I'm afraid I've been neglecting you terribly. I had hoped to make the next post the one where I put up the heart socks pattern, but I've got another activity that's cutting dramatically into my knitting time and even more dramatically into my thinking time, so it's taking a bit longer than I anticipated. I'm feeling bad, however, so here, let's have a little post about a fun technique: how to use your top-loading washing machine to make handwashing easier.
First, let me note that I do specify a top-loading washing machine. I don't know if this technique can be adapted to a front-loading machine or not; it depends on being able to stop the machine in mid-cycle and open the lid, which you may not be able to do. However, some parts of it may be adaptable, depending on your machine's capabilities, so I'm just saying that I'm not promising you'll be able to do this. Coin-op machines may also have issues, depending on how much control they offer. Read through the steps, and judge for yourself what you will be able to do.
Here, then, is how I handwash with my washing machine.
- With the washer empty, I start the cycle and allow the machine to fill with cold water, to a level that's generous for the number of things I'm going to wash.
- I add my wool wash (and I'll talk momentarily about washing products), and close the lid for a moment so it can be thoroughly mixed into the water.
- I stop the cycle completely, so the washer sits there full of water and does not drain.
- I add my knit items, push them under, and gently squeeze the soapy water through them. I do not shake them around or slosh them up and down at the surface, which agitates the fibers and can cause felting; I do not rub them, which increases pilling and can also cause felting; I do not wring or twist them, which can stretch them out of shape.
- I let them sit and soak a while, and then I squeeze the water through a little more.
- I turn the washer's cycle back on, but keep the lid up so no agitation happens, and allow the water to drain.
- I move everything over to the side of the washer away from where the water comes in, and let the washer fill again for the rinse.
- Rinsing is done the same way as washing, by squeezing the water through. It's clean when you can't feel the soap on it anymore, just like when you're washing your hair. If it's hard to get the soap out with a single rinse, you can go back two steps and repeat. Or you can use a no-rinse product, but even so I'd recommend occasionally going ahead and doing a complete rinse, to prevent build-up.
- I let the washer drain, again with the lid up, and then shut the cycle off again.
- Once the washer is completely empty of water, I move each of the items up against the side of the washer, taking care that they're securely placed and that they're straightened out as much as possible, not wadded in a heap.
- I turn the cycle to the spin, and shut the lid. The washer spins all the excess water right out, and leaves me with items that are just damp.
I consider this method perfectly safe, and fearlessly apply it to lace scarves and cashmere sweaters; the items don't move, except to press more tightly against the side of the washtub, so no agitation will occur to damage them. I've even done it to hanked yarn without incident. The items I take the most care with, actually, are felted ones; the thick fabric will hold a crease if you let one be pressed into it in the spinning process, so it's important to make sure they're flattened out as you want them to end up before you turn the washer on.
I have several things that I like about this method, not least the facts that (a) I don't have to clean the sink first, and (b) I don't have to move drippy knits across my kitchen, but the real benefit, I think, is how much of the excess water it gets out, and how that impacts the drying time. I live in a place that is warm and humid much of the year, so getting things dry before they mildew is important to me, and I also just don't like having my dining room filled up with drying knitwear any longer than necessary.
Which brings me, of course, to drying. You can, of course, just lay things out on a towel on the nearest convenient flat surface, and that will work fine. It's not, however, the fastest method. Drying happens by evaporation, and evaporation happens at the surface, so whatever you can do to increase the exposure of damp fabric surface to air will help speed up your drying time. I have a number of mesh racks, which fold up for storage and stack up in layers for use, and think they're a great solution; they're readily and cheaply available at discount stores like Wal-Mart and Target, and I definitely recommend them. If you don't have such a thing, however, consider putting down some plastic on top of your drying surface; a flattened-out garbage bag works just fine. When you lay a damp item on a towel, some of the water soaks down into the towel, and in order for the item to completely dry, the water has to wick back up through the towel and the item before it can evaporate. Putting the item down on plastic instead means that the water stays at the surface, which increases the exposure to air, which speeds drying. Also, a fan is a great aid to drying; by moving the air across the surface, it moves away the air that's already soaked up what water molecules it can handle, and brings fresh unsaturated air in. So, lay your items out on a mesh rack, or at least on plastic, and put a fan on them, and they'll be dry before you know it.
And finally, let's circle back and talk about washing products just a bit. Despite the name, Woolite is not actually very good for washing your wool things. It's really best for washing the sort of delicate acrylics and nylons that lingerie and similar items are made out of, and it's a little bit harsh on natural fibers. If it's a choice between that and, say, Tide with Bleach, then I'd use it, but it wouldn't be my first choice. I am fairly fond of specialty woolwashes, like Eucalan and Kookaburra; these are available from many LYSes, and also many internet vendors. They contain lanolin, which helps to condition the wool, plus ingredients that help keep moths away, and they can be used without rinsing, although as I suggested above at least an occasional rinse is helpful. However, another excellent product with which you can wash your wool items is shampoo. Basic, cheap, adult shampoo is great for wool, which is after all a type of hair. Notice that I specify adult shampoo. Adult shampoo is generally somewhat on the acidic side, and this is great for hair and for wool; it makes the scales on the fibers lay down flat, which reduces the chance of accidental felting and makes the fiber feel softer to the touch. Baby shampoo, on the other hand, is generally just barely on the base side of neutral; that's because it's formulated to be gentle to eyes, not to hair. If you've ever used it on your own hair, you may have noticed that it makes it feel sort of stripped, and it will do the same thing to wool fiber; it's an acceptable choice, but not the best one. For the same reason, I would avoid using true soaps, like bar soap or Dr. Bronner's or similar products; these products are alkaline, and that makes all the scales stand up. That makes soap a very useful ingredient if you're intentionally felting, but not such a good choice for an ordinary washing product for wool or other animal fibers. Plant fibers such as cottons, however, will like soap just fine.