A few years ago my wife inherited a button up 100% Merino Wool sweater from her mother, who had inherited it from her mother. Despite its old age the sweater looked great because 100% wool fabric is very durable and it had been well taken care of. So last month when my wife accidentally mixed it in with a load of laundry washed on hot and it came out half its original size she was pretty upset. She was so embarrassed that she swore she was never going to tell her mother what she did to grandma’s sweater. But when I looked at our 2-year-old daughter I realized this sweater still had a song to sing. Sure enough, the sweater fit her perfectly and since it was mommy’s sweater after all, she was none the happier to wear it – every day.
A shrunken wool garment, sometimes mistakenly referred to as “boiled wool” used to be a highly appreciated garment in the United States and in other cold climates. But, as Americans slipped into the ‘cheaper is better’ mentality and let practically all of our textiles be produced overseas, quality fabrics like these were lost. Wool itself has been largely replaced by oil based synthetic fibers like Nylon or polyester, not because they’re better mind you, but because they’re cheaper.
Fortunately the art of shrinking wool garments hasn’t been lost entirely. In Austria, where we live and the stores are also full of clothes made in Asia, the art has nevertheless been preserved. And it’s not a surprise since they’ve been doing it here for centuries. The name for these garments is “Walk” (pronounced Valk) and it refers specifically to knitted wool garments shrunk by washing them with warm water. A process in german called, "Walken". Knitted doesn't imply hand knitted but means they are knitted as opposed to woven.
The process is a bit more complicated than just chucking them in the wash because the amount a fabric shrinks is quite unpredictable. Even seemingly identical wool fabrics can shrink differently under the same conditions due to differences in diameter and crimp of the wool fibers. After all, wool is a natural fiber and not every sheep grows the same wool as the next one. Here is a fabric before and after shrinking. On the left is before and on the right is after:
To learn more about “Walk” I recently visited “Tiroler Strick und Walk” located in you guessed it, Tirol, Austria. Nestled deep in the Alps, Tirol is also considered the home of Loden wool fabric, the brother if you will, of “Walk”. It is also a shrunken wool fabric but different than “Walk” because it is woven, not knitted, which makes it a bit denser and less stretchy. Unlike "Walk", Loden is shrunk with a little soap and hours of agitation or even pounding by wooden hammers which in addition to the warm water forges the fibers together. It’s no wonder Tirol is the home of so many wonderful shrunken wool fabrics when you consider the cold alpine climate and abundance of sheep. Here I am with the CEO of "Tiroler Strick und Walk", Herr Herbert Prösch, followed by a few of their jackets from 2016/17.
“Tiroler Strick und Walk” has been perfecting the art of shrinking wool fabrics into garments since 1955, although the tradition dates back to the Middle Ages. They use 100% wool yarn to make warm, durable & stylish jackets perfect for the cold and/or wet Alpine climate. The reason Austrians have been making and wearing “Walk” since the Middle Ages is because it takes all the amazing qualities of wool and compounds them, kind of like wool on steroids. Here is some yarn being drawn off its spools into the knitting machine:
We already know that from a functional and environmental perspective wool fabrics are second to none. Not only do they regulate your temperature better than synthetic or plant fibers because of their insulating ability, they are also totally green, (organic, renewable & sustainable). Their special insulating ability comes from the crimp in wool fibers and the microscopic scales on the fibers that together create tiny air pockets in the fabric. The crimp is how the fiber zig-zags unlike say Nylon which is straight and smooth. When wool fabric is made into either a “Walk” or a “Loden” the scales hook onto each other and the fibers intertwine because of the crimp. This creates millions of tiny air pockets that amplify the insulating properties of wool, as well as make it even more durable and weatherproof. The scales and crimp are the result of millions of years of nature perfecting a thermal system for the benefit of the sheep of course, but conveniently we can benefit from them too.
At “Tiroler Strick und Walk” the tricky business of making a shrunken wool garment starts with 100% virgin wool yarn, and that’s where the trickiness comes from. As mentioned, not all wool yarn reacts the same during the shrinking process and tiny differences in shrinkage can mean a garment is too small or too big. Additionally, Austrians are very particular that a garment fits properly, so there is no tolerance for error. What this means is that for every batch of fabric spun on their knitting machines a sample must be carefully shrunk to see how it responds. Here is a finished jacket with one of its sides before being shrunk held up next to it. Notice how much larger it is!
After knitting the fabric to the desired pre-shrunk size, there are two ways to proceed. Let’s say a jacket has six parts that need to be stitched together. Each piece is made at about 30% its future desired size, because that’s about how much it will shrink. The question is, do you shrink the six separate pieces and then stitch them together? Or do you stitch them together and then shrink the whole thing?
It’s actually a bit easier to shrink the pieces and then stitch them together because you’ll know before you stitch them if they shrunk correctly, but a jacket stitched together first and then shrunk is more desirable because the individual pieces bond together so it gives the impression of being one solid piece. In fact they practice both methods but there is a premium for those that are shrunk as a complete garment. Needless to say, these jackets are produced in small quantities, like craft beer and every year a new collection is designed and made so if you ever own one, chances are you’ll neverbe caught in the same room with someone else wearing it!
The Fall 2017 Robert W. Stolz collection will have a selection of “Tiroler Strick und Walk” jackets specially chosen for wool lovers in the United States.
Below are photos from my visit that show some of the steps of making Walk garments.
Color palettes for different wool types
A design of a sweater held up to the final product. Every piece starts with a concept designed on paper.
Fabric patterns for some jackets
This is a sample of a knitted fabric that was made based off of the pattern programmed in the computer behind. A sample of each fabric must be made and checked for mistakes before more is made.
Close up of the fabric pattern as programmed in the computer
A paper pattern of a piece of a jacket in design phase.
Knitted wool fabric in a 'washing' machine being shrunk. There is actually no soap used so it's not exactly washing it. Either warm or cool water is used but never hotter than 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
Knitted wool fabric being taken out of the dryer after being shrunk in warm water.
Sewing a jacket.
Knitting machines . . .
Finished fabric coming out of the bottom of a left left knitting machine
Shrunk fabrics ready to be used for making pillows & blankets.
The factory floor with knitting machines in view.
A child size house slipper, which are also made by "Tiroler Strick und Walk"