Gift Knitting, Superwash Wool, and the Big Bang Theory’s Dreaded Itchy Sweater

A basket of yarn

A basket of yarn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It's gift knitting season again, especially for those of us who never start early enough (raise your hand if you have far more gifts in mind than you can possibly knit before the end of the year).

Big Bang Theory had a recent episode that centered around Leonard wearing a sweater his grandmother had knitted him that was so itchy that he was literally covered in red welts by the time he took it off. It was horrible, and too many of us have had that experience. Thank goodness it was fiction.

As a knitter, I know that episode only worked because the premise was that Leonard had found the sweater in a box and it was at least a couple of decades old. You see, superwash wool (wool that has been treated so that it doesn't shrink) has come a long way in the last twenty years.

Superwash wool has been treated with some pretty harsh chemicals. Years ago, the process was insufficient to get those chemicals out, and/or the process damaged the wool in such a way that fibers didn't lie against the skin, but rather poked into the skin. That is no longer true of most superwash wools, which, after being briefly treated in a chlorine solution and rinsed clean, are now treated with a polymer resin that prevents the wool from scratching the skin.

Superwash wools, along with acrylic, cotton, and linen fibers, have often been the first choice of knitted gifts, because all of these fibers (especially acrylic) are relatively easy care compared to wool, and unlike untreated wool, are unlikely to shrink significantly or felt.

Those who are worried about environmental impact may be more likely to use cotton or linen fibers, or to make felted gifts from virgin wool, because superwash is not an organic process, nor is it entirely environmentally friendly. What it is good for is making a woolen garment or item that can be machine washed and dried on a low dryer setting without ruining the garment or item – and when you're giving a gift, this can be vitally important.

For baby gifts, acrylic, or if you can afford it, cotton or organic cotton are excellent choices. Caron's Simply Soft yarn is my go-to yarn for baby gifts, because it mimics the softness of wool without the risk of allergy or shrinkage, is inexpensive, and machine washable. My favorite superwash wools (and lots of other yarns) come from, again for really cheap.

So what am I working on? Well, I can't give you all the details here, because some of my recipients read my blog. I'm sticking to hats and fingerless gloves this year for the most part because they're quicker to knit and I'm more likely to get them all done in time, and I'm sticking to easy care fibers for the most part because I don't want disappointed gift recipients who didn't follow instructions stuck throwing away their gifts because they felted.

Because I'm building a new business and money is tight, I'm largely shopping from my yarn stash for giftable yarn, which means funky eyelash and fake fur yarns, acrylics originally left over from a baby afghan, and other interesting yarns I've had hiding around for awhile. And, of course, superwash. Wonderfully soft superwash that's great for next to your skin.

So if the Sheldon in your life wants to make you uncomfortable by forcing you to wear a superwash wool sweater next to your skin for days on end, indulge him and enjoy.

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About odanu

Maureen O'Danu is the webmistress of Am I the Only One Dancing? where there is a new discussion every day on any one of dozens of topics and ideas, as well as reviews, geekery, family, fun, and enough politics to season the pot.
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  • Tracy Carroll Meisinger

    There's a typo - I think you meant "the Sheldon" in your life at the end.

  • Tracy Carroll Meisinger

    There's a typo - I think you meant "the Sheldon" in your life at the end.

  • Jennifer Dowling Liles

    Thanks. Will fix.

  • Jennifer Dowling Liles

    Thanks. Will fix.