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65 Comments
  • Very interesting! Thank you.

    • Oh, what a enlightening article! Knit a Norwegian sweater for son 2 years ago. Sleeves and body lengthened by 4 (!) inches after wet blocking. Had NO clue at the time as to why. Knitted gauge according to pattern, but gauge must have looser than called for by the band!

  • yes, superwash really behaves differently – but even more: not long ago I knit a beanie in some superwash, but I don’t like wearing it anymore because I either sweat or freeze in it. The wind blows right through the fabric although it’s knit really tightly so I get cold. If I go inside wearing it, I break out in a sweat immediately – and moisture does not get wicked away like with non-superwash. And another thing: odors stay in the fabric untill they’re washed – with non-superwash it’s enough to air the garment. So…..as beautiful as the yarn looks, I’m a non-superwash-lover !

  • I avoid Superwash if I’m knitting for myself or for somebody that I know I can trust to hand wash. I’d much rather use some lovely Shetland, Blue Face Leicester or alpaca yarn that mellows with age. However if the garment is likely to be machine-washed (mainly for babies and children with very busy parents), I use a yarn that will stand up reasonably to the process, either Superwash wool, cotton or a mixture like Baby Bamboo.

    • Started using super wash wool this past year for baby things and went on to make a crib blanket in it and was generally disappointed.
      The stuff is just no longer “wool” as you do well describe. I hope pattern designers make an effort to indicate if super wash is appropriate for a given pattern.

  • Great info! I can now fully absolve myself from blame for the sagging mess of a hooded vest I made years ago. Someone told me it was because it was washable wool but I didn’t quite believe it until now!

  • “coat the yarn to smooth it” isn’t fully addressed. It’s coated with plastic. That’s why it behaves more like acrylic and not like wool anymore; it’s essentially a mixed fiber. In today’s world where we are drowning in our own waste, consumers need to be informed as to what exactly we are buying before making a choice to buy or not.

    • It would be interesting to include discussion of the chemical process used when creating superwash yarns. I’m not an expert by any stretch, but I’ve read that there is concern about the large amount of chemicals that are flushed into the waste water during the superwash treatment process. More chemical pollution in our water we don’t need, right?

    • Stay tuned for more info on superwash than could fit in this article, which focuses on how these yarns behave.

      • Yes…more please on what superwashed yarns are treated in the US with healthier chemicals. Is that a misnomer!!!

      • would that include colorwork issues? My next sweater is going to have colorwork and all three skeins are superwash. Trying to decide if that is a big mistake.

    • Plastic is now believed to be in our water cycle.
      Plastic washes out of fabrics right into our waste water that we will eventually drink.
      No more superwash for me!

  • Thanks Jillian. I struggle with deciding to knit with superwash. I do not care about washability, but it is more likely to be next to skin soft. Sigh

  • So informative. Thank you! Now I know why I keep buying superwash even though I tell myself I prefer “real” wool — it’s the color. I think for those of us who mostly buy online, that’s especially potent — it’s hard to appreciate subtle colors online.

    Two questions: How about a guide to the most vivid colors in non-superwash yarns?
    Is there a difference between superwash and “real” in how prone to run a bright yarn is?

  • Jill thank you for a great lesson. I’m that knitter that likes to find the yarn first and then a pattern. Will heed your advice to not stray from gauge.

  • I am a knitting newbie…..with a wool allergy. I can run a skein of wool across my neck and red blotches/itching begin. So far, I have used superwash because minus scales I seem to be okay. Are there other great fibers that would work for me besides wearing a turtleneck under all my projects? I also seem to have trouble with alpaca. Any advice is appreciated, but please do not suggest I quit knitting!!!

    • You also have trouble with alpaca? Alpaca is supposed to be hypoallergenic as compared to sheep’s wool as it doesn’t have the lanolin sheep’s wool has. (And yes, I raise alpacas). Have you tried yak or camel? Expensive yes; but really soft.

      • I think your confusion is merited, but what is not commonly understood is that not everyone who has a problem with wool is reacting to the lanolin (or chemicals used on commercial wool). Some of us are, unfortunately, sensitive to the structure of the animal hair itself.

        I used Lansinoh religiously when I breastfed my four children. No reaction. I’ve spun wool, starting right from the sheep, and the lanolin makes my hands soft; they don’t break out.

        But I can’t wear the wool I’ve spun.

        I have had eczema all of my life, and one of my triggers is definitely guard hairs (not sure what they’re called with fiber animals, but that’s what they are on dogs!). A soft, undercoat-like fiber is wonderful, but I feel every little guard hair that’s gotten caught in there, and they make me break out. When they are noticeable enough to remove without ruining the garment, I do. And of course knitting means you can frequently recognize them — they stick out from the twist, right? — and pull them as you knit (as I mention in my other post below). That’s why baby alpaca easier on my skin than standard alpaca; fewer of those guard hairs.

        But even with seemingly soft animal fibers I can have problems. My guess is that I am irritated by the wider end of the hair shaft, possibly because it was cut rather than having a tapered end like the other side. I have no other explanation for why something would feel soft in hand, but be unwearable on my neck or back.

        (And, as a plant comparison, linen is a general no-no for me for the same reason. Even if it seems totally smooth, there are still tiny prickly bits that will set me off.)

    • I’m like you — one of the big benefits of learning to knit was being able to wear a sweater that wasn’t nylon, cotton, or acrylic — it’s really limiting when you go shopping. A beautiful sweater that was truly warm — without making me sweaty — was pretty elusive.

      You may have more luck with baby alpaca (suri) than just “alpaca”. Unsurprisingly, the hairs are finer. I just used a silk/baby alpaca blend to knit my first cardigan, and it’s lovely. There are the very occasional stiff hairs, but those are easy to pull away as you knit. I’m very pleased with the results, but I will only be wearing the cardigan over a shirt. I’m not sure if wearing it next to my bare back/stomach would cause a flare up.

      There are some interesting fibers out there made of things like soy and milk. They tend to be very silky and lovely to wear, although my experience was that they will pill. So they may be better for accessories than a hard-wearing sweater.

      Silk is wonderful, although slippery to knit with. It will instantly soften whatever it’s blended with, as well. Bamboo also.

      And don’t discount cottons. There are some wonderful cottons out there, and I’m currently making myself a cotton pullover that I can use to transition into fall. I have heard people complain that cotton is stiff or hurts their hands, but the ones I’ve used don’t really bother me. True, they aren’t as enjoyable in the hand as knitting with an animal fiber, but it’s hardly a struggle.

      My biggest complaint about the fibers I can use is that they tend not to have much spring in them. They give wonderful drape, but the look of the quintessential snuggly woolen sweater still eludes me. If you’re choosing a pattern on Ravelry, I highly recommend looking through the projects people have made. (You can even do a search through them.) Try to find projects that were made with the type of yarn you’ll be using (or similar). Like the samples in the article above, you may find that the pattern looks baggy, stretched out, or loses the stitch definition in those projects. Better to be sad when choosing a pattern instead of after putting in all of the expense and time of knitting something you don’t love.

      Good luck!

    • I also suggest that you investigate different breeds of sheep and keep experimenting with touching wool. How it’s processed makes a big difference in how the skin reacts to it. Characteristics of wool also vary greatly among breeds. And of course there are many alternatives to wool too. There are so very many different yarns available from which to choose, that I bet you’ll be able to find some that are just right for you.

  • Thank you for this insight into super wash wool. I have learned the hard way, how it can react in a garment if not knit to a tight gauge, but I love it for shawls, accessories, and baby gifts. The structural information all makes sense now.

  • Is there any “best” way for changing threads (eg Russian join, knot) in superwash? It makes me nervous to think of extra drape ‘releasing’ the ends…..

  • I use superwash when making things for my granddaughter, because my daughter won’t handwash. But I don’t like the softness. I always need to have a good woolly project going at the same time to cleanse my pallet after all the slickness of the superwash. One good thing, my LYS (Stars Hollow in New Preston, CT) has some superwash that is minimally processed and not coated in plastic. Still, too soft for my taste…

    • Like you, Maureen, I only knit with superwash yarns when making garments for our grands. My daughter and son-in-law are both too busy to be handwashing garments, but they ALL love it when I knit for them. And I love knitting for them, but boy I don’t enjoy the feel of superwash yarns. That said, the colors are so bright and alluring! I had to laugh when you said you must ‘cleanse your palate’ with real wool, because I am the same way! Happy knitting!!

  • Do superwash yarns pill any differently than regular wool?

    • I made a Boxy Pullover out of Superwash Malabrigo Rios and it seems to pill. Luckily it is flat stockinette and I can shave those pills off. But there is something so nice about throwing it in wash and dryer.

    • Pilling has more to do with how tightly a yarn is spun, rather than superwash treatment. Loosely spun yarn will pill, regardless of fiber.

  • What an interesting article! I am looking forward to more info on how the “de-scaling” is achieved. I, like many others who commented, prefer non-superwash outside of sock knitting and gifts for people who won’t hand wash.

  • Great article. I use superwash for socks and I will use it on every once in a while on shawls/mitts/hats (for the ability to wash and dry more easily), but for the most part I avoid it. Sweaters with superwash are a recipe for disaster and disappointment. The yarn cannot be trusted over that weight of fitted fabric. I also feel bad about using it – that the yarn has been destroyed, effectively, to make it easier to clean. I also worry about the enviromental impact – though some company’s use “eco methods” (though I don’t know enough about the process to feel confident about it). But choice is useful.

    • Thank you! Thank you! I haven’t distinguished between Superwash and other wool when making sweaters for my partner. As it happens I have made only one in Superwash and I simply hate the way this cardigan has turned out: it stretches, fanning out at the hem. It slumps on the body. And it’s slippery somehow; installing the zipper was a nightmare. The colour, lovely in the skein, just doesn’t satisfy me knitted up. I blamed the design, but this was unfair I realize. It’s the yarn! It’s the Superwash! I’ll never use it for a sweater again.

  • I read that a garment made of superwash wool should be dried in the dryer in order to maintain its shape. Any comments about this?

    • I use the dryer and find it shapes back up. It does become very soft though but I usually knit with it for that drape. I always put a towel or two in with it.

    • Depends on the brand, & the superwash process used, but generally speaking yes, superwash yarns do need to go through a warm dryer. Case in point, a Better Bucket hat knit for my sister in Malabrigo Rios would have fit a basketball when it came out of a handwash bath in Eucalan. A quick trip through the dryer (warm/permapress setting) in a lingerie bag, but along with other regular laundry, & the Rios snapped back to its originally knitted size.

      I love the feel & drape of superwash yarns for shawls & scarves, not to mention the intensity of the colors. They also work just fine for mitts & hats as long as you pay attention to your gauge. Same goes for sweaters. Together with woo/acrylic blends, they’re hard to beat for children’s & young adult gifts. As someone who suffered with scratchy wool socks & clothing as a child, all in the name of warmth, you can keep the so-called natural stuff for anything but carpets & outerwear that will never come within 5 yards of bare skin.

  • I have used two different brands of ‘eco-wash’ superwash wool, which uses a different process for neutralizing the scales on the fiber. Under this process, there is no need to coat the yarn with resin. Supposedly the manufacturing process is kinder to the environment. These yarns are much closer to non-SW wool in my experience – bouncier, less dense, feel more wooly. I like them a lot.

    • I know about O-Wool eco superwash, what brands did you use?

      • Spirit Trail, which just closed its doors (sob!), had a worsted & a dk weight (Luna & Selene) and they both were wonderful. Swans Island has a sport, dk & aran. I’ve only used the dk but loved it, too: made a highly textured baby sweater and texture totally popped, which hasn’t been my experience with regular SW wool.

      • Tania Fiber Arts have a non-superwash washable yarn and so do Rosy Green Wool. I haven’t been able to find out much about the processes used though.

        • Autocorrected! Should say Tanis Fiber Arts.

  • Thanks for this but I am disheartened! I was loving my Millamia fair isle WIP – so soft! So colourful! but it is plasticated! ? You live and learn. So it is gonna get saggy and smelly. I’ll just have to throw it in the machine and not treat it like he heirloom I was hoping. Been knitting for 45 years and I didn’t know this. It is jamieson and smith for me all the way now 🙂

  • I love super wash yarns – some of the best ones feel like cotton without the stiffness. I think the quality of the yarn can make a big difference in the feel and look of a final product.

  • Ahhh, allergy. Having tested allergic to everything with fur or feathers, wool and hair included, I can nonetheless wear high quality merino next to my skin. Not cashmere, soft as it is, not bunny. Merino and those breeds that have a lot of merino in their breeding are my go-to for spinning and yarn buying. My only guess is that as a breed merino was isolated a long time ago and is just…different.
    This approach may not work for all with critter allergies or sensitivities but I am ever so happy it works for me.
    And yes, dearies, there is always silk, and then linen, bamboo, cotton, hemp and other scrumptious fibers.
    Good luck, and, Happy Knitting!

    • Same here. I guess the merino puzzle in my case may be because allergies mean I’m very sensitive to generally itchy fibres (mohair, alpaca with long guard hairs, even my own hair) as well as allergic to specific fibres if I inhale them or they get into my skin. Merino generally feels soft and stays together, whereas I find Mohair/Angora is generally itchy and sheds a lot so I breathe it in. Double whammy! Wollmeise feels like cotton to me. It’s one of the few wool yarns I could wear next to my neck.

    • Here 8n Australia you can buy merino undergarments. A fair price but worth it if you can afford them.

  • My impression of superwash is that it is really stretchy compared to “regular” wool. Also, it seems to pill more. I use it for gifts because even those who know better sometimes pitch a scarf or hat into the wash without thinking, although I did knit myself a sweater from superwash because, YES, the COLOR!

  • Question: why does some yarn pill and others don’t? I have 3x 30 year old (approx) handknits I made from Anny Blatt No.4 and there is still not a pill in sight. Over the years I have hand washed and machine washed these (on warm gentle cycle) and they still look and feel fabulous! These days, pretty much anything I knit will pill and I have used a great variety of brands including chain yarn.
    Can you elucidate? What do you look for if you don’t want yarn to pill?
    BTW…can’t get Anny Blatt in Australia any more…. haven’t been able to for a long time.

    Many Thanks,
    Heidi

  • My local shepherdess ( who is biased ) told me about superwash, and why she doesn’t like it. Most of the wool comes from China where they process it into superwash using toxic chemicals to remove the scales, and resins/ plastics to coat it. She also mentioned how it squeaks when knitted, and how it stretches out. It is the yarn most indie dyers use. I have heard recently that some people in the U.S. are making it using less toxic methods. The would like to hear about them. I think O-Wool is one of them . Please let us know about them. But I still prefer good old wool. I know my shepherdess and her sheep, and I like buying yarn from her because I like supporting local farmers.

    • YES!! It squeaks! I’ve never liked superwash and only use it for gifted baby things. My own kids had real wool sweaters that I washed carefully. I’m not a sock knitter but might consider using SW for that. Thank you for the info on the coating process. I will research that before buying.

    • To Be or Not To Be a Hypocrite: American Superwash Wool https://www.pigeonroofstudios.com/from-the-studio/2017/9/5/superwash Maybe your “local shepherdess” ought to learn something about her industry before she mouths off.

      I’ve heard of acrylic squeaking, but not superwash yarn, ever. It doesn’t stretch out any more than any other type of wool yarn as long as you knit it to the proper gauge. Knit it too loosely, & yes, it will stretch. And pill. But then, so will untreated wool. N.B. the wool itself does not come from China, but because of the rules of international trade its country of origin is listed as China if it has been spun, dyed, or superwash treated there. Also polymer does not equal plastic. Polymers can be either natural or manmade.

      • The article you link to explains how superwash yarn revitalized the American wool industry, apparently in large part due to the military need for superwash wool and the requirement that it buy American. A single facility was built for the superwash process to ensure military requirements are met. The article further says people shouldn’t argue against superwash b/c that will damage the American wool industry, while acknowledging that perhaps it is not an environmentally friendly process. But that doesn’t necessarily follow! Let’s push the American wool industry to support less toxic and more environmentally responsible s/w processes and, in the meantime, let’s continue to raise awareness of what the s/w process is and why it needs to change. At the same time, we can buy non-s/w wool that has been raised locally or at least in the US.

  • So helpful!

  • I am a crocheter. What do these yarns look like when used in a crochet?

    • I was wondering the same… Gonna have to get myself some and find out…

  • Love this environmently friendly wash cloth idea.

  • Thank you for the eye opening article on Superwash yarns! I like them for my grand kiddos garments…but I used a Superwash to knit Marie Greene’s Foxtrot KAL. While it was blocking my cat pulled two very long strands out from the front panel. Trying to even the stitches out again, has become a nightmare. I now need a secluded cat free area for blocking!!

  • Oh wow how serendipitous this post was!!!! Finishing a couple commissioned blanket and was pondering an Autumn sweater for myself in superwash fingering!!!! IMore thought and swatching now imperative thanx!!!

  • I too fell to the color and washability. When I washed and “blocked” I was furious. It stretched beyond belief. Now, I am new to blocking and try to do it right but I now have a sweater I can’t wear. So back to the drawing board. I am going to frog back beyond the pockets and redo shorter, then if it stretches it won’t matter. I made a second sweater “Roger”, but this time a little tighter tension and have not blocked yet. Now I know not to block like I would other yarn. I am fading away from the “superwash”. Linda

  • Very informative,Thanx

  • Thank you for the wonderful article on superwash yarns. Your analagies really helped me connect with your ideas. I haven’t used superwash yarns before, but now I can since I understand what it means….thanks again.

  • Brilliant article, I had no idea there was such a difference, thank you so much!!

  • I don’t use wool for things I knit for my grandchildren due to allergic-type reactions + the machine-washing issue, but have never used superwash because I’d read about the non-elastic problem and the stretching. Instead I have a stash of polyester/acrylic that I use for hats and mittens etc for the family. I’d appreciate a piece clarifying and comparing the environmental costs of non-fuzzy animal choices (superwash, synthetics) and maybe others as well (cotton, bamboo, linen must go through some processing as well).

    • Love this article! Thanks! Might you share just what the process is that removes the yarns scales? Mechanical?

      • The scales are removed via a chemical process, not mechanical. There’s going to be a follow-up article apparently. Looking forward to it!

    • Superwash is actually more elastic than acrylic. It may be coated, but it still is a protein fiber at heart and retains many of the inherent properties of protein fibers.

  • I just finished a gorgeous sweater in Rios and after washing and blocking it is much larger than expected. I checked the Malabrigo website for any washing tips and it says to dry flat. It would be great if you would publish an article on how to block/resize superwash. They say you can put superwash in the dryer(gasp) to get it back to size. As a life long knitter, I’m rather nervous about doing that.

    • That cabled swatch is also flat and limp because that particular yarn is not spun tightly. A tighter spin, like in the other 2 yarns, makes up for some if the properties that superwash can be lacking in. It also reduces pilliness. This is why I don’t buy loosely spun superwash anymore. A highly spun superwash can have lovely crisp stitch definition!