*Find the sequel to this post here, Alternative to Superwash wool, for a list of yarns and brands I love – for socks and beyond
**Find additional sources that explain more about Hercosett 125, polyamide-epichlorohydrin resins and the science behind the superwash process at the bottom of this post
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 superwash 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 Kirsten 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, Cormo 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?
I would love to learn even more about all of this and if anyone knows if there are alternative treatments being developed to superwash wool, without the toxic chemicals and plastic? I’m sure there is a way!
And for those wanting to avoid superwash wool or just wanting to learn good ways to wash their wool hand knits, my friend Kirsten shared a blog post recently with some great information.
**Since this post was released nearly a year and a half ago it’s gained a lot of attention and thus a lot of questions. One of the more popular asking for further sources on the science and understanding behind polyamide-epichlorohydrin (Hercosett 125), the resin used in the superwash process, both domestically and overseas. Here are a list of further resources. I’ll add more as I find them.
-The original patent for Hercosett (polyamide-epichlorohydrin resin) applied for by Hercules Powder Co, invented by John D Floyd, in 1957 – Process for preventing shrinkage and felting of wool
–The chemistry of a polyamide–epichlorohydrin resin (hercosett 125) used to shrink‐resist wool (unfortunately in order to read the full article you have to pay :/) You can find the same article HERE
-A patent that includes the use of Hercosett or other similar polymers – “Ionizing radiation treatment of wool textiles with resin for shrink resistance”
-A patent applied for by Chargeurs (a European and US scour and fiber processing plant) for “Method for oxidising or activating a textile mass with a gas mixture containing ozone”
-A more detailed explanation of epichlorohydrin
-Did you know the many facial tissues, toilet papers and paper towels use polyaminopolyamide-epichlorohydrin? This was brought to my attention recently and is another interesting thing to be aware of. Here’s a scientific paper with more detail.
-A little more info on polyamide resins