How To Prepare Wool Before Sewing (Should You Wash It?)

wool fabric

Should You Wash Wool Before Sewing With It?

Wool can be a scary fabric to work with, starting from the very first question – do I wash wool before my sewing project or not? The answer is a simple “yes” because washing and drying wool can cause a significant size difference.

The reason this is a question is two-fold, in a way. Really, it is about the same issue. Back before wool dryer balls became a “thing,” we called it shrinkage. “Wool fabric shrinks a lot,” they’d say. Today, we know what is happening is called felting.

Understanding How Wool Fibers Work

The natural fibers of wool are, well, wooly. That is, they are curly, wiry, and have little kinks in each individual fiber. The more wool is washed, the more controllable these fibers become. They start to push together which gives the appearance of shrinkage. But the fabric is really melding into something else – wool felt.

Just how much felting happens depends on how much those fibers are agitated. But whether you call it felting or shrinking doesn’t matter when the beautiful blazer you just sewed is now a size too small because it was washed. 

To me, the fear of shrinking a new garment is reason enough to pre-wash the fabric before starting my sewing project. There are a lot of good reasons to pre-wash, and shrinkage is among them. Another one – chemical treatments. Pre-washing helps eliminate excess dyes. With all the topical skin allergies my family has, pre-washing is a must in our household.

Tips For Washing Wool

You can wash wool by hand or by machine, but be sure to use the delicate cycle. The delicate cycle has less agitation, and is less likely to felt your wool. If washing by hand, the process is more about letting the fabric soak for a short time in the detergent and water. When rinsing by hand, concentrate on getting the detergent out without a lot of wringing.

Speaking of detergent, use one meant for wool. My family has always used Woolite – even this small bottle lasts a long time. It does not take much detergent if you are just washing one or two wool items; a tiny capful is all it takes. Woolite works in both hand washing and in the gentle cycle of washing machines, so it is convenient.

Choose your water temperature based on the colors of wool you are washing. Cold is always a safe choice. Some recommend washing the wool at the hottest temperature to remove all the possible shrinkage, but you will also remove all the vibrant dyes if you go with hot water. Did you know you can even boil wool? Not that you need to do it, but you can if the fabric needs to be disinfected. If you choose to boil your wool fabric, do not swirl, swish, or agitate it in any way. I have never boiled wool because I find the gentle cycle on the washer to be sufficient (and much easier).

Tips For Drying Wool

Most wool sweaters recommend hand wash and air drying, but you can put your wool fabric in the dryer. Use a delicate cycle or low heat. If you accidentally use a higher heat setting, don’t worry. Remember, this is fabric, not a completed garment. While the heat cycle could make your sweater not fit anymore, you are working with a blank slate in terms of your pre-washed fabric.

After your wool fabric has been washed and dried, it needs to be pressed. The wool will wrinkle quite a lot and pressing it helps restore it to a workable fabric. Don’t try to just smooth out the wrinkles with your hand before cutting out your fabric pieces. You definitely want to press the fabric. You can use steam or a damp pressing cloth if you would like.The process seems to line up the weft and warp of the fabric that gets a little wonky during laundering.

More Facts about Washing Wool You Should Know

Wool Does Not Need To Be Washed Frequently

While the pre-wash of wool tends to cause new sewing enthusiasts a degree of stress, you probably will not have to wash your wool creation much. Wool is more breathable than cotton, so many times all it takes is an air-out to refresh it.

Hang Your Wool Garment In The Sun

Hang your wool garments outside on a sunny day. (You can even hang wool sweaters – just use a padded hanger to help protect delicate seams.) If the garment holds any odors after airing out for a couple of days, it is time to wash it.

Wool Can Be Washed With Other Fabrics

If you have other garments that need to be washed, you can certainly wash your wool items with that load. The key is not filling the washer completely full. To keep your wool in the best shape, you don’t want to agitate it a lot. Having a washer full of items creates more items to rub against.

You Can Sometimes Restore a Wool Garment That Has Shrunk

If you have shrunken a garment made of wool, you may be able to restore it back to size. Remember, the wool isn’t really shrinking; its fibers are compressing. In theory, if you can wet those fibers and stretch them back out to size, you can return your garment to the size you need.

All you need to “unshrink” your wool is a tub of warm water and a third cup of hair conditioner. Dissolve the conditioner into the water then add your wool garment – no swishing allowed. Just let the garment soak for about 15 minutes.

At the end of the soak, drain the water and press the garment against the sides of the tub to push (not wring!) the excess water out. Move the garment to a towel and continue pressing out the water. You may have to use two or three towels to press out enough water to make the garment manageable.

Place another towel on a flat surface on which you can allow the garment to dry. When you place the garment on the drying towel, gently stretch the garment back out to size. Sometimes holding the wet garment up over the tub for a couple of minutes can help the stretch begin.

If you don’t stretch enough, you can repeat this process again until you get the fabric back to size. Obviously, this process is challenging, so it’s best to avoid the situation if at all possible.

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