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Lanolizing Wool

Lanolin is a kind of wax that sheep and other wool-bearing animals produce to protect their coats. It is, in fact, a waterproofing agent. Any lanolin that remains in the wool after shearing is generally stripped out during the process of turning the hair into clothing, thus reducing the wool’s ability to shed water.

Commercially, lanolin is often used as a skin treatment product for humans. Lansinoh, in particular, makes a pure-lanolin nipple cream for breast-feeding mothers.

I first learned about lanolin from a comment on my review of West German wool pants. Jenne, the commenter, recommended washing wool products using something called Eucalan. Eucalan is a natural wash that deposits lanolin in the wool. Rinsing isn’t necessary with Eucalan, so much of the hassle (and danger of felting) that is usually associated with washing wool can be avoided.

For an extra treatment, Jenne recommended dissolving a small amount of Lansinoh’s pure lanolin in hot water before adding the Eucalan.

Lanolizing Wool

I was intrigued by this method. The no-rinse aspect made it simpler than carefully washing wool with Dr. Bronner’s, which was my previous choice. And increasing the health and functionality of my wool by restoring the natural oils made good sense – the same thing must be done to leather. I bought both the Eucalan and the nipple cream.

Eucalan comes in a few different scents. I first bought the unscented version, which seemed most appropriate for outdoor wear. Later I bought a jug of the Eucalyptus version. Eucalyptus oil is a deterrent to moths and fleas, so Eucalan recommends using this version before storing wool garments for a while. (The eucalyptus scent is very subtle after the wool has been dried – you’re not going to go around smelling like flowers.)

I’ve since washed my West German wool pants, West German wool knickers, Italian wool knickers, and two Pendleton wool shirts – the majority of my non-merino wool clothing – in Eucalan with added Lansinoh and have been pleased with the results. I recommend giving it a shot if you wear wool in wilderness settings.

The Process

  1. Dissolve a small amount (about one inch) of Lansinoh HPA Lanolin in hot water
  2. Add enough room-temperature water to cover the garment to be washed
  3. Add about two cap-fulls of Eucalan and mix it in
  4. Add the wool to be washed
  5. Let soak for 15 – 30 minutes
  6. Pull out the wool, hold it up, and let the water drip out for a minute or two
  7. Lay the wool out on a dry towel
  8. Roll up the towel, gently squeezing out the water
  9. Lay flat to dry for 24 – 48 hours

Lanolizing Wool

West German Wool Pants

Winter arrived early last weekend, a week before the solstice. The daily temperatures have been hovering in the low 20s Fahrenheit (that’s somewhere around -5 for you centigrade folks), with high winds and plenty of snow. I’ve been out hiking every day, practicing winter fire lighting and taking advantage of the snow for tracking. It’s also provided ample opportunity to test out the wool pants I bought a few months ago.

Wool Pants: Front

They’re surplus from the West German army, circa 1976. I acquired them on ebay for $20.

They have a standard 6 pocket design. The back pockets and two side pockets have button closure flaps. The cargo pockets have flaps with two button closures: one in the middle and one on the back. The front edge of the pocket flap is actually sewn onto the pants, which prevents the flap from, you know, flapping. It encourages the flap to stay closed, even when both the buttons are undone, providing for somewhat secure storage while still having instant access. On the outside of each cargo pocket is a smaller, 3” wide pocket with no closure. It was probably originally meant for a magazine, but is a perfect size for a cell phone or camera. It’s a little small for my compass or GPS.

Wool Pants: Cargo Pocket

The front of the pants is reinforced roughly 7” above the knee to 7” below. The butt is not reinforced

Wool Pants: Back

The crotch is closed via four buttons, rather than a zip. Buttons are easier to replace in the field, but makes access a little slower. Annoying when nature calls. There’s also a series of buttons along the waistband, both on the inside and the outside. Some of these can be used to make minute adjustments to the waist size, others just seem to be spares. In all, there’s probably about 10 buttons that could be salvaged to repair the crotch or pocket closures. On the inside back of the waist band, there’s also attachments for suspenders.

On the hem of each leg, there’s are snaps that allow the legs to be tightened and the excess material folded, useful for blousing the pants with boots or for wearing under gaiters.

Wool Pants: Side

I love these pants. I received them in new condition, and their worth could easily be placed upward of $60. My only complaint is the button crotch, which I would prefer to be zippered.

In the cold (and somewhat wet) snow, I’ve been staying perfectly warm and dry with these and a pair of merino wool long underwear worn underneath. In slightly warmer weather, I’ve found the wool to be soft enough to be worn without the underwear underneath. (I haven’t ever worn US Army surplus wool, but I’m told that the West German stuff is softer. I’ve also been told that wool from the former Eastern Bloc is the itchiest, and warned to stay well away from it.)

I’d recommend the West German wool to anyone. When passing someone on the trail decked out in plastic from head-to-toe, making that annoying swish-swish-swish sound as they walk by, you can chuckle to yourself, content in the knowledge that you are warmer, quieter and more comfortable in your wool.

I'll see you on the trail...