Thursday, November 06, 2014

More on Lanolin

I was doing forestry research for the American Chestnut project back in the days when it was run by Lou Ismay.  We went out in all weather, and we always seemed to be wet.  The only time it was dry was when everything was frozen.

I found some US Army infantry uniforms that had been made at the end of WWI to protect the troops from gas attacks.  The war ended, and by WWII they had better materials so the gas-tight wool sat in a warehouse.  Anyway, they were fine, thick wool with flaps that buttoned over the openings.  Oh, My!! They sopped up water and got wet.

My mother, who understood such things said, "They have to be oiled with lanolin."   I went to the library and found the old manuals and figured out how to do it. I bought the best quality reagents, and followed the instructions.  Then,  I had oiled wool that kept me warm and dry in any weather.

A few weeks after oiling, the lanolin would start to oxidize, and then when it got wet it would smell like sheep.  This was not bad in the forest with a camp fire, with the smell of the wet forest around us.

Then, I was drafted, and ordered to an inductee meeting one evening. It was a cold, rainy night, an hour's bicycle ride away, so I wore one of my oiled wool shirts. I arrived soaking wet, but comfortable.

The sergeant in charge took exception to my "lamby smell", and said things the way only a sergeant can say them. He used me as an excuse to display his command of the Army vernacular. It did not really bother me. I knew there was no way in the world he could have completed the bike ride I had just already ridden, and I had another longer, colder, uphill bike ride to do after the meeting. Nevertheless, 28 years later, when Jan from Frangipani yarns  ( brought up the topic, I was all ears. She told me about baby oil to oil wool.

I like lanolin.  I make my own hand lotion for knitting and it is mostly beeswax, lanolin, olive oil, and lavender oil.  However, when lanolin is applied to wool, it forms a thin layer on the wool fibers.  That thin layer has a huge surface area allowing oxidation.  (And the oxidation helps the lanolin to bond to polar regions on the wool.)  The oxidation products and water produce the sheepy smell that raised the ire of the sergeant.  When you put lanolin on wool it will oxidize, and when the oxidized lanolin gets gets wet, it will have a sheepy smell. I do not mind the sheepy smell too much.  My wife has several sweaters that have lanolin on them, but when it rains, she always wears a parka over them so they do not get wet. Nevertheless, the last time we were coming back from Pt Reyes, it was her sweater, not mine, that perfumed the car with a sheep smell. I wear my sweaters in the rain and salt spray, and they do not smell of sheep.  They may smell of fish, but they do not smell of sheep.

If you wash or dry clean your wool, and remove all the oils, then in the next rain, the wool will sop up water, and will not keep you dry (or warm). Thus, you need a rain coat or parka or umbrella to keep your wool dry. Or, you can just wear your wool in the house and not take your fine gansey out into the weather.

So, your options in the rain are wet wool, or a silicon product such as Scotchguard, or lanolin and smell like a sheep in the wet, or baby oil and run the risk of stains.

A drop or two of baby oil in the rinse water (after washing with real soap)  will form a film over every fiber, so the change in color is very uniform and there is no visible stain. None! I have been using baby oil on all of my outdoor woolens for about 12 years now.  It keeps me comfortable in the rain.  It lets me wear my ganseys when I am splashing in the water, and  then lets them dry quickly afterwards.   Lanolin also works, but it is properly applied by dissolving the lanolin in enough benzene to submerge the garment.  Benzine is hazardous, toxic, carcinogenic, and any residual is a solvent waste that requires special handling under RCRA (40 CFR 260 et seq.). Other methods of applying lanolin to wool fabrics do run a real risk of staining.   The wool must be re-oiled whenever the wool is washed or cleaned.

Oh! Wet wool is a different color than dry wool. Freshly cleaned woolens shows splashes of water.

Much wool from the commercial  channels will not tolerate washing with soap and water.

Baby oil is easier.  Jan sells good yarn and dispenses very good advice. I like venders that give smart advice on how to use their products.


Anonymous said...

Quoting from your blog: "My mother, who understood such things said, "They have to be oiled with lanolin." I went to the library and found the old manuals and figured out how to do it. I bought the best quality reagents, and followed the instructions."
REAGENTS? What kind of manuals were those? Alchemy? Now I know for sure you know nothing about science. Were you analyzing the chemical composition of wool or lanolin? I don't think that word means what you think it means.
As I mentioned in my last comment on woad, I actually studied Chemistry. A lot. I didn't have to take the required math courses in college - Differential Equations and Calculus, because I passed a college entry proficiency test. And I worked for Boeing as an engineer and electronics designer.
I have been knitting for almost 60 years and dyeing for 40 years and know how to spin and could if I wanted to. I use elementary math and sometimes trigonometry when designing patterns. I've never needed physics, chemistry or higher math in knitting, dyeing or spinning. As I proved to you when you bet a case of brandy and reneged - I can knit tighter than you can per your rules.
Your boasts are just that. Words which you don't even know the meaning of.
Pat Brunner

Anonymous said...

Have you come across your blog being 'necked? because that's probably where you're getting all this extra attention.

But, really, it may be just a bunch of hens gossiping in their nonsense since you're so smart and we're clearly in need of an education. (Sarcasm, in case you don't get it.)

Anonymous said...

No replies to the comments you've published? How come?

raw314 said...

Great article. Thank you for the detailed explanation!