What is the definition of Superwash?
Some clothing lines of wool are now being promoted as “superwashed” for next-to-skin capabilities by removing the wool’s lanolin and barbs. According to Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts, the superwashed wool is treated with synthetic resins (polyamide / epichlorohydrine or polyurethane), a method that can include such chemicals as chlorine and hypochlorous acid, sulphuric acid, sodium hypochlorite, alkali metal salts of dichloroisocyanuric acid (DCCA) and an acid-stable wetting agent. The chlorination process for wool has lead to enormous environmental problems.
Written by Ashley Yousling
This post has been in progress for a little over a month now. I was unsure if I should post it, worried I would offend someone, even friends in the community I’ve made, but I’ve decided to go ahead and share. Not a lot of light has been shed on the topic of super wash wool, specifically superwash Merino.
In our home we’ve taken great strides to minimize as much use of plastic as possible. Six years ago we got rid of all our plastic food containers, stopped using a microwave, started using reusable water bottles and began really thinking about what and where this stuff was coming from. My friend Kristen is quite passionate about the subject of plastic and that’s really where the idea for this post began. After spending a weekend with her exuberantly extolling a plastic-free life, I felt compelled to share what I now know about superwash wool.
By no means are we completely plastic free, in today’s world it’s unavoidable to a certain extent. If we’re all being honest, plastic does have it’s place, however we try to be as conscious as possible when it comes to things we eat, drink, wear, and use in our daily life. If there are healthier and safer alternatives to using plastic, why not? Which brings me to this topic of which I’ve recently become quite passionate about.
When I first began as a knitter, I had no idea of the different compositions and idiosyncrasies of fiber other than there was cotton and there was wool. I soon learned the different blends and the advantages and preferences for each. I became obsessed with the gorgeous hand dyed superwash yarn from boutique brands and soon my stash consisted of primarily that. As time went on, I became more “fiber-conscious”, I guess you could call it a sort of maturity or awareness. I started looking deeper into each of these yarns, what they were comprised of and how they were processed. What was even more intriguing was that the question around superwash kept coming up quite randomly through various conversations I was having with persons more experienced and knowledgeable than I. It wasn’t until a few months back that I discovered superwash wool is very heavily processed and the fibers are coated in plastic. When I first heard this I was stunned. Plastic? Really?! Then it all began to make sense. Superwash wool was the answer to our desire to machine wash and dry our knits. A compromise for the sake of convenience. Though it may have started as this, superwash Merino has taken on a life of its own and is a mainstream fiber these days, regardless of the buyer’s laundering preferences.
At what point does something that has been so drastically processed, losing many of it’s natural characteristics, become a different thing all together? As I read more and more about how superwash wool is made and the plastic in which it is coated, I started to question if we can or should really, truly still call it wool. Wool in all its natural glory is an incredible protein fiber, with so many valuable qualities. It has scales that interlock when agitated or teased at certain temperatures. Wool is naturally fire resistant and has incredible health benefits which I’ve talked about when we purchased our wool mattress. To avoid felting wool, you have to follow careful, yet relatively simple cleaning instructions. It’s not rocket science, yet it is inconvenient at times, although I’d hand wash my hand knits any day over throwing something I spent countless hours on into the washing machine and dryer. Superwash wool is made by exposing the fiber to a chlorine gas that erodes the scales and then it is coated in a plastic called Hercosett 125. This doesn’t even include the toxic chemicals that are used in the overall process. Disturbing no?
Superwash wool has some cool benefits aside from the laundry. Because of it’s heavy processing, it takes up dye much better than most other wools. The vibrancy of all the gorgeous hand dyed superwash yarn is intoxicating for sure, and one of the reasons I still have so much in my stash. Another interesting characteristic that’s been mentioned over time has been the softness of the worsted superwash Merino yarns. It’s true, it is incredibly soft! However after discovering non-superwash Merino, Como and different Alpaca blends, I challenge anyone to say they can’t find a more natural wool that’s just as soft or more so than superwash.
So all of this has lead me to the decision to purge my stash of superwash yarn, whether it be by selling it or using what’s left in projects. I recently finished my first wrap, using up some of my superwash and have sold several skeins on Ravelry as well. For me it was a personal decision based on convictions I have, however as with anything else in life, everyone is entitled to their opinion and decisions. Some could say my decision is drastic or dramatic, however it wasn’t a hard one. Like I said before, if there are healthier and more natural alternatives, then why not?
Alpaca fleece is as soft as cashmere, warmer than sheep’s wool, hypo-allergenic and almost completely waterproof. Alpaca is considered a dry fiber, without barbs or lanolin that is found in sheep’s wool and does not need to be super washed. Alpaca wool now offers an eco-friendly alternative to natural fiber active wear.