Wool is a wonderful fiber, and can do things that other fibers can’t: Wool is warm and stays warm even when wet. It is resilient and doesn’t break. It takes dye beautifully and can be spun in any thickness. It’s a great yarn for the beginner knitter. It (can be) inexpensive to buy. It’s renewable. And if you keep it safe from wool moths, it can last a very, very long time without changing.
But the bad news: wool can be prickly. Itchy. Irritating. Even rugged outdoorsy types might notice: wool against the tender skin at the neck, at the wrists, can be torture.
Disclaimer: I will be using “itchy” and “scratchy” interchangeably and incorrectly throughout but I’m doing it intentionally to be gramatically whimsical.
Not all wools are the same
Sheep come in many shapes, sizes, and degrees of fluffiness. You have the serviceable type: rugged, rough, probably good for a mutton stew. These are “meat” sheep. At the other end, you’ll have your precious breeds, coveted by fiber cognosenti around the world. In the middle, there are the practical breeds, good for sweaters and milk and stew and keeping the grass short.
Why is wool itchy?
Wool, and all mammalian hair, is scaly. Even human hair. And some animal fiber is hairy, and a “hair shirt” isn’t considered torture without reason. Hairy, scaly, scratchy wool next to the skin can feel like torture to some. Coarse fiber tends to have a lot of bounce, so doesn’t flatten or bend when you wear it, meaning the ends of the fibers can poke you. Fine fiber bends more easily, so it pokes you less. However, fine fiber can still be itchy. It depends a lot on the wearer.
What can be done about itchy woolens?
Wool definitely softens with wearing and washing. And there a few tricks to try, if you have the energy to experiment. All of these things can be tried on a knitted item, or on a skein. If you’re dealing with skeins, tie them at several spots to prevent tangling.
First thing to do is soak and wash and block.
Fill a container with tepid water.
Add a small amount of mild detergent, shampoo or soap formulated for woolens. (Purists will argue that you should never use detergent, that it will make the wool dull and faded. I haven’t found this personally. My argument is: First, you’re not going to wash wool garments very often, and second, it’s not rocket science so just use common sense. A little bit of mild detergent is not going to do any harm, and if Martha Stewart Herself recommends it, how bad can it be?)
Swish the item gently, and let it soak. I like to let my woolens soak a long time, a couple of hours. But be careful! Soaking for extended time can cause the fiber to relax , meaning your garment could stretch when you lift it out of the water. So be on the safe side, don’t oversoak. You can always rewash, but you can’t unwash.
Rinse out all the soap and washing water with tepid water.
Carefully roll up the item in a big fluffy towel and press out the excess water.
Lay the item flat to dry on another big fluffy towel.
Beyond washing, there are many household “remedies” on the internet. Here are a few of them (use them at your own discretion).
After washing and rinsing, you can refill your container, and add a generous quantity of regular hair conditioner (about 1 tablespoon for a hat, about 6 for a sweater). (Many bloggers say that it must be a regular hair conditioner, but again, I would say that at this point, this really isn’t rocket science or actually science of any kind. Unless you’re a chemist, and you’re weighing your fiber and conditioner, this is all pretty rough. I’m not sure that “formulated” hair conditioners are really all that chemically special. However, to be on the safe side, if you’re not sure, test the conditioner on a small bit of the fiber before dunking the whole thing.)
Add your wool item, swish it around gently, let it soak for 10 minutes or so.
Remove the item. Some knitters just blot and dry the item. Others rinse. I’d lean towards rinsing. Firstly, conditioner is formulated to be rinsed out and contains oils and sometimes colouring that will stain. Secondly, it usually has perfumes in it.
Blot and lay to dry as you do for washing, above.
You can buy products that put lanolin, the natural oil found in sheep’s wool, back into wool by soaking it in diluted bath with lanolin. This sounds like a good fit for wool, and I suspect that this works the same way that hair conditioner does. You are softening the fibers by adding oil. The appeal of a lanolin wash is that it will be less perfumed than hair conditioner. The other advantage is that be adding lanolin back in to your wool, you are boosting its moisture resistant properties. The disadvantage is that lanolin doesn’t mix with water, so you have to go through some steps of shaking the lanolin in a jam jar with hot water before you add it to the soak.
Some lanolin products are also washes, some are soaks to be used after washing. Just follow the label.
Again, glycerin is probably recommended for the same reason as hair conditioner, and is a common ingredient in hair conditioner. It is hygroscopic, meaning it holds on to moisture. You used to be able to buy glycerin at the drug store pretty cheaply as a household remedy for anything from dry skin to sore throats, but I haven’t looked for it recently. The advantage of glycerin over hair conditioner is that it is odorless. The theoretical disadvantage is that glycerin will actually pull the moisture out of the wool. To try softening your wool with glycerin, follow the instructions for hair conditioner, but use only a small amount of glycerin. I haven’t been able to find a recipe online, so I would experiment, starting with about 1 teaspon for a sweater.
I’ve seen this recommended as a softener for wool. Definitely worth a try, but, will it actually modify the nature of wool fibers and make them less scratchy? White vinegar is a time-tested household laundry aid; the Internet (and Martha Stewart) says adding it to the rinse cycle of a regular load will soften and freshen clothes. I admit that the wholesomeness of this makes me believe in it more than other remedies.
This is a tricky one. Fabric softeners are getting a bad rap these days, I’m not sure why. (Yes, yes, the chemicals. But lots of things have chemicals, so why fabric softener in particular? We consumers are so fickle.)
Not all fabric softeners do the same thing. Some are adding a coating. Some are chemically altering. Some are designed to reduce static. And it’s difficult to know from the labels what you’re getting in to.
Some online knitters are adamantly against fabric softener and for hair conditioner. But, and I don’t have the bumph on this, this is just a gut feeling, I’m not sure that using hair conditioner is doing anything that’s much different that fabric softener. They both add a moisturizer that clings to the fiber, making it feel less dry, more supple, and less staticky. And both eventually wash out. And both are usually highly scented.
Can’t change your wool?
Give in to the dark side
Don’t try to change the wool. Try wearing something underneath. TechKnitter makes a good point: don’t wear a knitted t-shirt underneath, wear something woven. This will be a better barrier.
Look for the softer wools
Feel the skein. If it’s itchy in the skein, it won’t lose much of that itch after it’s knitted and blocked. Look for soft fibers and blends. Cashmere and baby alpaca, for example, are luxury fibers that are usually very soft. Wool blends are a great way to tame the itch. Merino mixed with silk, or acrylic, is going to feel much different than pure merino.