Ever wonder how wool is made machine washable? I have been reading about different methods of treatment: one that smooths or removes the scales of the wool fibers to prevent felting, and another that coats the barbs so they don't mat together when agitated. Sometimes a combination of the two methods is used.
There is a new process which burns off the scales without using chlorine. I read about this online, but can't find the link right now and the description was vague. I thought it used heat, but maybe it used ozone. Ozone itself is highly toxic, but ozone-treated textiles can be safe. Other alternatives include peroxy compounds and enzymatic processes. But most methods of shrink-proofing wool start with chlorination.
Superwash wool is often chlorinated with a hypochlorite similar to the active ingredient in household bleach (but more dangerous to use). After chlorination, the wool is washed and the chlorine neutralized. Then the wool is coated with a patented resin made of synthetic polymers, filling the cavities between the scales that would otherwise interlock and felt when washed in a machine. This compound, polyamide-epichlorohydrin, is also used to make facial tissues, paper towels, and epoxy resins.
If you want further details, All About Hand-Dyeing has a couple of great articles on various Superwash treatments and their environmental effects.
I understand that untreated wool from Suffolk sheep has properties that make it machine washable and dryable, so there are other options for wool-lovers who don't hand launder (or are absent-minded).
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