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Diaper Covers: Why Wool's Cool
by Heather L. Sanders
February 2005

My first reaction to wool as a choice fabric for diaper covers was less than informed. I was considering an old scratchy sweater my grandfather had graciously given me. He had worn it years back when living in Germany. The colors were beautiful, but the 'feel' was itchy, heavy and altogether uncomfortable. I could not don it without first pulling on a turtleneck undershirt beneath it – one with arms that extended beyond the sweater's arm length. Yes, it was THAT BAD! There are many that feel their reaction to wool extends beyond discomfort to a definite allergy. I do not believe this was my case as I have since found wool that does not cause a reaction. Rosemary Brock wrote that she has known "many people who thought they were allergic to wool and what they were allergic to was either the wool processing or the type of wool."3

Since then, however, I have learned and experienced that just as with nearly every other fiber, wool has many variations. Select wools can provide a soft, lush, highly effective waterproof layer that is surprisingly easy to maintain and launder.

Choices . . . choices . . . choices! Just as I did, many begin cloth diapering without a clue as to the vast array of choices available on the market. Few are fortunate enough to be introduced to cloth diapering from family members or friends. Over and over we hear of how mommas just knew they wanted a more natural choice for diapering and so, they went looking. Most local communities lack knowledgeable cloth diapering educators and/or advocates. In addition, not all are aware, nor have the resources available, to read/inquire within the cyber cloth diapering communities on the world wide web. No matter how the information is gained, once acclimated to the idea of cloth diapering in general, the next step is making decisions about the specifics. What type of cloth diapers to use? What kind of covers? What are the benefits of one over the other? Here I will list some of the attributes of wool. Being informed is the key to deciding whether or not wool needs be a component of a baby's cloth diapering system.

Why choose wool? Wool covers are just more proof of what those making natural parenting choices already know - that nature is no less than perfect. Nature's gift of wool can maintain three seemingly contradicting qualities simultaneously. First, a wool cover is thermal - "it can store water vapour up to 35 per cent of its own dry weight yet it remains dry to touch and speeds up the body's own cooling system."2 To attest to this fact, wool is most regularly suggested for night-time usage when leaks most often occur in abundance, although certainly can extend to everyday wear. Second, while absorbent, they still remain breathable, allowing for a maximum amount of circulation around baby's bum. This helps prevent diaper rash, but also alleviates the health concerns of trapped heat within a diapering system. Finally, wool contains natural lanolin, which creates a natural waterproof barrier or repellency. For more information on the benefits and structure of wool as a workable natural fiber for cloth diapering systems, read Marc Pehkonen's Diapering Articles: Right Down to the Fibers, at www.fuzbaby.com.

Wool through the ages. Though it is unknown the exact moment the revelation of wool as a choice textile came to mankind, "the earliest dated surviving textile, found in a Danish bog, originates from 1500 BC, while the oldest fine woolen fabric dates to the fifth century BC and was found in a Greek colony."1

Wear and Tear of Wool. Before going any further, let's talk about the 'wear' of wool. After all, our concern is that baby be completely comfortable and cool, right? Wool boasts of the finest comforts - "its elasticity means garments fit so well and yield to body movement, it absorbs moisture, allows your body to breathe, yet never feels damp and clammy."2 Baby can bend, stretch, crawl, pull-up easily and get the added benefit of a completely breathable diapering system. Cloth diapering enthusiasts often veer away from choosing wool because of a common misconception that wool products are not easy to care for and/or maintain. First, I would like to point out that wool need not be washed as regularly as synthetic diaper covers. Wool is "dirt resistant - the crimp and the scales prevent dirt from penetrating the surface of the wool fibre and the static resistance also helps to resist dust and lint from the air."2 That, in and of itself, makes it a more agreeable diapering item for those wanting ease of use because it will cut down on the amount of time dedicated to diaper laundry. Wool is also known for its longevity and durability due to "the interlocking protein molecules . . . wool fibres have the power to elongate, stretch and recover, creating an extremely robust fabric that will last for years."2

Naturally antibacterial. Shortly following diaper changes, wool covers may smell of urine, however a system of rotating and airing them out (as seen in the picture above) will cause the smell to dissipate completely. Why is this? The same natural properties of lanolin that allow wool to be virtually waterproof pull double-duty as an anti-bacterial, thus killing germs. One way to know a wool cover needs laundering (outside of being soiled with fecal matter), is if the urine smell does not fade after an airing. This means the lanolin has worn thin and most likely the wool diaper cover is losing its waterproofing as well.

So how DOES wool wash up? As with any cloth diapering system, it is important to read the wash and care information given by the WAHM (Work-At-Home-Mom) or manufacturer who produced the specific wool item purchased. Some wool does require a simple hand washing system, while others can be placed on a gentle cycle in a washing machine. It is important to pay attention to these details lest one end up with a doll size wool cover for their life-size baby. However, in general, the following applies.

  • Do an initial rinse in cold water to cleanse away any surface urine or solid waste. Then fill the sink with warm water, adding the wool wash. The amount of wool wash needed is directly in proportion to the amount of covers being washed and the amount of water being used - the brand of wool wash that you use will stipulate teaspoon per gallon increments.
  • To simplify, we choose to use Eucalan® No Rinse Woolwash. As the name stipulates, it does not require a rinse, which cuts down water usage and makes the process easier. It is a non-phosphate gentle cleaner that contains lanolin for waterproofing and conditioning wool. More often than not, I have found that it is suggested/recommended and/or sold by those that sell wool products.
  • Once the wool wash is added, soak your covers in the mixture. I usually get busy with tasks around the house and tend to leave it in the soak for 15 to 30 minutes. Once it has soaked, gently squeeze out all excess water. It is unnecessary and counterproductive to writhe and wring the cover. I usually lay the covers out flat on a towel, and roll it up for a bit to absorb a bit of the moisture, then unroll and place on a fresh/dry towel or hang to dry. Our covers are normally washed about once a month. We have several wool covers in our rotation, which extends the washing routine.
  • Machine washing is much the same - again, read the washing guidelines that come with your wool item as some specifically state NOT to machine wash. Fill the washing machine with tepid/warm water FIRST before adding wool wash, gently agitate the wash to 'mix.' ALWAYS utilize the gentle cycle when washing wool covers. Add wool covers once wool wash has been agitated to mix well with the water. Allow the washer to agitate. Remember, if using Eucalan® No Rinse Woolwash, the rinse cycle is unnecessary. Either way, pull from washer and hang to dry. If 'no rinse' . . . follow the same steps used when soaking in the sink (above).

Here's a little humor for you - I came across a Terms & Definitions list for textile people and fiber producers. The term Blowout Factor means, "The rapidity with which an animal's fiber diameter thickens with age. (A bad thing.)" 4 Here in the Diapering World the term Blowout Factor has a slightly different slant, however it does still deal with rapidity and possible thickening with age (a bad thing) as well.

Other products can be used to wash wool as well. Some prefer to use baby wash for cleansing and lanolize with melted lanolin. Lansinoh® is a commonly used brand. To use Lansinoh®, dissolve a teaspoon or so per diaper cover into very hot water, adding just a tad of natural soap to maintain a fluid consistency to the Lanolin. This HOT mixture can then be added to warm water already drawn in a sink. Add the wool covers and soak. With this system, if the 'soak water' does not stay warm, the lanolin may begin to harden and clump in the water and/or on your covers. So watch the water temperature carefully. Pull out and gently squeeze, roll in towel to absorb excess moisture and hang or lay flat to dry.

Variety of styles, hues and textures. Wool is a very versatile fiber used to make a wide range of products from upholstery to, well, the baby's diaper covers! Wool diaper covers can be found in any shape or form that a synthetic diaper cover can take and more - from front hook and loop (velcro/aplix) or snap closures to side snapping or pull-on soakers, there is a broad spectrum. Wool is also recognized for being "easy to dye”, the scales on the surface of the wool fibre tend to diffuse light giving less reflection and a softer colour and wool holds its colour well as the dye becomes part of the fibre."2 Many WAHMs in the diaper sewing industry are experimenting with all sorts of methods of hand-dyeing wool for their custom creations. Everything from Kool-Aid dyeing to basic Vegetable Dyes are being utilized to add vibrance, or as Lori Taylor of Fuzbaby would say, to create 'Diaper Art' on wool diaper covers. For Helpful Tips on using natural plant dyes for your own wool dyeing experiments a very informative site is: www.joyofhandspinning.com.

Last Thought: Storing your wool diaper covers for the next baby. With the onslaught of plastic storage containers that can fit anywhere from between your washer and dryer to under the bed or stackables for your closet, you may not think twice regarding storing your wool (or any other textiles) in that manner. However, due to a lack of air circulation within plastic containers or bags, it is not a choice environment. Fabric "needs to breathe and storing it in vinyl airtight containers causes fiber deterioration from chemical interaction and imparts awful odors over time."5 "Any moisture remaining in the container will result in a musty smell at best, and possibly even mold or mildew damage."1 So what do you use? To protect your wool covers from mold, mildew and moth larvae, try storing them in cedar wood, wicker baskets with cedar chips, cotton bags or any other type of container that will allow the textile to breathe.1 For the best protection, choose acid-free products, as well as boxes containing rag content or linen stationery (you can get these from printers - just ask for their empty boxes). Do not store in cardboard shoes boxes as they are produced from less than 'friendly' products. However, cardboard shoeboxes can be lined with acid-free tissue so that fabric will not touch cardboard if it is your only alternative. Another suggestion is to store your wool covers in newspaper. Yep, you read right! Moths do not like newspaper, so simply wrap your wool covers in tissue and then in newspaper and store them in dresser drawers, closets, cabinets or wherever there is space. Remember to store away from direct sunlight, damp basements, hot attics and/or dusty garages.5

Sources:

1. Pang, Amy. “A Brief History of Wool.” Vintage Voice. http://pix.popula.com/items/0224/vintage3/wool.html
2. Wool Fibre: Natural Properties. Australian Wool Innovation Limited. http://www.wool.com.au/
3. Brock, Rosemary. “Wool and Allergies.” TextileLinks. http://www.textilelinks.com/author/rb/990227.html
4. Brock, Rosemary. “Terms and Definitions.” TextileLinks. http://www.textilelinks.com/author/rb/blterms.html
5. Kiplinger, Joan. “Storage - where and in what.” Fabrics.net. March/April 2000.


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