiple washes, and typically the harder the wash, with the greater agitation and pressure, the better the yarn becomes. This is because linen and hemp fibers come from the stalks of their respective plants, in contrast to cotton yarn, which comes from the fibery fuzzballs (cotton bolls) cotton plants form around their seeds. Linen and hemp are made largely of cellulose, the component that makes plant stalks stand up, and also contributes to the originally stiff or scratchy effect of these yarns. Rough washing, however, breaks down the cellulose, and the yarn relaxes and becomes much softer and more pleasant to the touch, without loosing the strength of the yarn. Of course, after washing linen and hemp fabric needs to be laid flat to dry, because it has a strong tendency to wrinkle.
Acrylic yarns can take the largest amount of abuse; they can dry in heaps in corners, be laundered with detergent and thrown in the dryer on high heat, etc, and the worst that will happen is the garment will develop pills from the friction. The one thing you should not do with acrylic yarns is iron them. Do not iron your acrylic yarns! Acrylic MELTS under an iron.
In addition to animal fibers, plant fibers and acrylic, there are superwash yarns and blends.
Images from Medical Sheepskins.
Superwash yarns are wool yarns that have been treated so that they can be machine-washed without felting. Wool yarns felt because wool fibers are composed of a series of overlapping scales (see the picture to the left)– when the fibers are heated and warmed, they expand, and the scales open up. Agitation causes the open scales to interlock. As the yarn cools (or is shocked by being exposed suddenly to very cold water), the scales fall back toward the barrel of the fiber, bringing their entangled partners with them and creating a dense fabric. The superwash process adheres these scales to one another (see picture to the right), after which the yarn can be machine-washed. It is still recommended that you machine wash on the delicate cycle and lay flat to dry. Superwash yarns will still felt in extreme circumstances or after a great deal of wear (my mother’s Cherry Tree Hill Supersock socks have felted and faded all along the bottoms after two years of hard wear in clogs), but then no yarn does well under that kind of beating.
Blends are impossible to generalize about, other than to recommend strongly checking out the label and knitting a test swatch. Personally, I think anything over 75% cotton can probably be machine-washed. There are two types of yarn blends:
A true blend: This is when the different fibers that go into the yarn are blended at the carding stage and fully intermixed. This yarn tends to have the properties of both of the fibers blended into it, and the fiber with the greater percentage in the mix tends to dominate when it comes to appropriate washing technique.
A mix: This yarn has plies made of different fibers. Each ply is distinctly made up of only one fiber type, and plied together with other plies of a different fiber type. With mixed yarns, you’ll want to go for the gentlest recommended washing– for example, if you had a merino wool/linen mix (I can’t imagine this, but let’s go with it), you’d want to follow the instructions for washing merino wool, rather than those for linen. Fun effects can be obtained by felting mixed yarns, since the animal fibers will felt and the other fibers will not, creating loops of unfelted fiber or other, unpredictable textural effects.