Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dry Cleaning Your Wool… with Fresh Air

Airing Out Wool
One of the much-touted attractions of wool clothing - and the basis on which it is recommended to cyclists - is its supposed odor resistant properties. In fact, it is not uncommon for proponents of the stuff to brag about how infrequently they wash their clothing (once a month! once a year! never!!!) As a wool enthusiast myself I am often asked about my take on this claim. Can wool clothing really be worn endlessly without washing? or - as one friend recently put it - "are woolsters just grungy?..." 

Well, speaking from personal experience I would put it this way: Wool retains odors to a lesser extent than cotton, and to a much lesser extent than synthetics. This is not to say that it does not pick up odors at all; only that it picks them up at a slower rate, and perhaps emanates them more subtly. Still, eventually there will come a time when you will have to clean your wool garment. But cleaning need not mean washing. And one thing I've discovered over the years, is that "dry cleaning" wool with fresh air can be amazingly effective. 

The practice of airing out clothing is of course nothing new. Compulsive laundering after brief periods of wear is a relatively recent trend, and it was once common practice to hang clothes in the window or even on the backs of chairs overnight to keep them fresher, longer. 

But with wool, this method is disproportionally effective. Just as wool is reluctant to retain odors, it's also eager to shed them if given a chance. The back yard clothesline does the trick best, especially on a breezy day. After I hang my wool clothes on the clothesline for half a day, they don't just smell fresh-er; they smell no less clean than had I actually washed them, then hung them out in the garden. They smell like the sun and the wind, that "fresh laundry" scent that detergent manufacturers try so desperately to bottle, but that can't quite compete with the real thing. And if you don't have a yard with a clothesline? Opening the window and hanging the garment off the curtain rod (or a hook) can work too. 

But why bother with this at all, you might ask, when you can just toss the clothes in the washing machine? Well, environmental and financial issues aside, there is incentive to wash wool as infrequently as possible. Wool tends to be more delicate than synthetics and cottons, as well as more prone to losing its shape. And while this is not necessarily true for all wool clothing (anything made of the "indie" fabric from Ibex I've found to be especially resilient), it has been true for enough of it, so that I avoid washing unless I have to.

While it may seem suspiciously simple, I have found that airing out wool works wonders to remove not only body odors, but also ambient smells picked from the environment, including strong food and cigarette smoke odors. Of course, airing out won't get rid of stains. So with a stain, I'll treat then handwash just the area around it - then air-dry. 

The only time I really wash my wool clothing fully and properly, is after I wear it doing something active on a hot day. When fabric becomes salt-encrusted from sweat, there is really no way to deal with it but wash the entire thing. Otherwise, the airing out method keeps my wool's contact with the washing machine at a minimum. Am I grungy or is wool just that cool? Try it out and decide for yourself!

32 comments:

  1. I think the key to airing out wool as a means of 'freshening' it is to do it ASAP after wearing it. Bacteria from your body which are responsible for odor need moisture to grow, and by airing out clothing immediately after it's worn, the bacteria don't have a chance to grow.

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    1. You are probably right, but I only bother doing it after I get a few wears out of it. Still works for me though.

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  2. I figured this out a couple of years ago, while on vacation where our beachfront bungalow came with a clotheline. It was heaven, my clothes smelled like the sea breeze every day! Sadly when I hung a makeshift clothesline out my window in the city, the condo board objected!

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    1. The clothesline thing is a big cultural difference between the US and Europe. Totally normal here for people not to own dryers, even in the city, but to simply hang their clothes outside on a line or "clothes tree". In the US, not so much.

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    2. Interestinly only a few states continue to preserve your rights to dry clothes on clotheslines. Like Colorado, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont. Regardless of local codes or homeowners association prohibitions. However most regions consider clotheslines a negative. Even though it saves energy cost. People are funny. I have a clothes line in the garage. Keeeps me from being fined.

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  3. Based on personal experience, I find the claims about wool's magic properties a mix (or 'blend' if you like) of urban legend and fairy tale.

    Once I was caught in a heavy downpour whilst wearing a merino jersey/baselayer/socks. Old-time racers talk about picking up a couple of kilograms as their wool kit absorbed water - I didn't feel that or anything else for that matter so cold I was. Temperature regulation? B*llocks! I'd never been so cold in my life! It wasn't really that cold outside, maybe 15C and I had an under-layer on... the only magic was I didn't catch a pneumonia.

    As for odour resistance, I wore my Ibex shirt to a club in Germany this summer, where the techno's great but they smoke a lot. Well... it certainly did stink of cigarette smoke the next morning.

    An RSC Rapha jersey does look good though, no doubt about that.

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    1. FWIW that's an Ibex RSC jersey, not Rapha.

      An interesting thing I've noticed about old-timers' wool jerseys, is that they were often in fact acrylic. Certainly most of my friends' '60s-70s jerseys, and most of the stuff I've come across at bike jumbles. The owners remembered them as being wool and produced them for me presenting them as such, but the labels said otherwise.

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    2. They do Ibex?

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    3. They will embroider any jersey they carry. And last time I checked (which, granted, was about a year ago) they were an Ibex dealer.

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    4. Yes synthetic is something to watch out for. Those old jerseys come from a time when synthetic was considered better, more awesome etc. I try to avoid any wool blends, as the synthetic portion will not breathe.

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    5. I imagine there was a time when the word "wool" was used broadly to describe all heavy knitwear. Like you'd put on your "wooly hat and mittens," which could very well be made of some yucky acrypoly blend. Ditto with athletic apparel from the 50s-80s, including cycling jerseys. Once upon a time sure they were all actual wool and the term remained, but by this era acrylic and poly blends were in fact more common. Which leads me to wonder: To what extent can the negative characteristics of the "wool" recalled by riders of this era be attributed to the fact that it wasn't?

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  4. My old racer friend tells me, in the best Brooklynese,
    You use a little woolilte, den rinse it out, den roll it up in a towel, den lay it out flat. Dat's what you do.

    And dat's what I do. I wish I could commute with the stuff but I don't want the messenger bag to wear it thin. Funny, I hang my regular jerseys up and the area is white from salt.
    My friend Mike H always wears wool all year round. He says the synthetics bother his skin. I think there's nothing like the cool colors of vintage jerseys.

    vsk

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    1. The morning after my 300K, I took my jersey out of my overnight bag and it was rigid-solid with salt. That time it definitely went in the wash.

      A long time ago I made the unfortunate mistake of washing an Angora sweater. Despite using the towel+flat method, by the time the thing dried it was doll-sized and had the density of felt. Ah the mysteries of wool.

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    2. After your 300K, every cycling association should have given you some sort of medal!!
      I don't have any Angora in my wardrobe, but it is New York, maybe I should?

      vsk

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  5. Oh definitely, you can't just wear wool forever and not smell. I find it depends on the garment. Some clothing will lose the sweaty body odour smell immediately and I can wear them over and over, others will stink immediately and the smell will cling and cling without washing or airing out. I will lay out wool clothing after I wear it to get air. I'll end up with a pile of things, do a sniff test and will decide if something needs to be washed or just hung out in the sun. Not wanting to wash stuff unnecessarily, I will hang out wool sweaters, coats etc out in the sun once in awhile to take in the sun. Sometimes I take everything out in rotation just to get air. I live in the country, so lots of leafy smells, a bit too far from the ocean to pick that up, but I when I lived right at the ocean, clothes would dry with the scent of sun and sea.....lovely. Another trick is to leave something out overnight, and especially in winter, leave clothing out in the cold. In fact people used to stick clothing in snow banks to 'wash' them.

    I'd never dry clean anything!

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    1. I used to work with a bunch of Amish guys, there were two older guys that never got married so didn't have any adult supervision. They used to use the air drying/cleaning method and the snowbank method and got a lot of ribbing for it, let's say they weren't always minty fresh.

      BUT, the story was that before the Amish and Old Order Mennonites switched to cheaper synthetic fabrics for their clothes this was a common practice for freshening up clothes that couldn't wait for washing day.

      Spindizzy

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  6. this article reminds me of what the clean sheets used to smell like after they were dried on a clothesline!!!

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    1. What do you mean used to! I dried mine thusly just this very morning. Farm fresh, TM

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  7. If you got two sets of wool clothing you just rinse the one set whilst showering (or at the sea/lake/river/etc). When one set is drying, you're wearing the other. Shampoo, bodywash or a plain old bar of soap works great with wool if water won't do the job.

    Yes, wool is great!

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    1. When I handwash wool, I use baby shampoo or "fairy liquid" instead of soap or expensive wool detergent. Works really well.

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    2. "Fairy liquid" - like dishwashing soap? Sounds a bit harsh on the lanoline... I've always figured that if you can wash your body and hair in it, then it won't harm the wool, thus the "rinseitundertheshowerwhileshoweringyourself" trick.

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  8. Interesting. I have a clothesline and like to use it, but oddly, I have found that my wool garments actually pick up a strange smell when hanging them outside as opposed to letting them dry inside on a hanger or on a chair, etc. I'm wondering now if it's something in the yard that is causing the odor and not the actual air drying method? I guess I need to do some experimenting. :O)

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  9. clean wool is less likely to attract moths.

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    1. Really filthy wool will poison the little buggers...

      Spindizzy

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    2. A friend swears that the perfume she wears poisons them …unfortunately only after they've had their fill.

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  10. There is absolutely no substitute for line-drying outdoors, for any item of clothing or linens. Even if it rains...

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  11. I really like wool and also think it doesn't retain odors like other fabrics. Which is sort of counter-intuitive if you've spent much time around livestock. The wool bearing beasteses are usually the tangiest, aroma-wise.

    My favorite cycling and casual clothes are mostly wool and the absolute best outdoor working/hunting/firewood chopping, snow shoveling garments I have ever found are old surplus WW2 military pants and jackets. The wool is thick and dense, wind and rain resistant like nothing else I've ever found and back in the 80s when I bought it they were 1/2 the price of cheap denim.

    I have several types but my favorites are some Swedish pants that have Nov 1944 stamped inside the waistband. They NEVER get laundered, just shook out, brushed, and hung up on the line. I used some M.E.K. to get some chainsaw oil out of them once and there's some Deer blood on the hem that wont come out, but sunshine and fresh air seems to be the recipe for long life with this stuff. I hope to be wearing them when I'm 80.

    I really don't like military style clothing but these are so old and out of date that they don't read as battle gear anymore, sort of like the old Jeeps that used to run around all the ranches back home when I was a kid. Painted white or yellow with the ranch name and brand on the side and some antlers or steerhorns on the hood. Reintegrated into civilized, if not quite polite society, in looks as well as smell...

    Spindizzy

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  12. I prefer wearing wool in winter and find it doesn't need washing often, but I've never tried airing it out like this. I've also heard the story about clean wool not being as likely to get eaten by moths, but my experience is that some wools just seem to attract moth holes regardless, it seem to be the type of wool rather than its cleanliness. I lost a good woollen coat to moths once, while my current one has never been properly cleaned and is perfect after years of wear!

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    1. I find that the moth thing depends on the garment as well. I've bought tops from a specific manufacturer that developed tiny holes when still brand new and unworn, and I've owned other tops for 5 years that have yet to show any sign of this blight.

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  13. Warning! This method should not be used on actual sheep. They wriggle about, will entually break free and make a mess of your back yard.

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  14. This confirms my practice of leaving my clothes on the end of the bed (or *ahem* occasionally on the floor). Often, the merino which had previously failed the sniff test turns out to be miraculously revived again a day later. As a student, this was known as 'wardrobe washing'

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  15. Fresh air in combine with little moisture makes the wool fluffier and more soft!
    One time I accidentally forgot my wool blanket which I use "for the not so cold" nights outside while going to run some earrands, I remembered it much later when it started to rain, but not pouring, a light rain which didn't last long, only 20 minutes or so. After 4-5 hours, when I returned home, I was certain that the blanket would be ruined, but to my surprise it was not!
    It was fluffy and soft! The moisture that penetrate the fabric lightly (as it didn't soaked in the rain) was drying slowly with the help of a fresh breeze and the result was spectacular!

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