How to Waterproof Wool

Wool is one of the oldest, most popular textiles we’ve come to enjoy in our fabrics. This is mainly due to wool’s thermal properties, which effectively keep us warm in the cold air. But how effective is wool against water?

One of the biggest problems wool wearers have is being soaked by the rain or having their unprotected items or electronics destroyed. Since the expectation of water-resistant clothing has risen in recent years, finding a way to make wool waterproof is an important concern for those who wear wool.

In this article, we’ll outline the step-by-step process of waterproofing wool, what materials you’ll need, and how to properly care for your wool garment afterward.

How Waterproof is Wool?

Keep in mind that wool can never be 100% waterproof. However, the lanolin in wool is naturally antimicrobial, anti-fungal, and water-resistant. Lanolin is naturally secreted by wool-bearing animals and acts as a natural protectant against precipitation like rain and snow. It also protects against the development of fungi and insect infestation.

When moisture comes in contact with lanolin in wool, natural soap is activated for self-cleaning and the deodorization of harsh smells. Many new substances derived from lanolin are used in products designed to protect, treat, and care for our skin.

The water-resistant properties of wool have been historically lifesaving, particularly within arctic regions. For example, if you were to fall into a freezing river, your wool will only be wet on the outside once you reach dry land.

The wool cuticle is naturally moisture repellent; therefore, your wool jacket, sweater, or blanket will dry quickly. Furthermore, your skin is virtually unaffected by the moisture, assuming all your other layers are also wool.

Materials like cotton work opposite of wool. Clothing made of cotton immediately soaks up as much water as it can hold, leaving the fibers as wet on the inside as on the outside. The soaked fibers pull excessive amounts of heat from your body, which could be fatal if you are in a cold-weather environment.

Some synthetic materials can still dry quickly, but none will provide the dual action of retaining heat in your body as quickly as wool can.

If you’d like more information on wool and how it stands up against moisture, you can read our full article answering the question – is wool waterproof? Keep in mind that water-resistant, water-repellant, and waterproof are all different from one another.

Material You’ll Need to Waterproof Wool

There are a few different methods of waterproofing wool textiles. For this article, we’ll be delving into the process of re-lanolizing. Even though wool naturally produces lanolin, most wool garments lose a lot of their natural lanolin by the time it hits the stores. This is commonly due to the over-processing of clothing.

The materials you’ll need for waterproofing your wool by re-lanolizing include:

  • Water (preferably distilled, but not necessary)
  • Solid Lanolin
  • Emulsion block
  • A non-plastic bowl
  • Baking soda
  • Citric acid or vinegar

Waterproofing Process

The process of re-lanolizing wool is actually quite simple, and because lanolin is absorbed so easily, it doesn’t take too long to do. Furthermore, you only need a small amount of lanolin to waterproof your wool clothing.

Let’s go through in detail the six steps to waterproofing wool with lanolin, as well as some pre-care and aftercare tips to guarantee you get the best out of your waterproof wool.

Pre-Care Tips

  • When waterproofing your wool garment with lanolin, you want to ensure that you lanolize the garment inside out.
  • If your garment, or perhaps a child’s garment, is likely to get soiled with dirt, you want to try avoiding areas like the knees or ankles of pants since dirt will adhere easily to lanolin.
  • Avoid pouring lanolin down the sink as it can build up and clog your drain.
  • If you are waterproofing multiple garments at once, separate the colors to avoid the transfer of dyes.
  • Use distilled water to avoid bleeding.
  • Avoid using any plastic, as lanolin can be very hard to clean off.

Step 1: Dissolve the Emulsion Block

After boiling about half a cup of distilled water, add a pea-sized amount of emulsion block and allow it to dissolve in hot water. It’s okay if it does not entirely dissolve at first. The water mixture should soon become a cloudy color.

Step 2: Mix In the Solid Lanolin

By either shaking it in a jar or stirring with a spoon, mix in the solid lanolin. The mixture doesn’t need to look overtly milky at this point, but it should be cloudy. You will likely see some bits of lanolin floating at the top at first.

If the water is not emulsifying the lanolin, it may be due to the presence of acidity. This is why the distilled water is preferable. However, adding a teaspoon of baking soda can help speed up the emulsion process.

Step 3: Add to a Bowl With Water

Add half a cup of water at room temperature into the emulsifying mixture, then pour the mixture into a bowl that fits your wool garment comfortably. However, make sure the bowl isn’t too big as this can cause the emulsion to spread excessively.

Step 4: “Wash” Your Wool Stuff In The Mixture

Place your wool garment inside out into the bowl, squeezing it gently and moving it around. This will allow the lanolin to absorb into the material.

Lanolin is typically absorbed relatively quickly, and having too much may result in clumps and staining. For this reason, ensure you only used the recommended pea-sized amount.

Step 5: Take Your Wool Stuff Out

After moving the clothing around, carefully remove the wool garment from the water. There should be much less water in the bowl than what you started with. The water should appear cloudy and soapy, with some traces of lanolin.

The remainder of the mixture can be used in the future if you like or for another garment. Just reheat it and if needed, add more of the emulsion block. DO NOT pour the remainder of the mixture down the drain, as the residual lanolin will leave it clogged.

Step 6: Give Your Wool Stuff a Good Rub Down

Gently rub your wool garment’s sides together after turning it right side out, allowing the lanolin to further absorb into the wool fibers. Allow the garment to settle in for a few moments before rinsing it out to remove the soapiness. Do so in cold water so as not to affect the lanolin.

You may put it on spin dry in your machine if you like to remove excess water. Lay the garment flat to dry.

You may repeat the process if you want to add more lanolin. However, you will have already mixed in a sufficient amount with this method. If you do repeat the process, you’ll want to let the garment dry first.

Aftercare Tips

  • Thoroughly squeeze out the excess water for faster drying and removal of the emulsifying soap.
  • Try not to let it soak in the mixture for too long as the soap that develops only removes the lanolin.
  • Don’t use too much lanolin otherwise it will be wasted. The right amount is absorbed fully and quickly, so anything left over is thrown out.
  • Layering can help the lanolin penetrate the fiber much more quickly.
  • If you find there is too much lanolin, citric acid, or vinegar will easily pull it from the solution, allowing it to become clumpy, so you can easily skim it off the top.

Other Ways to Waterproof Wool

As we mentioned earlier, lanolin is not the only effective way of waterproofing wool materials.

Many individuals opt to reline their wool garments with an additional, thicker layer of wool. The extra layers provide you with added warmth and makes it much more difficult for moisture to penetrate through the layers.

Another option for waterproofing wool is to utilize nanotechnology. These sprays consist of chemical compounds that coat the surface of the wool material, which makes it hydrophobic. Hydrophobic materials are non-polar materials that repel water and moisture.

Nanotechnology fabric protector sprays are pretty popular to repel against both precipitation and sweat.

The Last Drop

Wool is one of the most water-resistant textiles you can find. The lanolin that naturally secretes from wool-bearing animals is nature’s way of moisturizing it and forming a protective, waterproof barrier. Since it is thick and durable, wool is also capable of keeping our bodies warm by retaining heat, even if we come in contact with cold water.

You will have to re-lanolize wool garments at some point because of the over-processing of the material. When the wool is overprocessed, it loses its water repellent properties.

When using lanolin, it’s important not to pour the mixture down the sink as its waxy texture will clog your drain.

Re-lanolizing wool garments is a simple process that is easily done with the right ingredients. Due to lanolin being highly concentrated and the high absorbability of wool, you don’t need much lanolin to waterproof wool. If you are water-proofing your wool garments in preparation for an outdoor trip or the like, it would be best to ensure that you layer your clothing appropriately.