Wovember Ode to a Soaker

November 22, 2013

It is still Wovember, the month to pay homage to the wonder of wool.

Thank you for your enthusiastic response to my last post Pelle’s Back to Back Wool Odyssey.  Thank you also to Kate Davies Designs who linked to the Pelle post in her Wovember Wednesday.

IMG_0465On this fine Wovember day, I would like mull upon the exceptional qualities of the humble woollen pilcher.

When my bubs were wee and did lots of wee, I used cloth nappies, not the modern, slickly designed ones, just plain simple terry towelling flat nappies with a cover. I tried lots of different sorts of nappies and covers but on my adventures in pursuit of the perfect nappy system, I fell in love.  I fell in love with the woollen soaker.

I know it was true love because even though my youngest child has been out of nappies for a couple of years, I kept a soaker as a treasure in the baby-clothes-to-put-away-for-remembering-box.  Who keeps a nappy or anything to do with a nappy? Only those in love.

I fell in love with almost alchemical properties of wool (if you are not a chemist, it is like magic!).

  • wool absorbs moisture so the nappy inside is never soaking wet next to baby skin, reducing nappy rash.
  • wool breathes and regulates temperature through evaporation so that even in the height of an Australian summer, the temperature of baby skin inside the nappy is body temperature, also reducing nappy rash.

and this is the best part

  • The lanolin in the wool fibres reacts with the urine in the nappy, rendering the urine largely odourless.

There is no other fibre in existence that can do all that and still more.  Wool is truly the monarch of fibres.

I also loved the soaker because:

  • I could knit them for free from wool scraps.
  • I could make them quickly, well, as quickly as someone who gets no sleep, is breast feeding constantly whilst occupying a toddler which of course is not quick at all but doable under the circumstances.
  • Even in mid summer, in just a nappy, my babies could be wearing something I had made for them which for some reason became very important for while. Now I am just grateful they are wearing anything at all.
  • They needed minimal washing, mostly just airings between uses.
  • They made that big, round nappy bottom, even more beautiful.

Making and care of soakers:

You must use pure wool that is hand wash only.  Any treatment for machine washing destroys the wool fibre’s ability to retain lanolin.

Unless you are using organic, greasy handspun which already contains lanolin, you will need to put the lanolin back into the wool fibres. You can use the lanolin from pharmacies for cracked nipples but a cheaper way is to purchase little pots of lanolin from cloth nappy stores online. You only need a little bit, occasionally.

I reckon handspun is the absolute best for soakers but any pure wool will be good.  Only the waist and leg bands of a soaker will touch the baby’s skin, so do these in a soft yarn, the rest can be scratchy and rough, it won’t matter.

IMG_0474Lanolinising a soaker:

  • Hand wash in your preferred wool wash as normal. Soak for at least 20 minutes.
  • Rinse in water that is hotter than the wash water. Soak for at least 20 minutes.
  • Dissolve a small amount of lanolin in boiling water (1 tsp would do for a few soakers). Pour into hot (that you could still put a bare hand in) water and then slide your warm pilcher in. Let it soak for at least half an hour, some folks say to leave in overnight but I don’t think it makes much difference.
  • Squeeze out the water and leave to dry as you normally would.
  • Have a few soakers going at once, airing them between uses. Once they start getting a bit smelly even after airing, it is time to re lanolise.

Soaker patterns

  • Look for a pattern that uses short rows to lift the soaker back over the nappy bottom.  You need the whole nappy covered by the soaker for it to work properly. If you don’t know how to do short rows, learn.  There is a free Craftsy short rows class that will teach you everything you need to know.
  • For the traditional short leg soaker, my pattern of choice was The Curly Purly Soaker Pattern.  This is a free pattern by the very generous Marnie Ann Joyce.
  • For long trouser soakers my pattern of choice was Picky Pants by Little Turtle Knits – lots of combinations in one pattern.

IMG_0448Here is a close up of my treasured soaker. It was made up of bits of handspun left over from the Autumnal Sweater and other left over yarn from the Handweavers and Spinners Guild of Victoria.  the waist and leg bands were done in a soft commercially spun pure wool from the scrap bag.

Interestingly, the fibres in the back crutch and lower bottom always felted from being both wet and under pressure (from sitting).

The only time I found a soaker wasn’t appropriate was in a car seat or a baby carrier that you wear.  Both situations compress and enclose the fibres in the soaker so they neither wick nor absorb moisture and everyone gets very soggy. I would just use a PUL (synthetic waterproof material with some breathable properties) cover in this situation.

Ah, how I loved those soakers.  They have all gone on to have lives in other homes with other babies.  All but one that I have shared with you…my woolly treasure, my precious, my heart, my dear old soaker.







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  1. Gosh it seems a life time ago. All that talk of babies, wee and nappy rash or lack of… thanks to wool, which sadly we never tried. It was so all encompassing wasn’t it. Again, your post describes it perfectly. Thanks Rebecca.

  2. Thank you for posting this! It’s a lovely ode to an everyday knit and just the motivation I needed to get back to knitting the soaker I started for my son a couple weeks back. I hit a snag in the pattern where I wasn’t quite sure I understood what to do, so I set the half-finished soaker aside and haven’t gotten back to it. It seems like the type of thing to always have on the needles when you have little ones in cloth diapers. I plan to cast on another as soon as I finish the first. Thanks also for the lanolin instructions. I have lots of lanolin leftover from early days of breastfeeding and will be glad to put it to use.

  3. I have two very beautiful, washed and lanolinised newborn soakers tucked away in my treasure box for far-off, maybe one-day babies to wear.
    They are my favourite lay-away. Thank you. xo

  4. How lovely to hear praises for the humble soaker and the terry nappy! My children are now young grown men, but they had a happy and perfectly dry baby-hood in their terries covered with a soaker at all times. Its great to know that they are having a small revival!

  5. Wow, I’m learning so much about wool from you, and nappies too. That big round nappy bottom is a beautiful thing as is the special knowing that your chiild is wearing something you made.

  6. What a fool I was to ever question your dedication to cloth nappies! Learning about the humble soaker makes me wish my babies had been cloth-bummed too.

  7. wow, wish I had known about soakers, we used terries for the three children and have never met anyone else who did, those who were prepared to use reusable nappies tended to spend a fortune on fitted nappies. We were lucky in finding a nursery who accepted to use them, we showed them how to change a terries nappy and the staff were all converted. BUT we used plastic covering and I would have been so much happier using a ‘soaker’.

  8. Hi! I know it’s quite a while since you wrote about it, but I’ve been looking everywhere for this pattern. The link for curly purly does no longer work 🙁
    I’m having my first child in a couple of months and would love to knit a couple before the birth. Do you still have the recipe? If so, is it possible to share it with me?
    Hopes from Denmark

    1. Dear Anja,
      We have just moved house and all my patterns are packed up in boxes that will remain in storage for the next year. I know I have a print version of that pattern but its somewhere in a box. I have look through the boxes that are closest to the top but no pattern. I am very sorry. The best thing I can suggest is to contact those folks on ravelry who have knitted the pattern and see if they still have a copy. Good luck for both first child and knitting pattern!

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