Blog #9- Regenerative Wool Series: Part 2- Superwash Wool: The What, The Why and The Alternatives
In the fiber world, there is a certain stigma associated with superwash wool and I was curious to know what the heck the big fuss is all about?
So, I decided to do a bit of research and identify what superwash yarn is, why it is a preferred textile in certain applications and highlight one local fiber mill who is paving a different way forward using locally-sourced fibers in unique ways to offer alternatives to knitters preferring not to use superwash yarns in their work. (Check out the links below and stay tuned for our up-coming podcast episode interviewing this visionary fiber artist launching 3/16/2020!)
The term superwash refers to a fiber that has been specifically treated with the goal in mind to reduce shrinkage in the garment when it’s washed. This process allows my favorite Darn Tough socks to not be destroyed in the wash after a hard day (or three) on the trail. It has enabled numerous commercial-scale manufacturers to create base-layers and performance wear from wool that doesn't turn into doll clothes after washing out all the sweat build up. It is used in creating durable wool-based uniforms for our military troops manufactured 100% in the United States. It is known to take dye gloriously and many hand knitters prefer making garments (especially children’s garments) out of a superwash yarn in efforts to withstand regular laundering. Sounds fantastic if you ask me!
Getting down to the nitty gritty of the process itself however, is quite fascinating and leaves me to question, what alternatives might we have to this process?
The superwash process is actually a series of processes wool goes to chemically remove the scales on each individual wool fiber (the ones that cause felting when warm water and agitation are involved) and then coat these fibers in a petroleum-based polymer.
Hmm??? I do recall that one time I accidently put our 3-year old daughters’ hand-knit superwash sweater in the drier and it coming out feeling quite a bit like a brittle version of acrylic! You know that feel of the 70's sweater you unearthed from your attic stash just before the ugly sweater contest? Yeah, that.
The more alarming aspect of this process however, is the toxicity of the chemicals that are being used in treating the fibers themselves and the environmental waste that is left over in the end.
To start, the tips of the wool fibers are removed using a chlorination process (ie. hypochlorite, dichloroisocyanuric acid, chlorine gas or even ozone) which can be applied in liquid or gas form. The process then continues to the application of a polyamide-epichlorohydrin resin similar to that used in the paper industry. Interesting right? To think that we are taking wool, chemically treating it in ways that require gas masks and a whole lotta wastewater treatment and coating it in plastic seems a bit eh???
Additionally, as we learned in our previous post about microplastics (Regenerative Wool Series: Part 1 Microplastics) these plastic coatings can come off in your wash and it is recommended to only launder superwash yarns with cold water to minimize shedding.
All this just so I can wash my socks and under layers in a washing machine… hmmm. Now my gears are turning!
I continued to ponder the thought of working in a factory where I am applying chlorine gas to wool fibers and how much fun that sounds. Um, no thank you. I’m honestly not sure about the personal protective gear required for this job, but I do know that chlorine gas has been used in chemical warfare across the globe and something about this process, even if it produces the most washable wool ever, begs me to ask if there is a cleaner, safer way to approach this?
I understand the economic demands of a commercially viable textile manufacturer, but what if… even at the most local level, there was born a solution to the shrinkage issues with laundering in a more ideologically and just way that could perhaps scale to a larger operation later on down the road?
In my search to better understand this, I looked at who in my local community superwash wool is marketed to and started with the knitter in mind. From a basic google search, I was able to check out every online yarn store in Vermont that has a website. To my surprise, everyone of these stores sold at least one brand of superwash yarn aside from one; Mad River Fiber Mill located in the picturesque hillsides of Waitsfield Vermont.
Mad River Fiber Mill is owned and operated by Susan Snider who opened the mill in October of 2016 in efforts to fill a dire need for local mill processing to local small-scale fiber farmers.
“Our goal is to build awareness and community around the fiber arts. We will do this by providing production capacity for small farms and producers who raise fiber animals.”
I recently came across an intriguing Instagram post launching Susan’s new line of sock yarn, the Crepe Suzette, made from 100% locally sourced Cheviot. A down breed known for its strength and elasticity. This fiber was spun using a traditional crepe technique on her mill spinner and is resistant to felting by the sheer nature of the wool grown by the Cheviot breed and the yarn construction itself.
Excited by the thought of creating a durable hiking sock made entirely from locally-sourced wool, I decided I needed to know more about how I could get my hands on some and headed on over to her mill and shop. While here, we discussed her role in milling high-quality yarns grown right here on local Vermont farms. Susan kindly walked me through her creation process in developing this special yarn and took the time to answer the many questions I brought along with me from my readers and listeners. Her patience and dedication to her beautiful mission helped me realize that yes, there is a cleaner and safer way to produce a durable, felt-resistant sock yarn made from 100% wool and its right here in my backyard! Who would have known?
This yarn is produced in small batches and is one of a kind. To get your hands on some yourself before its all gone, head on over to Mad River Fiber Mill, check out Susan's mill and studio and say hi to Susan for me while you’re there!
Happy knitting everyone!
Want to learn more about what we are working on here at the farm and in the studio? Head on over to Frosthorn Hollow Farm and subscribe to receive our latest newsletter and stay in the loop for what’s to come each month as we turn our dream of regenerative wool farming into a reality, see you there!
Sara and Kris Kingsbury combine passion and skill in living out their soul-fueled vision founded in intention and creative processes using home-grown fiber and wood craft on their 18 acre sheep farm in rural Vermont.