Ever wondered what superwash wool yarn is? In today’s knitting blog post, I’ll talk about the difference between natural wool yarn and superwash wool yarn.
I’ll also discuss superwash yarn behaviors and what you can expect from it, whether you’re knitting with it or dyeing with it. I’ll even make some suggestions for knitting projects and share tips on how to care for it.
With that said, let’s first establish a working understanding of what wool is before moving on to superwash wool.
What is Wool?
When you hear the word “wool”, you might immediately think of sheep. You wouldn't be wrong. Wool fibre can come from sheep, but it can also come from other animals, too.
We also get wool from llamas, goats, rabbits, musk oxen, and other animals. In other words, any animal that produces this natural fibre is considered wool.
This natural fibre consists primarily of protein, and its composition is that of microscopic cuticles which appear as scales. These scales overlap the wool fibre and help hold the material together. Just look at the image below.
This is a close-up of the stitch pattern for my Lettie's Ocean Shawl using non-superwash wool. You can see very thin tendrils and light fuzzing that is common with natural wool.
In its natural state, these animal fibres are considered to be non-superwash wool. To become wool yarn that you can knit with (or crochet, weave, etc.), this wool will undergo different processes to create yarn. I’ll explain the details in another post.
For now, though, that’s the really short explanation of what wool is and its basic composition. Now, let’s talk about the process that changes regular, natural wool into superwash wool.
What is Superwash Wool?
Superwash wool is any wool fibre that has been chemically treated to make it machine washable and (usually) dryable. Since the fibre has been modified, the wool won't felt.
This chemical process removes the cuticles, or scales, and coats the fibre as shown in the images above. The treated wool fibre is then smoother and moves more freely since it no longer has scales to restrict it.
You can see how smooth the superwash fibres are in this close-up view of my Pioneer Gloves.
Obviously, these are just a few superficial details of what makes wool superwash. To better understand superwash and how it will behave in your knitting, let’s take a deeper dive.
Facts about Superwash Wool
In these next sections, we'll talk about superwash yarn characteristics and how it behaves in your knitting. Here's what you can expect from superwash wool yarns.
Superwash Yarn Characteristics
One of the benefits of superwash wool yarn is that it's been treated to make the wool fibre machine washable. The treatment process also prevents the natural fibre from felting. In other words, your finished knits will never look fuzzy or shrink, which is always a good thing.
When knitting with superwash yarns, you’ll find that they tend to be softer than non-superwash. If you find the natural fibre to be “itchy wool”, superwash might be a good solution for you.
Not only is superwash wool softer than natural wool, but it tends to be shinier, too. The amount of shine will vary based on the fibre type but, in some instances, it can really enhance the look of a finished knitted piece.
Typically, the shine is more often seen in dyed yarns with darker colors, like in the image below.
Another characteristic worth heralding, superwash wool yarn is always a good choice for knitting projects where gauge is not critical. Magic words, I know.
Another important detail about superwash wool is that it often has more plies and more ply twist. This is due to the superwash wool process and the need to make up for what it lost when the yarn was treated.
Superwash Yarn Behavior
As mentioned earlier, superwash wool is softer than non-superwash wool. Not only is it softer, but it’s also smoother than natural wool.
You’ll find your knitting stitches moving along your knitting needles more easily. You may also find that it helps you to knit faster, too.
And if you’re looking for better movement and more drape for your knitting project, consider using a superwash yarn. Just look at this Electric Love Mosaic Cowl. Knit with superwash yarn, you can see how it softly drapes and folds.
Adverse Superwash Yarn Behavior
Something you might not know or expect from superwash yarns is that finished knits may stretch or sag. This is due to the superwash wool process, which makes them less elastic.
Compared to natural wool, superwash yarns have less memory, like cotton yarn, and tend to lose their shape more easily.
One way to counter this issue is to knit tighter or with smaller knitting needles for the best long-term outcome. If you’re already a tight knitter, this may finally benefit you.
Another behavior to note is that superwash yarns can be slick or slippery, especially on metal needles. If this is happening, you might try changing your needles to a natural material. Wood or bamboo knitting needles will give your stitches something to grab on to.
You may also find yourself splitting stitches or dropping stitches more frequently.
In my experience with superwash yarns, if I dropped a stitch, I noticed it would unravel faster than when I used natural wool, so you’ll have to stay vigilant. Check your work frequently for rogue stitches.
I can’t stress how important it is to have control of your knitting stitches and to have an even knitting tension. Uneven knitting could make for a sloppy finished piece that’ll only end up in the closet or getting frogged entirely. Your time and effort are worth way more than that.
So, for developing good habits and for your sanity, just knit a gauge swatch. This will show you how your yarn will behave before it’s too late.
Superwash Yarn Knitting Projects
The best part about superwash yarns is that they’re a great option for easy care knits. Some examples would be knitted baby blankets, summer knitting projects, knit socks, or any knitting accessories, really. They also make great lightweight sweaters.
They’re soft, cool, machine washable, and make great knit gifts.
There's something else you should know about when working with superwash yarns. I mention this because I know some knitters tend to find a yarn brand they like and stick with it if they produce quality results. Nothing wrong with that.
If you're wanting to use a certain brand of yarn but switching to their superwash, yarn gauge will definitely vary from their non-superwash. As I mentioned earlier, superwash yarns often have extra plies and extra ply twists as compared to non-superwash. This will change the make-up of the yarn and vary the gauge.
There's that word again: gauge. As always, knit a gauge swatch, no matter how sure you think you are. It's time well spent.
Also, superwash wool doesn’t bloom like non-superwash wool. This is especially important to know if you like to knit colorwork projects.
In case you're unfamiliar with this term, blooming occurs in non-superwash wool when it's washed and dried. When wool blooms, it becomes fuller, lending itself across stitches and sealing gaps. It's also what allows the colorwork to expand and fill in properly for the best effect.
Finally, if you’re hand knitting for someone who experiences cold winters, non-superwash wool is recommended instead. Superwash yarns do not wick away moisture like non-superwash wools and do not retain heat as well.
Hand Dyeing Superwash Yarn
If you like to hand dye yarn, you’ll be happy to know that superwash yarns are easy to work with. They take up and hold dye colors more readily than non-superwash wool.
Since superwash yarn is chemically treated, it withstands the heat that comes from the dye process. It also absorbs dye well and produces richer colors.
You’re sure to find bolder and more vibrant colors at your local yarn shops (LYS) and online compared to non-superwash wool. Similarly, you’ll find more unique color choices to make distinct creations.
We've covered a lot of ground here but there's still one last thing to discuss.
Superwash Yarn Care
Here are some tips to help you care for your superwash knits:
- Because of their lack of elasticity, you’ll need to wash your hand knit items more frequently to help maintain its shape.
- Also remember, superwash wool is still a natural protein fiber. Moths simply love to feast on wool, especially dirty wool. You’ll need to make sure that your superwash knits are cleaned regularly and stored properly to avoid them being devoured by wool moths.
- Even though superwash yarns have been treated for heat exposure, they may become compromised over time, which could lead to felting. Most superwash yarns recommend cold washing and air drying flat to best preserve your knits. As with all yarns, follow the care instructions on your yarn ball band.
Finally, just remember that superwash yarns will always vary from one brand to another, by type of wool fibre, and by wool or wool blends. As long as you keep this in mind as you knit with superwash yarn, you'll be fine.
Well, that wraps up our discussion of superwash yarn and what you need to know about it.
If you found this information useful or learned something new, drop me a note below and share your experience with me. I’d love to hear from you!