I moved house in the summer, and got myself a brand-new fancy-modern super-duper Samsung washing machine. It’s got all sorts of wonderful features and functions, including this rather interesting cycle, labelled simply “Wool”.
Now, I’m a huge proponent of washing woolies – yes, even those that aren’t superwash! – and having had front-loaders for years, I’ve never been afraid of using the washer’s spin cycle, but I must confess I was a bit nervous about a full machine wash for my more important handknits. And having consulted the manual, I got a bit worried: the manual states that the cycle is only for woolies that are labelled as machine washable.
(The spin cycle on a front loading washing machine and on many of the newer top-loaders, the ones that don’t have a central agitator, is actually very gentle on your garments. The spin cycle relies on centrifugal forces to fling your items against the side of the drum and leave it there, while the water spins away. After a soak, my handwash loads get thrown in the machine for a spin. Yes, even the most delicate of my knits and other handwash pieces – lingerie, and the like. When I was shopping for a new machine, the presence of a spin-only cycle was critical to me, I won’t buy a washing machine that doesn’t let me do that.)
I’ve been promising to try it the wool cycle for months, but had been avoiding it. I’m working on a big writing task right now, and in my keenness to find a distraction, I decided that today was the day. Rather than start with a precious hand-knit sweater, I decided to do a trial load: I threw in some wooly tights (store bought, low wool-content, marked machine washable), a store-bought wool and alpaca blend sweater, clearly labelled hand wash only, a pair of alpaca-blend handknit socks in a yarn that is marked superwash, but I know doesn’t do well in the machine, and a handknit swatch in a yarn I know that felts.
My resolve only wavered once, when I looked at the settings of the cycle: a warm wash, spin set to ‘low’, for a full hour.
I threw everything in, with a cold-wash detergent. (Honestly, if these were my best hand-knits, I would use a wool wash. I’m a big fan of Soak.)
I loaded up the machine, turned the dial, crossed my fingers, and pressed go. I got no work done over that hour, as I kept wandering to my laundry room to have a look. The door is opaque, so I wasn’t able to actually see what was going on, but I looked at how the machine was moving, and I listened. According to the Samsung website, what distinguishes the wool cycle is that the drum only moves “horizontally”. Remember, it’s not actually the presence of water that causes felting – it is agitation or friction. (Although a temperature shock can also cause a bit of felting, it’s really not the key factor.) It seemed clear from the noises the machine was – or more to the point, wasn’t – making that there is essentially no rotation, and therefore no opportunity for the garment to experience any friction.
An hour later, the washer sang its little end-of-cycle notification song – a musician friend tells me that it’s Schubert – and I rushed downstairs. I must confess I hesitated a little before I opened the door.
But I really needn’t have been worried: everything came out clean and wonderful, unfelted and undisturbed. Everything was fluffy and soft and nice.
I will definitely be doing that again! I will note that when I talked a bit about this on Twitter, a couple of people reported less happy experiences. It seems like there’s a load size limit – the larger the load, the larger the pieces, the higher the risk of felting. That does make sense, since a tub full of wool will have more opportunity to experience friction. And some machines are probably more gentle than others. If you’ve not used it before, I’d recommend experimenting with swatches and perhaps a store-bought sweater or two before you put your favourite handknits in.
Does your machine have a wool or hand-wash cycle? Have you tried it?