Superwash Wool: What you need to know to make the choice


sheep in the long grasswool-fiber

Each individual hair on a sheep has small scales that can open and close in response to heat and moisture. Before these hairs have been sheared off, the scales help regulate the sheep’s body temperature and repel moisture away from the sheep’s skin. They serve the same function after the hairs have been sheared off the sheep and turned into  yarn. The scales make wool “breathe,” which helps to regulate temperature and repel moisture away from the skin underneath.

Microscopic_Fiber_ComparisonThese scales are responsible for the “scratchy” feeling of natural wool.  The finer the wool, the smaller the scales, which means the finer the wool the softer it is to the touch. If you think you’re allergic to wool, you’re probably not, since wool is one of the most hypoallergenic materials we make clothes from. But some folks have fine textured skin that is more sensitive to even microscopic irritants…like wool scales. 

felting-600x263These scales are also what make wool felt. The scales open up in the presence of moisture and heat. Agitating hot, wet wool tangles these scales together. This in turn pulls the hairs more closely together…which, in turn, tangles the scales more tightly together…which, in turn…you get the idea. The hairs get so tightly drawn together that the overall area will shrink 25-30% in both directions, while, at the same time, it gets thicker and denser. Then when the heat and moisture are gone, the scales close a bit and become bonded together forever, or near enough. Thus, felt.

Some of us do this on purpose to make felt. We knit or crochet or weave wool larger than we think we want it, then subject it to moisture, heat and agitation in order to shrink and thicken it. But we’ve all also had the experience of throwing something into the washer and dryer accidentally and ruining a beloved wooly object.

If only someone would invent a way to make wool impervious to the felting process. If only we could neutralize those pesky scales that make felting possible. If only…  But wait!  There is such an invention. It’s called The Superwash Process.

1930sPermMachineHow many of you are old enough to remember the permanent waves of the 1940’s, or the 1960’s, or the 1980’s? They stripped away the top layer of each hair and chemically weakened the hair so it could be made flat instead of round. Thus, curls. The superwash process is similar. Manufacturers take raw wool and soak it in a vat of a chlorine based solution. (If you want to know more about the chemistry, you can look at the sites listed in the foot notes below.) This solution chemically burns off the tiny, delicate edges of the scales, leaving them even tinier and very blunt. After rinsing off the chlorine solution, they then soak the wool in a vat of polymer resin. Polymer resin is a generic category and includes chemical compounds such as nylon, and is similar to the resins added to the “wax” they put on your car at the car wash. It means plastic, and it slicks down what remains of the burned off scales so they can’t tangle with their fellows. Thus, superwash.

wool_series_kroycmt_superwash_top_processing_strong_style_color_b82220_equipment_strongThe result is a wool that can withstand exposure to heat, moisture and agitation without shrinking or felting. Superwash wool is also silkier to the touch, as there are no more protruding scales to prickle against skin. The smoother surface appears more lustrous than untreated wool. It also results in a wool that does not “breathe” the same way untreated wool does. Without those scales, superwash wool doesn’t regulate temperature or repel moisture the way untreated wool does. It also doesn’t last forever. 

As I said above, a polymer resin is a kind of plastic, and will melt and deteriorate when exposed to heat. That means every time you toss your superwash wooly objects in the dryer, you are shortening the life of the resin coasting. Polymer resins will also get worn away with friction over time. This will either leave the stumps of the scales poking out, or pull the scales completely off, leaving a roughened surface on the core of the hairs. Your superwash wooly objects will have a longer, prettier shelf life if you treat them delicately.  Wash them on gentle cycle in cool water, and don’t put them in the dryer.

Superwash wool seem like a great alternative to unprocessed wool. But remember that it has its own vulnerabilities and requires its own kind of special care. There are folks who have concerns about how the plastics, including polyamide, in our clothing may be affecting our health. So you may want to think about that as well and weigh convenience, durability and comfort when shopping for yarn for your next project.

Knitting Yarn Shop Samples


Yarn shop samples are important. It’s often hard to tell how a yarn will look and feel when knit up when you first encounter it in skein-form. Does it really knit to the gauge on the label? How fuzzy will it become? How will it drape? How will the colors pool? How wide will the stripes appear? Most of the time, words are inadequate. When it comes to yarn, you have to hold it in your own hands.

And the same goes for knitting patterns – clear photographs are helpful, but if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a physical object is surely worth a million. We’d all rather feel like we’re not stabbing in the dark when it comes to committing to a knitting project.

Yarn shop samples to the rescue! We do our very best to show off as many of our yarns as possible with knit-up examples on display in the shop. We invite you to hold them in your hands, try them on (we have a full-length mirror for your convenience), check them out in different lighting situations, toss them around, or whatever helps and inspires you to knit with confidence. If you ever find a shop sample that you like, we will put the yarn and pattern in your hands. Yarn shop samples are good for showing off the latest knitting world trends and helping you think outside the box. Why limit yourself when there’s inspiration all around?

So, I’ve been on a quest to furnish the shop with new samples lately. I’ve been banging out small projects that you could easily finish in a few days (hello holiday gift ideas!). Here are the newest shop samples you’ll find at Over the Rainbow Yarn. Come on in and touch them any time!

The Zig Zag Hat and Cowl


Thanks to Catherine for modeling these ones! I knit the Zig Zag Cowl in Gina Chunky and Jennifer knit the coordinating Zig Zag Hat in Chunky Merino Superwash. I loved seeing how the Gina Chunky works up in delightfully irregular stripes with numerous colors swirled throughout. This pattern is so clever, too. The zig-zags are formed by wrapping the yarn around the needle twice to make an extra-tall stitch, then slipping the stitch for several rows.

Crochet Infinity Cowl


I just whipped this one up last night after it was recommended by our Euro Yarns sales rep (yep, it’s a quickie). It’s basically my favorite crochet stitch – the linen stitch! It’s worked in alternating colors of Cairns, a cotton/acrylic yarn with an unusual structure and many colors. The pattern is incredibly easy to adapt for anyone who’d like to have a longer, shorter, wider or narrower cowl! If you don’t know how to crochet yet, it might be worth learning in order to make this cowl.

The Clayton Cowl


It’s the biggest, the squishiest, the coziest cowl ever! I made the Clayton Cowl out of Ushya (merino wool) and Paqu Pura (alpaca fiber). This cowl combines a super-bulky yarn and a sport-weight yarn in a really cool way. It’s basically garter stitch, except you knit every other stitch in the row below, which has the effect of creating an unbelievably fluffy texture and wrapping the two yarns around one another in a very unusual-looking way. No one will know how you made it unless you tell them.

The Swirled Ski Cap


Sometimes it’s all about the pom pom! I knit the Swirled Ski Cap in Classic Shades. I used about half the skein for the hat and the other half for the pom pom. I knit the child size, but the pattern includes an adult size as well. This pattern is so much fun, and reminds me of soft-serve ice cream! The pattern suggests a 2-color option with the stockinette parts in one color and the reverse-stockinette parts in another. Oh, the possibilities!

New Yarns, New Projects


It’s officially pumpkin-carving, hot cider & cozy pajamas weather! While I’m grumpy and slow to get out of my warm bed this time of year, my better half is capering around, crowing about how much he loves fall. For me, the one thing that makes fall more bearable is that it is also officially knitting weather. Here at the shop, we’ve started seeing reps, and we just received our first big yarn order of the season, from Plymouth! We’ve added a few new colors to existing lines, and brought in three brand-new lines.

Chunky Merino Superwash is a machine-washable, 100% merino yarn that knits to 3.5 stitches to the inch on a U.S. 10. It’s soft and lovely, and I’m already knitting with it! I’ve cast on for a hat, and I’m really enjoying working with it. We got a beautiful rainbow in this yarn, including perfect colors for a Gryffindor scarf! Our rep (also a Jennifer) is using Chunky Merino Superwash for the Biscotti Sweater by Kiyomi Burgin, which is absolutely stunning.


© Knitscene/Harper Point Photography

I’m excited to announce that we also just got Gina Chunky, the big sister to our regular worsted weight Gina! Gina Chunky captured my heart right away with its fun, bold colors, and will make for some quick knits this holiday season. I fell in love with the Zig Zag Cowl by Vanessa Ewing, and it’s only a matter of time before I give in, shove my dirty laundry in the closet, hide my dirty dishes in the oven, and cast on for this one. Honestly, just look at those delicious colors:


© Plymouth Yarn Company, Inc

And now for something completely different: we’ve been bitten by the speckled yarn craze! We now have Happy Feet 100 Splash, a hand-dyed yarn with pops of color sprinkled throughout. This yarn is machine washable and has 10% nylon for durability. Come try out a skein — it would make splendid socks, or an adorable lightweight baby sweater.


Happy Feet 100 Splash in the skein…


…and knit up. Like confetti cake!

We’re excited for you to try these new yarns and let us know what you think! Don’t hesitate to ask us for pattern suggestions!