When I was growing up, my mom loved dressing me in wool: plaid kilts, hand-knitted mittens and hats, hand-me-down sweaters, nubbly tights…and boy, did all that wool itch! I grew up certain I would swear off wool for good.
But when I was researching cloth diapers for my baby, I kept hearing about wool. "No, no," I heard, "it's not like the wool you remember! It's soft. It's not scratchy. Honest!"
So I took the leap and tried out some wool products for my little one, afraid as I did so that I might rough up my baby's sweet skin and make him grow up determined to swear off wool for life!
And you know what? Now I'm here to say to all the other skeptics out there: The wool you'll find in cloth diaper products is so nice. It's generally fine-gauge merino wool, which is soft enough to rub against your face. No scratchiness at all!
But beyond the comfort of merino wool, I found out something else: Wool is magic!
All right, all right, not literally magic, but it does have some super incredible properties. Here are my favorites:
- Wool absorbs wetness. If you use a wool diaper cover on your little one, you won't need to worry about any seeping onto your lap. Wool can absorb up to 30% of its own weight in moisture before it feels wet. And even when it's wet, it retains heat, unlike other materials that turn clammy and make the wearer cold. This is why wool is used so much in winter outerwear, and it means wool covers are ideal for nighttime use, because even a soaking-wet baby will stay toasty all night.
- Wool repels wetness. I know, I know — how can it both absorb and repel? Like I said, magic! Well, OK, technically, it has to do with the way wool is formed and the lanolin it contains. Wool is made up on the microscopic level of tiny overlapping scales, and lanolin is the grease that sheep's skin secretes that acts as a sort of waterproof barrier. That means a wool cover alone over a prefold or fitted diaper is plenty of protection from leaks — no plastic or vinyl needed!
- Wool is self-cleaning and antibacterial. As wool absorbs moisture, the lanolin converts into a type of soap that is antibacterial. Wool doesn't get dirtier when peed on — it gets cleaner. (See, I told you it was magical!)
- Wool is an all-season fabric. It is warming in winter but cooling in summer. If you also grew up wearing wool, you probably wore it only in winter, in the form of coats or mittens, but wool is very breathable and won't make your baby sweat or trap moisture. I'm not saying you should wear a wool suit in the summer, but your baby's bum won't overheat in a wool cover in August! Our baby wore wool covers all year round, and because of our good experience with wool, we put a wool fleece mattress cover under our sheets — it has protected the mattress from any leaking or sweating, but it's breathable and cooling even in the summer months, unlike sticky plastics.
- Wool can help prevent diaper rash. Because of wool's breathability and absorbency, babies wearing wool diaper covers won't have as much moisture pressed against their skin. Our little guy wore prefolds and wool covers almost exclusively, and we never had a problem with rash.
- Wool is hypoallergenic. Wool does not contain dust mites so is an excellent choice for bedding. A soft merino wool puddle pad is a wonderful addition to a baby's bed, to prevent leaks onto the sheets. We used a small merino wool blanket as a puddle pad and it nearly always absorbed any leaks before our sheets could get wet. Now, some people consider themselves allergic to wool, but they're usually allergic to chemicals used to extract the lanolin in conventionally manufactured wool. It's best to seek out an organic wool for baby products to prevent this problem.
- Wool is naturally flame resistant. Wool is a safe fabric to have around young children because it tends to smolder when exposed to flame rather than burn dangerously, even though there are no harsh chemicals added, and it self-extinguishes if the flame is removed.
- Wool is easy to care for! Well, all right, you can't usually throw it in the washer and dryer. But it's not hard to learn to care for good wool. We had a rotation of several wool covers, and I would wash one whenever it felt damp to the touch or had gotten poop on it, or if neither had happened but I felt like it had been awhile. I probably washed each cover once every week or two.
- I hand washed with a gentle wool shampoo called Eucalan; there are several brands available, and some people use just baby shampoo. I like that Eucalan has some lanolin in it, so that it's lanolizing my wool a little each time I wash. You can rub the cleanser into any stains and wash them out, but otherwise just put a little wool cleanser into a sinkful of tepid water and let your wool soak for several minutes before squeezing it out. No rinsing needed if you're using a specialty cleanser.
- Lanolizing is the other task for wool users. After awhile, all the lanolin in the wool is converted into that antibacterial soap, and you need to replenish it. If you notice a diaper cover or puddle pad leaking, that means it's time for lanolin! I used just a standard breastfeeding cream made up of pure lanolin; there are other ways to get it, too. Squirt a small amount of lanolin (about a half inch to an inch) in the sink and plug the drain, and then soak the lanolin in a small amount of very hot water until it dissolves. Next, add cold water until the sink is full and the temperature is tepid. Now add your wool, and let it soak for 45 minutes or so.
- Once you're done washing or lanolizing, just lay flat to dry! Wool absorbs a lot of water, remember, so it does take awhile to get fully dry. But you never want to put wool in a hot dryer, because it will shrink it up to doll size. Hint: I used the long dry time as an excuse to buy more cute wool covers!
Photos are of Mikko in wool diaper covers.
Lauren Wayne is the mother to 3-year-old Mikko, who graduated from diapers over a year ago. And, yes, it was sad for her to say goodbye to those sweet wool covers! Read more of Lauren's writing at Hobo Mama: A Blog About Natural Parenting, where she talks about breastfeeding, babywearing, cloth diapering, green living, and more.