Superwash. You’ve heard the term in every yarn shop. But what does it involve, and what makes it such a standard in the hand-dyed yarn world? Let’s dive a little deeper in this quick and basic intro! Mostly because I only know so much. Also partly because ridiculously long blog posts overwhelm me and I don't like reading them. 😂
Let’s talk about sheep wool.
Wool fibers—the individual sheep hairs—are made up of tiny little microscopic “scales.” When these expand from heat and excessive agitation, the scales then become enmeshed and overlap with each other, thus creating felting. These are also responsible for making sheep's wool water-resistant. The scales on sheep’s wool are more prevalent than on other types of wool, such as camelid wools. It's not impossible to felt these other wools, but sheep's wool is often the most common felting material. Coarser sheep wools have a bigger all-around diameter and therefore more prevalent scales and quick felting abilities; finer wools have less surface space and less prevalent scales.
Getting back to superwash: The term “superwash” refers to a process in the treatment of the wool where chemicals are applied to the wool fiber to smooth down the outsides of the scales so they no longer catch on each other. This treatment uses chlorine as well as a synthetic coating, which contains a polyamide-epichlorohydrin resin (commonly known as Hercosett 125--there are other blog posts that have touched further on this process). It's not the best for the environment, which has brought a rise of appreciation for non-superwash yarn. This superwash process means that dye particles as well as water (and therefore dye) can penetrate the wool with incredible ease, and the wool itself is considered safe for warm baths and machine washing. However, to quote many mothers around the world, just because you can doesn’t mean you should!
It is still recommended that you use cold to room temperature water to bathe your superwash fibers on a regular basis, as prolonged exposure to agitation can lead to a short life for the wool. Heat, even just a prolonged warm bath, can bleed color, and coupled with agitation, can shorten the life of the wool in general. If you’ve spent hours upon hours on your handmade item, you’ll want to keep it around for a while! You can read my basic care guide here.
So let’s jump back to that superwash treatment: Why do I carry yarn that has such an impact on the environment? Simple! There are few alternatives to small-batch dyers like myself. I make a conscious effort to be as plastic-free as I can in the rest of my business, from packaging to shipping labels, and even to how I recycle the bags that my undyed yarn arrives in. To run a small home-based business 100% plastic free on a budget is incredibly difficult. I started dyeing these superwash bases before I understood more of the ins-and-outs of superwash and fiber processing (which is still a limited understanding, to be fair); achieving the colors and volume capability that I have is not easy with non-superwash wools.
Let’s also talk about the impact that superwash treatments have had on the indie yarn industry.
Primarily, superwash treatments are what opened the doors for indie dyers like me to produce the amount and type of yarn that we do. In order for our acid dyes to set, they require heat just a little below the boiling point and acid such as vinegar or citric acid. Being able to move yarn quickly from a simmering pot to the drying racks was pretty unheard of before superwash wool, as you had to wait for the fiber to cool to room temperature to prevent felting before moving it.
The colors, the techniques—can you picture “indie yarn” without imagining at least one skein of sharply speckled yarn, or some vigorously bright, popping colors? It’s hard to! While our current methods of producing superwash wool are far from adequate, we’re really at the mercy of science and industry demand for now. I’m aware of the treatment process of the yarn that I sell, as well as the impact it has—but I am also limited in my resources, as are many of us small-operations folk. In terms of sustainability, it's a bit of a double-edged sword for many of us in the business.
So does a superwash treatment affect the yarn's ability to biodegrade? That's an excellent question! I don't know. 🙃 But I imagine it's a small amount--the fibers are, after all, primarily wool (if we're talking a 100% SW wool yarn; nylon is a whole other thing). If someone else has the answer, please let me know!
Eco-friendly superwash treatments do indeed exist, so don’t lose heart, my fellow plastic-bemoaning yarnies! Tanis Fiber Arts, Swan Island, and O-Wool offer some great lines of eco-friendly superwash yarns.