Have you ever put something in the washing machine that wasn't supposed to go there? My list stretches back decades, and every incident was life-altering in its own way. There was a pair of Mom's dry-clean-only linen shorts that turned an entire load of laundry hot pink and led to everyone in the house doing their own darned laundry from that point on. There were too many tubes of lip balm to count, especially in high school. There was a cell phone and an iPod (you'd think I'd learn). And then there was this sweater.
Waaaaay back in 2016, I finished this sweater - made from some of my early handspun yarn. The sweater is far from perfect, but it's warm, it's mine, and it has POCKETS. Plus, it's a shade of beige that goes with just about everything in my closet, making it an essential piece throughout fall and winter.
Unfortunately, just before the turn of 2019, my husband put it in the washing machine (by accident). I've talked about this fiasco a bit in my newsletter and on Instagram. The point is that it shrank some, mostly lengthwise, making it look silly when I wore it. It was felted, but was it felted beyond saving?
What is wool felt?
Felt, quite simply, is a non-woven fabric that is made of matted fibers. It can be made of just about any material.
Wool felts because it has microscopic scales on the surface of each fiber. When the fibers are subjected to a mixture of moisture, heat, and agitation, the scales lock together like Velcro. Unless the wool has been through a superwashing process that removes or smooths down the scales, wool will always be at risk for shrinkage due to felting.
As heat, moisture, and agitation are applied to wool those scales lock together and the fabric can shrink. A number of factors combine to determine how much the wool can shrink, including:
Usually, when working with non-woven wool felt, the felting process has been carried out to the maximum extent possible in order to create a strong and durable fabric. This process cannot be reversed once it's carried out to the full extent.
Felting can also occur when spinners dye fiber prior to spinning it into yarn. Usually this happens because there's extra heat and agitation in the dye process (especially if the water boils!). For most fibers in this situation, the wool is only slightly felted, and it may be possible to mitigate the effects of felting.
What is Fulling?
When wool has been made into a woven, knitted, or crocheted fabric, the process is called fulling. The same things are happening with the scales of the wool, but because we're dealing with something that's already fabric instead of loose fiber, it technically gets a different name.*
As heat, moisture, and agitation are applied to wool fabric those scales lock together and the fabric will start to shrink. As with wool felt, sheep breed and how much heat, moisture, and agitation are applied will determine how much the fabric shrinks. With fabric, though, another factor comes into play - how tightly the fabric was knitted, crocheted, or woven. A loose and open fabric has more room for the fibers to move around, meaning more agitation is possible, and therefore more shrinkage is possible. A tight, dense fabric, on the other hand, doesn't have much space for the individual fibers to move, making shrinkage less likely (but still possible).
Generally, wool that has been felted or fulled can shrink by as much as 30%, which is a lot. There are plenty of patterns on Ravelry where you'd intentionally full your knitting - think bags and slippers. But most of the time, fulling is something we want to avoid. And when it does happen, it can feel a little disastrous. (Like my cozy sweater that accidentally became a crop-top.)
So, Can You Un-Shrink It?
Depending on how much the wool shrank during the felting or fulling process, it may be possible to pull the fibers apart from each other. If the fibers are only a little bit felted or fulled, the more likely this will be an option. However, if it's felted/fulled "all the way" or even a good percentage, you're never going to get your wool back into its original state.
When pulling fulled fibers apart, it's best to be gentle - those scales have locked together, and using lots of force can result in fiber or yarn breakage.
For my handspun sweater, it was only slightly fulled. In the first image, before fulling, you can see very crisp stitch definition. In the second image, after fulling, you can see that it's definitely fuzzier (partly because of a couple of years of wear, and partly because of the fulling). But you can still see the stitches fairly well - it hasn't completely morphed into a beige blob!
Following some suggestions of helpful instagrammers and the internet, I soaked the sweater in a bath of warm water and about 1/3 of a bottle of Unicorn Fibre Rinse. Some people use hair conditioner, but I had the Fibre Rinse on hand and wanted to see how it would perform in this situation. I rolled my damp sweater in a towel, the laid it out on a blocking mat, gently stretching the body out to try to give it some extra length.
Then came the hard part - walking away to let it dry for a couple of days. In the end, my sweater wasn't quite as long as I'd want it to be, but it's no longer a "crop top cardi" and it's wearable again.
This process works to some extent because wool fibers are more elastic when they are wet. I'm not sure how much the Fibre Rinse helped, but since it's formulated for use on wool, it certainly didn't hurt. And, since it also acts as a fiber softener, my sweater is a little bit softer for the experience!
Note that this fix will only work if the fiber isn't felted/fulled all the way, and even though it's possible to stretch the fabric back out, your garment will probably never be exactly as it was when it was new.
As for my husband? All is forgiven, but not forgotten. ;)
Ravelry project page here.
*You'll often see this process referred to as felting anyways...I'm guilty of it too!
Have you heard of differential shrinkage? It's a scary-sounding word, and googling it doesn't help - you get a very technical description of building construction principles. Yuck!
In weaving, differential shrinkage is actually a very simple idea. It means that some fibers shrink more than others when you wash them. And you can use that idea to create interesting textural effects in your woven fabric.
Combining a shrinking fiber like wool with a non-shrinking fiber like silk or cotton in a single piece of fabric can create interesting results. When the fabric is washed, the shrinking fiber will pull the non-shrinking fiber into puffs. The looser and more open the fabric is, the more susceptible it will be to this effect because the fibers have more room to move around. The tighter the fabric is, the less it will be able to shrink because the fibers are already very close to each other.
The first key to working with differential shrinkage is knowing which fibers will shrink and which won't. Wool is the most notable fiber that shrinks because it has scales that act like Velcro. Wool felts or fulls as heat, moisture, and agitation are applied to it. Some wools will shrink more than others - wool from Merino sheep felts easily, while wool from Southdown sheep is more resistant to felting.
I've also included Lycra and elastic in the list of fibers that shrink because when they are on the loom, they are stretched out to their longest length, and when they are taken off the loom, they can shrink, creating textured effects. Subjecting them to heat will make them shrink more - think of stretch denim that has gone through the dryer one time too many!
Fibers that Shrink:
Plant-based fibers don't shrink as much as wool because they lack the scales that cause wool to felt. Some animal fibers, like silk and mohair, don't shrink either. And many synthetic fibers like rayon, polyester, and tencel don't shrink.
Some wools have been through a process called "superwashing," which either removes the scales from wool or smooths them down. These wools won't shrink as much, but I do find that they can shrink up to 10%, especially if they are subjected to very hot water or put in the dryer.
Fibers that Don't Shrink (as much):
Sometimes we achieve differential shrinkage on purpose, and sometimes it's an accident. I've woven pieces where I used all wool, but the wool was all different breeds and/or brands of yarn that were spun differently. The differences in the wools and yarns meant that some shrank more than others. What I thought would be a basic striped rug was a wavy, rumply thing that would never lie flat.
Other times, I've woven things where I combined different fibers on purpose, knowing I would get a textured effect. The weaving in the top image is one example - the warp was cotton, and the weft was a combination of cotton and a wool/silk yarn. Of these three fibers, wool is the only fiber that will shrink substantially. On the loom, the cloth looked flat. But after a trip through the washing machine on the delicate cycle, I ended up with a boucle-like fabric. That's differential shrinkage in action!
There are lots of different textural effects you can achieve with differential shrinkage. You can create a fabric with allover texture, like I've done here, or you can create small areas of texture within a bigger piece of fabric. The possibilities are endless!
Textural Effects You Can Achieve with Differential Shrinkage
Not a weaver? You can also use differential shrinkage in crafts besides weaving.
If you're a spinner, you can ply a shrinking fiber with a non-shrinking fiber. I love to use plying silk, which is very fine, to create a textured effect in my plied yarn. When you wet finish your yarn, you can full the shrinking fibers to create a textural effect. Maggie Casey of Shuttles, Spindles, and Skeins calls this "Boucle the Easy Way."
If you're a knitter, you can use differential shrinkage in felting bags, hats, purses, and other items.
If you're a felter, you can add effects with non-shrinking fibers to create dimensionality. You can also use different thicknesses of wool layers to create puckers and bubbles - this video gives a great overview of the how and why.
Lately, I've been using differential shrinkage most often in creating boucle-like fabrics like the one pictured at the top of this post and my autumn leaves ruana. It really is a fun effect!
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