Everything you always wondered about wool covers, and then some.
All cloth diapers need some sort of wetness barrier. Many parents turn to synthetics for this purpose. There is an overlooked natural alternative – wool! This guide will reveal wool’s unique properties, what types of covers are available, how to care for them, and so much more.
Wool is no longer just your grandmother’s fiber. If the word wool conjures up images of hot, itchy, hard-to-care-for garments, then you are in for a pleasant surprise. This versatile fiber is making a huge comeback as more and more people realize that sometimes going low-tech can be a delightful diversion from the age of synthetics. You’ll be amazed at the variety of soft, functional, and convenient wool diaper covers that are just waiting to adorn your baby. Warning: you may be on the brink of a new addiction!
In short, wool is
- odor-resistant, and
If that settles it for you, skip down to the next heading. If you’re into all that "sciency" stuff, read on:
Antibacterial: In contrast to synthetics, which are commonly used as wetness barriers when cloth diapering, wool is antibacterial. The difference lies in the way the fibers wick. Synthetics hold or block moisture in its liquid state, thus creating an ideal breeding ground for bacteria to grow. Wool, on the other hand, absorbs moisture in its vapor state, easily releasing it into the air, before bacteria ever has a chance to set up shop.
Self-cleansing: Wool is lanolin-rich. Lanolin is a popular ingredient in soapmaking. Lanolin’s constant presence in wool, along with the friction produced by vapor-swollen wool fibers, enables the wool to perpetually scrub itself clean. On those occasions when wool gets soiled with larger particles that can’t evaporate, the lanolin content makes it a breeze to rinse those deposits away.
Breathable: Individual wool fibers are crimped, and this crimping creates thousands of microscopic chambers of trapped air. In conjunction with wicking away moist vapors, this trapped air enables the skin to breathe, keeping it warm in the winter, and cool in the summer. Many athletes are rediscovering this unique property of wool, and use wool year round as the ultimate technical base layer.
Odor-resistant: Odors are caused by bacteria growing on the fibers. Because wool is anti-bacterial: no bacteria, no odor!
Fire-retardant: One of the ways to identify an unknown fiber is the burn test. Among wool’s attributes is that it is difficult to light, and it extinguishes itself. Since most synthetics are petroleum based, well.. you figure it out.
WHAT TYPES OF WOOL COVERS ARE AVAILABLE?
Soakers: A soaker is a pull-on wool cover that somewhat resembles a brief or panty.
Longies: This is diaper-lingo for wool pants. One of the neat things about wool is that it can do double-duty as diaper cover and clothing at the same time!
Shorts: Just as the name says, these are shorts made out of wool that serve as diaper cover and clothing simultaneously.
Wraps: These are wool covers that envelope the diaper area and close using snaps, velcro, buttons, or even ties.
There are lots of other creative ways to use wool, too, like pajamas, buntings, and overalls made from wool. When baby wears wool in this way, there’s no need to put any additional layers between the diaper and the garment. Just be aware that if the garment requires a separate shirt, as in wool overalls, that shirt must be worn outside the garment to prevent wicking, unless the shirt is also made of wool.
Of the garments listed above, longies and shorts are usually used without any additional overgarments. Soakers and wraps can be worn alone, or under regular clothing. When putting clothing over wool covers, it may be necessary to use one size up in order to accommodate a cloth-diapered bum.
HOW ARE THESE COVERS MADE?
Wool covers are typically hand-knit (or crocheted), machine-knit, or sewn from wool fabric. All work beautifully, and it is usually a choice of aesthetics or budget that determines which cover construction a parent will choose.
Obviously, handmade garments are more time-consuming to create, and can therefore cost more, although not necessarily. Many talented fiber artists offer their craft here on ebay, such as kozydesigns and southands.
a hand-knit cover
a machine-knit cover
Fabric-sewn covers can usually accommodate closures like snaps or velcro better than their knit counterparts. Examples of brands that make wool fabric covers are Niji, Nikki, Lana, Little Beetles, Biobottoms, Loveybums, Stacinator, Rumpwraps, and Vermont Diaper Company, to name only a few.
a fabric-sewn cover
WHAT ABOUT WASHING THE WOOL?
Since wool is naturally anti-bacterial, throw out the idea that it needs to be washed each time it is worn. That is sooooo…..cotton. Simply rotate two or three covers throughout the diaper changing day, allowing them to air out between changes, and they’ll stay fresh as a daisy for many, many days. How long? Depends. Many mamas report going a month or two between washes. You’ll know when it’s time to wash when the wool doesn’t smell fresh anymore.
Of course, if poo escapes the confines of your diaper for a wool field trip, that’s another story, since poo doesn’t turn to vapor. Relax, cleaning it will still be a lot easier than you think.
Remember, lanolin has natural cleansing properties, which make it very easy to rinse soil deposits off of your wool with lukewarm water. Once the poo has rinsed away, you’ll need to wash the cover.
There are a bazillion ways to wash wool. Some people use baby shampoo, bar soap, or specialty commercial wool washes, like Eucalan. All are fine, but DO NOT use Woolite. It is not compatible with diapering because it strips the precious lanolin from the wool.
Here’s my lazy but effective wool wash regime:
- Using a lanolin-rich, no-rinse wool wash, like Eucalan or Kookaburra, mix about 1 teaspoon wool wash to 1 gallon lukewarm water or so. You can use a sink, pan, or bucket.
- Gently place wool garment in. Allow to soak for at least 20 minutes, but no longer than 24 hours. DO NOT RINSE! (You want to leave that valuable lanolin from the wool wash in the wool.)
- Pour contents of bucket, including water and wool, into washing machine. SET TO FINAL SPIN.
- Allow machine to spin out liquid, and lay flat to dry. Voila! Now that wasn’t bad, was it?
WHAT IS LANOLIZING?
This is a term you may see in ebay auctions for wool diaper covers: "freshly lanolized," or "needs lanolization" or something like that. What are they talking about?
For many people, using a lanolin-rich wool wash, like those mentioned above, is enough to maintain stability in the lanolin content of their diaper covers, and therefore the performance. Some, though, may find that their covers’ ability to act as a wetness barrier decreases over time and needs a boost. This is where lanolization comes in. Again, not so scary as it sounds; read on.
To lanolize a cover, basically all you need to do is dissolve some pure lanolin, like Lansinoh brand nipple ointment for nursing moms, in water and soak. Spin in washer and air dry as above.
Are you a "need-hand-holding" kind of person like me? Okay, here’s a little more detail on the process:
How much lanolin to use? If squeezing out of a tube, like Lansinoh, then squeeze a line of lanolin about ¼ inch long.
How to make it dissolve in the water evenly? Start with about a cup of hot water, either hot from your tap, or boiled and cooled slightly. The heat will help the lanolin soften up and dissolve. Then add that small amount of hot water/dissolved lanolin mixture to your sink/pan/bucket of lukewarm water. Adding a small squirt of your lanolin-rich wool wash in this step would also be helpful, as it will keep the pure lanolin from clumping and staining your cover.
How long to soak? About 20 minutes should do it. Spin it out in your washing machine, just like you would if you were washing the wool, and air dry.
WHAT IS FELTING?
Another term you may occasionally run across on ebay auctions is the word "felted." A curiosity of this word is that while one seller may use the word to describe a flaw in the cover she is auctioning, another may describe it as a benefit. How can this be, and what is felting?
Felting is simply the shrinkage of wool fibers. Contrary to popular belief, hot water alone does not shrink wool. Wool can actually be boiled without shrinking!
What, then, does cause wool to shrink? Abrupt temperature changes and agitation. The trick to boiling wool without shrinking it is to heat and cool it slowly, and not to disturb it during the process.
Let’s take a moment to discuss what felting does to the wool. Obviously, it shrinks the wool, making the garment slightly thicker and denser. Often, it can cause the cover to lose a bit of stretchiness. It also blurs the individual stitches together, which is referred to as loss of stitch definition. The sleep sacks below were the same size when purchased; I deliberately felted one.
The felted sleep sack shrunk more in width than length
The left is the felted sack: notice the blurred stitch definition
So, back to the felting – good or bad - conundrum. Are these results desirable or not? It all depends on what you’re buying the wool cover for. If you’re purchasing a hand-knitted, hand-painted work of art, you probably don’t want the stitches to become blurred, because they are key to the beauty of the garment. If you’re shopping for a nighttime cover that will withstand your child’s Niagara Falls bladder, then a felted garment might be just what the doctor ordered.
Felting may occur accidentally, from being too rough with the wool while handwashing (this would yield very minor felting), or by accidentally dropping it into the machine with its diaper friends (major felting, trust me!) Alternatively, felting may be the desired result; for instance, buying a cover one or two sizes too large and washing and drying on hot a few times to thicken it, which is what I did with one of my sleep sacks above.
BUT ISN’T WOOL SCRATCHY. AND…WHAT ABOUT ALLERGIES? AND…WHAT ON EARTH IS ORGANIC WOOL?
Yes, wool can be scratchy. But not all wool is. Just like human hair, it can be coarse or silky-fine. The thicker the individual wool fiber, the more coarse the wool garment will feel. Different breeds of sheep have characteristically fine or coarse wool. The Merino breed has the finest wool: its fibers measure between 18 and 22 microns wide. Other soft breeds include Rambouillet, Romeldale, and Targhee, whose fleece measure up to 26 microns. Amongst the coarsest are Lincoln and Cotswold, in the 37 to 40 micron range.
Merino wool feels buttery soft; not a touch of scratchiness to it. Beyond merino, each person is likely to have a different scale of which breeds are comfortable and which are too coarse. If you or your baby are extremely sensitive to coarse wool, you may wish to stick to merino covers only, although many people are able to wear and enjoy a variety of wool breeds and blends in absolute comfort.
About allergies: sadly, there are a few people who truly have an allergic reaction to wool, and therefore, cannot wear wool. The good news is that many people who think they have a wool allergy may find that they actually have a sensitivity to either the coarseness of the wool, or the chemicals that are used to process conventional wool, but not to the wool fiber itself. This gives many the option of switching to merino or other soft breeds, or using organic wool, or both, so that they, too, can enjoy this wonderful fiber.
Organic wool is, simply put, chemical-free wool. The sheep who grow the wool graze in pastures that have not been treated with herbicides or pesticides. Any supplemental feed is also chemical-free. The sheep are not dipped in chemicals while they’re still wearing the wool. And, once the wool is shorn, no harsh chemicals are used in the scouring and spinning process. The result? Beautiful, pure wool!
DRESSING YOUR BABY IN WOOL
Some of the questions you still have might include:
How many covers do I need?
If using wool exclusively, I’d say a bare minimum of four. That gives you two to three to rotate through the day, and one to wash if soiled. Six would be a more comfortable number, in case baby has a day of explosive pooping, and the sky’s the limit as far as how many. Some truly addicted wool-diapering mamas have in excess of twenty in any given size (the author pleads the fifth on this one).
How do wool covers affect baby’s wardrobe?
I like to use wool as both the diaper cover and clothing simultaneously, so my babies wear wool pants in the winter and wool shorts, soakers, and wraps in the summer. I don't own any bottom garments for my babies besides wool. Other parents may want a traditional garment for over the wool. In this case, it would be important to be sure the garment is large enough to clear the wool bum so it can be easily put on and removed, and so compression doesn’t cause moisture to wick through.
Some clothing tends to be larger through the bottom, like overalls. These work great! Pants and shorts made by naturally-minded companies like Green Babies, Under the Nile, Ecoland, Blue Canoe, and others, are cut fuller to accommodate cloth diapers and their covers. Another option that works with conventional baby clothing is just to size up.
AND FINALLY... STORING THAT PRECIOUS WOOL.
There are two main types of critters who like to feast on wool: clothes moths and carpet beetles. Both are very small, measuring about ¼ inch long. Since they prefer dark, undisturbed areas to breed and feed, wool that is frequently used is not likely to be damaged, and needs no protection.
If your wool stash is large, or if you are going to store outgrown wool covers, then you will need to protect your garments. Mothballs, which are toxic and should never be in a home with children, and their natural cousin cedar oil, are only effective in extremely high concentrations on very young larvae, so therefore are not foolproof. Plastic will not allow the fibers to breathe, and moisture trapped in plastic-encased wool fibers can cause mold or mildew over time.
So what are you to do? It’s actually very cheap and easy to protect your wool. Wool pests will not eat plant fibers (unless soiled with human stains like blood, urine, or food), so storing your wool in clean cotton pillowcase is a great way to go. To be sure to keep the pests out, you can store the wool inside two pillowcases, each tied shut with ribbon or twine, with the tied ends on opposite sides. Store the double-bagged wool anywhere you have room for it, but it is best to avoid attics or basements.
If you fear your wool may have the beginnings of an infestation, all is not lost. Cold temperatures will kill any pests and their eggs. Just put your wool in the freezer! In a deep freezer (0 degrees F or lower), it only takes 3 days. In a kitchen freezer, which is usually set closer to the freezing point of 32 degrees, it may take up to three weeks. After removing the wool from the freezer, give it a good wash, and you’re worry free!
Now that you’re an expert on wool diaper covers – GO SHOPPING as an educated consumer. And, welcome to the wonderful world of wool addiction!