How to Wet-Wash Wool & Silk and Skip Dry-Cleaning Chemicals

By Annie B. Bond

Do you hang dry-cleaned clothes in your bedroom closet? If so, guess what you are breathing all night long: a probable carcinogen. Dry cleaning chemical fumes depress your central nervous system as they waft around the room. If this isn’t exactly your idea of a healthy sanctuary, try wet-washing as one alternative to conventional dry cleaning. Here’s how.

For most of the world, dry cleaning means that the clothes are cleaned with a solvent called perchloroethylene. Besides the health concerns mentioned above, it is also known to cause smog and air pollution.

What to avoid when washing wool and silk at home

The biggest dangers in wet-washing wool? Shrinking and felting. These are caused by two things:

  • Agitating, twisting and wringing wet wool or silk causes the fibers to contract, causing the garment to shrink.
  • Washing the fabric with an alkaline material that has a pH much above 8 (a neutral pH is 7) can harm wool and silk because they are acidic materials. Avoid borax, washing soda, or ammonia; these are alkaline materials, as are some soaps.

How to safely wet-wash wool

Hand washing your wool and silk in water and a neutral-pH soap is called wet-washing, and it can be very successful. My favorite pashmina shawl, a gift to me, is made of 55 percent pashmina wool and 45 percent silk. This is just one of many wool and silk pieces of clothing I wet-wash.

  1. Use a laundry soap or detergent that has a neutral or acidic pH.
  2. The water temperature when washing wool and silk should be 100F.
  3. Gently swirl the wool in the water, then rinse and press water out.
  4. Block the wool (lay it flat and stretch it to the correct size and shape) before drying.