Expert Advice: How to Clean Woolen Blankets, 5 Tips

Now that it’s time to familiarize yourself with our woolens, we ask ourselves: how do we keep them clean and in good condition? We asked Kellen Tucker, owner of Sharktooth, a Brooklyn store specializing in vintage blankets, textiles and rugs. Over the past decade, she says, she has been carrying out her own long experiments in tissue care.

“When customers ask how to wash wool,” she says, “my impulse is to say, ‘Please don’t.’ Wool is an incredibly strong fiber, but it requires the gentlest handling in water and is often best left alone. That said, to make sure her offerings are spotless and fragrant, Kellen and her crew hand clean just about all of Sharktooth’s textiles before they’re added to the crease. Here are his tips.

A Scandinavian blanket in the attic bedroom of a Brooklyn townhouse renovated by architects Solveig Fernlund and Neil Logan.  Photograph by Matthew Williams for Remodelista.
Above: A Scandinavian blanket in the attic bedroom of a Brooklyn townhouse renovated by architects Solveig Fernlund and Neil Logan. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Remodelista.

1. Shake and hang.

Aeration of the wool is often sufficient. Shake it up with punch. It feels good, it’s productive. Hang it somewhere where the air moves. It helps to remember that dirt is solid no matter how microscopic it is. Imagine the air lifting dirt from the fibers and sweeping it away, because that is what it does.

A vintage wool camp blanket from Sharktooth.
Above: A vintage wool camp blanket from Sharktooth.

2. Spray clean the spots.

Need to go further? Sometimes the wool just needs to be refreshed. This is easily achieved by giving it a little spray – either all over or in the places to be cleaned – before hanging it up to dry.

Wool is hydrophobic, which means that the outside of the fiber repels water. Lanolin occurs naturally and most wool is processed after production to restore this element. Lanolin acts as a protector: it is antibacterial and repels dirt and water, which is why wool is considered to be self-cleaning.

Hot water will cause the fiber to expand and the dry heat will shorten and shrink it, so a spray is better than a soak, and the blow dryer is never a good idea. To clean dirt or oil stains, use vinegar diluted with water (1/3 vinegar, 2/3 water) and start slowly. If the piece is dyed, make sure it is colorfast (the dye will not bleed). To do this, perform spot tests with a damp white cloth. If the dye does come off, it is not solid and you will need to dry clean it. Are you dealing with a fresh stain? Seltzer works well on wool – air bubbles literally trap and eliminate the problem.

A boiled merino wool blanket by Tyler Hays for his Lostine, Oregon general store, M. Crow & Co. Read about it in High-Style Hillbilly.
Above: A boiled merino wool blanket by Tyler Hays for his Lostine, Oregon store, M. Crow & Co. Read about it in High-Style Hillbilly.

3. Bathe with just a dash of soap.

Are your woolens still dirty or moldy? Give them a bath. But make sure the soap is mild and ideally pH neutral – Woolite has a proven track record (other people swear by Ivory and Dawn dish soaps). I like an oil-based Castile soap (although it is slightly more alkaline). Either way, use a fraction of what you think you need: if it starts to get frothy, you’ve gone too far. Many properties that protect wool are oils. When you use a detergent, you’re essentially removing the fiber from what keeps it clean in the first place. Do not rub or agitate, this will damage the fiber and alter the shape. Soak it and let the mixture do its job. The soap will react with the water and wash off the dirt on its own without any help from you.

The large American Cashmere and Cormo Wool jet from the American cashmere specialists JM Generals.
Above: The American Cashmere and Cormo Wool large throw from American cashmere specialists JM Generals.

4. Roll up, do not wring out.

Wool can hold up to a third of its weight in water. After rinsing your blanket, do not wring it out. You will play with the form and probably never get it back completely. It is enough to wrap it in a towel to absorb the moisture – this often requires several passes and several towels.

Utility Service Blankets, made by a family business that has been making wool for over a century, available from Schoolhouse Electric.  For more camp-style wool blankets, see Easy Pieces: Camp Blankets.
Above: Utility blankets, made by a family business that has been making wool for over a century, available from Schoolhouse Electric. For more camp-style wool blankets, see 10 Easy Pieces: Camp Blankets.

5. Air dry.

Hang the sponged blanket to dry. The ideal is a horizontal net with legs, which many of us don’t have. But if you have an outdoor space, consider installing a clothesline. Better yet, install two clotheslines with a few feet between them – draping the blanket over the pair takes a lot of the weight off the wet fabric. You’re not supposed to hang wool in direct sunlight, but I always break this rule for a few minutes. UV light from the sun works with water to reduce mold.

See more Sharktooth in The Patchwork Quilt gets a modern makeover and The Canvas Carpet: Nautical Canvas Floorcloths. Also take a look at 12 Natural Garment Washes & Detergents.

And, for expert advice on cleaning and maintaining linens (before storing winter bedding for warmer weather), check out:

NB: This article is an update; the original story was published on March 31, 2016.

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