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5 Expert Tips: How to Clean Your Woolens

Melin Tregwynt Kinmel and Towyn Blankets from Rowen and Wren

Fall is the time to swap out lighter-weight bedding and welcome back woolens. But before you do, you may want to consider freshening up your wool blankets. How to do it properly? We posed the question to Kellen Tucker, owner of Sharktooth, a Brooklyn store specializing in vintage blankets, textiles, and rugs. For the past decade, she says, she’s been conducting her own lengthy experiments in fabric care.

“When clients ask how to wash wool,” she says, “my impulse is to say, ‘Please don’t.’ Wool is an incredibly resilient fiber, but it requires the gentlest handling in water and is often best left alone.” That said, to make sure her offerings are spotless and sweet smelling, Kellen and her crew hand-clean pretty much all of Sharktooth’s textiles before they get added to the fold. Here are her words of advice.

Brooklyn-town-house-remodel-attic-bedroom-Fernlund-and-Logan-Remodelista
Above: A Scandinavian blanket in the attic guest room of a Brooklyn townhouse remodel by architects Solveig Fernlund and Neil Logan. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Remodelista, from Nordic Beauty: A Brooklyn Townhouse Reinvented with Style—and Restraint.

1. Shake and Hang

Often ventilating wool is enough. Shake it with oomph. It feels good, it feels productive. Hang it somewhere where the air moves. It’s helpful to remember that dirt is solid, no matter how microscopic. Picture the air lifting the dirt off the fibers and sweeping it away, because that’s what it’s doing.

Vintage Wool Camp Blanket from Sharktooth
Above: A vintage wool blanket from Sharktooth.

2. Spot Clean by Spraying

Need to take things a step further? Sometimes wool just requires freshening. This is easily achieved by giving it a little spray—whether all over or in spots that need cleaning—before hanging it up to dry.

Wool is hydrophobic, meaning the exterior of the fiber actually repels water. Lanolin occurs naturally, and most wool is treated after production to restore this element. Lanolin acts as a protectant—it’s antibacterial and works to repel dirt and water, which is why wool is considered self-cleaning.

Hot water will cause the fiber to expand, and dry heat will cause the fibers to shorten and shrink, so a spritz is preferred over a soaking, and the dryer is never a good idea. When spot-cleaning dirt or oil, use vinegar diluted with water (1/3 vinegar, 2/3 water), and start slowly. If the piece is dyed, make sure it’s colorfast (the dye won’t bleed). Do this by spot testing with a damp white cloth. If the dye comes off, then it’s not colorfast and you’ll need to dry clean. Dealing with a fresh stain? Seltzer works well on wool—the air bubbles literally trap and lift away the trouble.

Melin Tregwynt Kinmel and Towyn Blankets from Rowen and Wren
Above: Lambswool Kimmel Welsh Blankets at Rowen & Wren are £146 each. See Welsh Coast: Traditional Wool Blankets in Unexpected Palettes from Melin Tregwynt.

3. Bathe With Just a Hint of Soap

Are your woolens still dirty or musty? Give them a bath. But make sure the soap is mild and ideally pH neutral—Woolite is tried and true (other people swear by Ivory and Dawn dish soap). I like an oil-based castile soap (even though it’s slightly more alkaline). Regardless, use a fraction of what you think you need: If it starts getting sudsy you’ve gone too far. Many of the properties that protect the wool are oils. When you use detergent, you are essentially stripping the fiber of exactly what is keeping it clean in the first place. Do not scrub or agitate, that will damage the fiber and mess with the shape. Just soak it and let the mixture do its thing. The soap will react with the water and lift out the dirt on its own with no assistance from you.

Roros Tweed Arne & Carlos Setesdal Blanket
Above: Norwegian knitwear designers Arne & Carlos created the Setesdal Blanket design from the traditional Setesdal pullover sweater. It’s available in two color combinations for $268 at Fjørn. See The Statement Blanket: Luxury Wool from Røros Tweed in Norway.

4. Roll, Don’t Wring

Wool can hold up to a third of its weight in water. After you rinse your blanket, do not wring it out. You’ll mess with the shape and will likely never quite get it back again. Just roll it up in a towel to absorb the moisture—often this requires several passes and several towels.

The American Cashmere and Cormo Wool Large Throw from American cashmere specialists J.M. Generals.
Above: The American Cashmere and Cormo Wool Large Throw from American cashmere specialists J.M. Generals.

5. Air Dry

Hang the blotted blanket to dry. The ideal is a horizontal netted rack on legs—not something most of us have hanging around. But if you have outdoor space, considering setting up a clothesline. Better yet, set up two clotheslines with a few feet between them—draping the blanket over the pair relieves a lot of the weight on the wet textile.  You’re not supposed to hang wool in direct sunlight, but I always break that rule for just a few minutes. The UV light from the sun works with the water to cut the mustiness.

N.B.: This post is an update; it was originally published on Remodelista on March 31, 2016.

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