The superwash process turns wool that needs to be carefully handwashed into something that can be tossed into the washing machine. In theory it seems fantastic, but what exactly makes a wool superwash?

The Makeup of Wool

To understand how the superwash process works, you need to understand wool’s structure. This does vary depending on different breeds of sheep and types of wool, however the general structure is the same.

Each wool fibre is made up of the cortex and the cuticle. The cortex is the core of the wool, which makes up 90% of the fibre. Different cells are contained within the cortex, and these determine various characteristics of the wool such as the crimp, moisture absorption levels and how tough it is.

The cuticle is the outside part of the wool fibre. Cuticle cells overlap similarly to the scales on a fish, although exactly how they do so is dependent on the type of wool. These scales are what makes wool felt when agitated. Wool naturally has a waxy coating that makes it water repellent and stops the wool from felting on the sheep. The scales of the cuticle are all laid in the same direction, allowing dirt to wash off, and again, stopping the wool from felting on the sheep. During sheep shearing, the wool gets gathered together and the scales of each fibre end up pointing in different directions. When we wash wool, we remove its natural waxy coating, exposing the cuticle cells. Agitation of the wool causes the edges of the cuticle cells to rub together, get stuck on each other and cling together. The more it is agitated, the more they cling, so the more the wool felts.

The Superwash Process

Most superwash wool is treated using the Chlorine-Hercosett process. There are various other treatments available but none produce as good a product as the Chlorine-Hercosett process.

During superwash treatment, wool goes through the following

  1. Chlorine treatment (using chlorine gas or sodium hypochlorite) – This removes the surface of the scales
  2. Reduction of chlorine using sulphite in the same bath – This reduces the chlorine levels
  3. Rinsing
  4. Neutralisation with sodium carbonate – This lowers the acidity levels back to a normal PH
  5. Rinsing
  6. Resin application – A polyamide-epichlorohydrin polymer, called Hercosett 125 is applied. This coats the wool fibre with resin, smoothing it further
  7. Softener application
  8. Drying and polymerisation – This stabilises the Hercosett 125 so it is safe for use

Treated wool should be almost impossible to felt, meaning it can be washed in a washing machine rather than by hand. Some superwash wool can even be dried in a tumble drier. The wool will also take up dye easily and quickly, and pilling of the finished fabric will be significantly reduced.

The Problems With Superwash

While there are obviously numerous positive aspects to superwash wool, there are various known problems with it:

  • The treated wool loses its natural characteristics. Most superwash wool has the same smooth, almost synthetic feel.
  • The natural colour is often yellowed.
  • Ecological aspects: Waste water from the process contains high levels of adsorbable organohalogens (AOX) toxins, which are created when chlorine reacts with carbon-based compounds. A group of AOX toxins, dioxins, are highly dangerous. More information on dioxins can be found on the World Health Organisation website.

Personal Preference

For me, the cons of superwash wool outweigh the pros, but that’s definitely not the case for everybody.

For me:

  • Hand washing wool is a slight inconvenience, but because it doesn’t need washing as often as most other fibres I am happy to do so.
  • Untreated wool retains its characteristics.
  • I am trying to make as minimal an impact on the environment as possible, in both my personal life and business, so it seems sensible for me to stick to untreated wool.

References

The original patent filed for Hercosett https://www.google.com/patents/US2961347

A blog post by Sue Blacker of Blacker Yarns on the subject of superwash wool https://www.thenaturalfibre.co.uk/blog/superwash-musings-work-progress

A paper comparing the usual Chlorine-Hercosett method of superwash processing and a different, much lesser used method http://www.drpetry.de/fileadmin/user_upload/petry/pdfs/Lanazym_Wool.pdf

A page detailing the various processing methods of superwash wool http://www.lugangwool.com/02300099/php/newsshow.php?menuid=6&getnewslistid=53845&lang=3

Some figures on the Chlorine-Hercosett process and a brief discussion of an alternate process. A project by the EU to reduce environmental impact http://ec.europa.eu/environment/life/project/Projects/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.createPage&s_ref=LIFE05%20ENV/D/000195

A discussion of wool finishing treatments including Chlorine-Hercosett http://ied.ineris.fr/sites/default/interactive/bref_text/breftext/anglais/bref/BREF_tex_gb11.html