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Superwash versus Non-Superwash Yarns

  • 7 min read
Knitting yarns (Photographer: A R | Source: Unsplash)
Knitting yarns (Photographer: A R)

Yarn enthusiasts and fibre artists often face crucial decisions when selecting the perfect yarn for their projects. One of the key considerations is whether to choose superwash or non-superwash yarn. This comprehensive guide will explore the differences between these two types of yarn, examining their characteristics, benefits, drawbacks, and the best scenarios for each.

Understanding the Basics

Superwash yarn goes through a process that removes the outer scales of the wool fibres, making it machine-washable without felting. There are two main methods of creating superwash wool: You can either strip the scales off of the fibre, or you can coat it in something to flatten the scales. The most common superwash process - used for approximately 70% of all superwash-treated wool- is the Chlorine-Hercosett process, which combines both superwash methods.

In the initial phase, the fibre undergoes a chlorination process aimed at eliminating the inherent 18-MEA (18-methyl eicosanoic acid), a fatty acid crucial for rendering the fibre water-repellent. This procedure involves coating the fibre and selectively eroding the edges of its scales. A polyamide-epichlorohydrin resin - commonly known as Hercosett 125 - is applied to the fibre in the second step. Eliminating 18-MEA and refining the scales' edges plays a pivotal role in facilitating the even distribution of resin; once applied, this resin forms the distinctive 'superwash' coating, acting as a barrier against felting and shrinkage. Notably, the resin consists of a plastic compound, leading to the characterization of superwash yarn as 'plastic-coated.'

In contrast, the non-superwash yarn has not been treated and thus retains the natural scales on its fibres, typically wool, without undergoing the specialised treatment to remove them. Unlike superwash yarn, non-superwash has a more textured and authentic feel, making it a popular choice for shawls, blankets, and decorative items. As it has not been treated, it is more prone to felting and shrinkage and is not machine washable.

Understanding the differences between superwash and non-superwash yarns is essential for any avid knitter, crocheter, or fibre artist embarking on a new project. The choice between these two types of yarn can significantly impact the outcome of your creation, influencing everything from texture and durability to ease of care.

Superwash versus Non-Superwash: Characteristics and Qualities

Now that we have the basics down, let's take a closer look at the distinct characteristics of superwash and non-superwash yarns. This journey will help crafters make more detailed choices for their projects. We'll dive into the feel of the yarn, colour retention, and overall durability. Whether you're after a smooth, soft touch or a more textured and authentic feel, this section will break down the unique qualities of each yarn type, making it easier for you to choose the ideal yarn for your creative endeavours.

Malabrigo sock yarns for knitting (Image credit: Thread Collective)
Hand-dyed Malabrigo sock yarns for knitting (Image credit: Thread Collective)

1. Texture and Feel:

    • Superwash yarn stands out for its smooth texture due to the above-mentioned superwash treatment. This smoothness makes it a favoured choice for garments like socks and baby items, ensuring a soft and comfortable feel against the skin. The absence of scales enhances the luxurious touch and reduces friction, making it ideal for cozy creations, particularly those intended for everyday wear or the little ones. Superwash wool isn't as warm as natural wool as the fibres don't lock and create minute air pockets, increasing the insulation value and making it the preferred choice for those in warmer climates.
    • Non-superwash yarns, with their natural scales intact, often have a more rustic and textured feel. Additionally, non-superwash wool provides exceptional warmth and insulation, making it a great choice for winter-season garments and accessories. One of the unique qualities of non-superwash wool is its ease of mending, as the fibres can be easily felted back together without the need for special treatments.

2. Durability:

Note: Fibre type/superwash treatment isn't the only factor in a yarn's durability. How it's spun can have a more significant impact, with loosely spun yarns tending to wear through more quickly than firmly twisted/spun yarn. In saying that, fibre type does play a role, as discussed below:

    • Superwash yarns are generally less durable and resistant to wear and tear. These fibres may be able to withstand frequent use and washing without shrinking or becoming felted, but they are known to stretch a little (enough that you may need to consider the stretch, particularly length-wise, when planning a project). This ease of care makes superwash yarn ideal for frequently worn items like sweaters and accessories.
    • Non-superwash yarns are more susceptible to felting and shrinking when exposed to moisture, agitation and heat. Proper care is essential to enhance the durability of non-superwash yarn projects. We will discuss this later on in this article.

3. Colour Retention:

    • Superwash yarns take up dye strongly, keep their colours vibrant and resist fading, making them perfect for projects that require long-lasting and lively hues. These yarns are an excellent choice for projects with intricate colour patterns or where maintaining bright and bold colours is essential. Crafters can confidently explore a variety of colour palettes, knowing that their finished creations will retain their visual appeal even after multiple washes.
    • Non-superwash yarns may be more likely to experience some colour bleeding and fade over time, especially with repeated washing. Non-superwash wool is still excellent at absorbing dye, producing vibrant and richly coloured yarn.

The Pros and Cons of Superwash and Non-Superwash Yarns

Let's break down the advantages and drawbacks of superwash and non-superwash yarns. Understanding each option's practical aspects and compromises is crucial when choosing the suitable yarn for your project. Whether you aim for convenience, sustainability, or specific characteristics in your finished piece, this exploration will equip you with the insights needed to make well-informed decisions.

Superwash Yarn

Ashford merino DK superwash yarns (Image credit: Ashford)
Ashford Merino DK superwash yarns (Image credit: Ashford)


      • Machine washable and easy to care for.
      • Resistant to felting and shrinking.
      • Excellent for items that require frequent washing.
      • It retains less heat, so it is an excellent option for those in warmer climates.
    • It may be less irritating than non-superwash yarn for people with sensitivities to wool.


      • Environmental concerns regarding the treatment process.
      • It may lack the rustic texture preferred by some fibre artists.
      • Projects may stretch with blocking and use.
      • No longer considered fire retardant.
    • The polymer coating seals the wool fibres and prevents moisture absorption and natural wicking of body moisture.

Non-Superwash Yarn

Ashford Merino DK non-superwash yarn (Image credit: Ashford)
Ashford Merino DK non-superwash yarn (Image credit: Ashford)


      • Retains a natural, textured feel.
      • Often more environmentally friendly due to the lack of chemical treatment.
      • Ideal for projects where felting is not a concern.
      • Retains warmth and is well suited to cooler climates.
      • More absorbent, natural wool can hold 30% of its weight in water and still feel dry.
    • Non-superwash wool is fire retardant.


      • Requires more delicate care and handwashing.
      • Prone to felting and shrinking if not appropriately handled.
    • Some people find it irritating against their skin, though testing different breed-specific yarns may assist in finding an appropriate non-superwash option.

Care Guide for Superwash and Non-Superwash Yarn

Taking proper care of your yarn is crucial to ensure the longevity and integrity of your handmade creations. Whether you're working with superwash or non-superwash yarn, here's a care guide to help you keep your projects looking beautiful for years to come. We recommend the use of colour catchers or separating colours if using dyed yarn in case of colour run in the first wash(es):

Superwash Yarn Care:

  1. Machine Washing:Superwash yarns are designed for easy care, often being machine washable. Use a gentle cycle and cold water to prevent unnecessary wear on the fibres.
  2. Mild Detergent:Choose a gentle detergent made especially for delicate fabrics to stay away from strong chemicals that could change the colour or texture of the yarn.
  3. Avoid Fabric Softeners:Skip fabric softeners as they can leave residues that affect the yarn's absorbency and may lead to a loss of softness over time.
  4. Low Heat or Air Dry:While many superwash yarns tolerate low heat in the dryer, air drying flat is the safest option to prevent potential damage or stretching.
  5. Storage:To avoid moisture buildup, which can result in odours or mildew, store your completed superwash yarn projects in a cool, dry location.

Non-Superwash Yarn Care:

  1. Hand Washing:Non-superwash yarns, which retain their natural scales, generally require more delicate care—hand wash items in lukewarm water with a mild detergent or wool wash.
  2. Gentle Handling:Avoid excessive wringing or squeezing to prevent felting and distortion of the yarn fibres.
  3. Flat Drying:Lay non-superwash yarn projects flat to dry, shaping them to their intended dimensions. This helps maintain the original form without stretching.
  4. Colour Separation:If your non-superwash yarn project involves multiple colours, consider washing it separately initially to prevent colour bleeding.
  5. Storage:Store non-superwash yarn items in a well-ventilated space, protecting them from pests. Consider using lavender sachets or cedar blocks to deter insects.

By following these care guidelines tailored to the specific needs of superwash and non-superwash yarns, you'll ensure that your handmade pieces stay vibrant, soft, and beautiful throughout their lifecycle.

Superwash versus Non-Superwash: Choosing the Right Yarn for Your Project

When selecting yarn for your project, the nature of the item you're creating plays a crucial role. With its resistance to felting and shrinking, Superwash yarn is an excellent choice for items that undergo frequent washing. Conversely, non-superwash yarn, retaining its natural scales, is perfect for projects where texture takes centre stage.

Beyond the practical considerations of your project, your personal preferences as a creator should also guide your yarn choice. If you prioritize ease of care and the convenience of machine washing, superwash yarn is likely the better fit. This choice is ideal for busy lifestyles or projects that will see a lot of use, ensuring your creations stay vibrant and intact with minimal effort. On the other hand, if you lean towards a more eco-friendly approach and appreciate the natural, textured feel of yarn, non-superwash varieties may be more suitable. These yarns often align with sustainable practices, offering your projects a unique, artisanal touch.

The choice between superwash and non-superwash ultimately depends on your project requirements and personal preferences. Both types have unique characteristics and advantages, allowing you to tailor your yarn selection to the specific needs of your creative endeavours. Whether you opt for superwash's convenience or non-superwash's natural charm, your yarn choice will undoubtedly play a significant role in bringing your artistic vision to life.

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