Photo by Getty Images/Nataly-Nete
If you love the extra-soft and fluffy feel of freshly tumbled laundry, but you’re hesitant to use chemical-laden dryer sheets, wrinkle sprays, or liquid fabric softeners, felted wool dryer balls are the eco-friendly alternative you need. They’re gentler on clothes (and you) than harsh chemicals are, and perform better too. Natural wool dryer balls act like a dryer sheet and help reduce static, wrinkles, and lint by keeping the air in your dryer humid for longer. They do this by soaking up some of the moisture in the laundry, and then evenly distributing it back into the air. Counterintuitively, this prolonged exposure to moisture in the dryer exponentially reduces static cling, which makes your clothes dry faster with fewer wrinkles. What’s not to love? And if you make the felted balls nice and tight, they can last up to five years.
Wool dryer balls will work in any laundry-drying appliance, and they’ll last just as long as PVC plastic dryer balls or tennis balls, without releasing any harmful plastic or rubber chemicals when heated. Unlike commercial fabric softeners, wool dryer balls won’t affect the absorbency of your towels or cloth diapers. Tossing in 4 to 6 of these dense wool balls will help keep your clothes separate while tumbling to allow hot air to circulate more efficiently, reducing drying time, which in turn helps reduce wear and tear on your clothes. You’ll save money and help the environment!
Natural dryer balls should be made from 100 percent wool to function optimally. But the wool doesn’t have to be designer — you can use pretty wool roving (processed but unspun) or functional wool batting; recycle spinning and weaving leftovers; upcycle old wool sweaters; and even use up little balls of leftover wool from knitting projects you just can’t throw out. As long as it’s wool, anything goes. A renewable resource, wool doesn’t contain synthetic chemicals, is unlikely to cause allergic reactions, and is a perfect natural alternative to commercial fabric softeners and dryer sheets. Wool dryer balls are particularly helpful for people with sensitive skin or allergies, as well as for keeping cloth diapers soft and free of chemicals.
These dryer balls are made by wet felting balls of fiber. “Wet felting” is the process of matting fibers together using heat, moisture, and agitation. Only certain types of fibers can be wet felted: most types of fleece (including sheep, alpaca, and camel), mohair (from goats), and angora (from rabbits). These fibers can be wet felted because they’re covered in tiny scales. Moisture and heat cause the scales on the fibers to open, and agitation causes them to latch on to each other, creating felt. There’s one caveat to this: “Superwash,” or machine-washable wools, have been specially treated so as not to felt. Plant fibers and synthetic fibers lack these scales, and thus won’t wet felt. The modern technique of needle felting uses needles with tiny teeth along the shafts to interlock the fibers without using water. You can use a felting needle to add funky decorations to your wool dryer ball, but needle felting won’t be necessary for general construction.
I’ll walk you through three different methods of dryer ball construction, and you can choose whichever fits your materials best. The easiest to make are Yarn Dryer Balls (below). Tightly spun yarn and yarn with many plies, such as worsted wool and fishermen’s wool, will work, but won’t felt as readily as lightly spun single-ply yarn. Or, you can be really thrifty and unravel a 100 percent wool sweater from your local thrift store. Again, avoid anything with even the slightest hint of acrylic or other non-feltable fiber for the dryer balls, as it won’t felt correctly, if at all. I use old nylon stockings to contain the dryer balls when I put them through the wash to felt, because the stockings themselves won’t felt, and they separate the balls and help them keep their shape.
Those of you with access to unwashed or lightly processed fleece might find Fleece and Roving Dryer Balls more cost-effective. Yarn Core Dryer Balls are a combination of the first two techniques; they’re speedy to make, and inexpensive because they make use of wool odds and ends in many forms.
Yarn Dryer Balls
You’ll need 2 to 3 ounces of feltable wool yarn for these dryer balls, depending on how tightly spun the yarn is and how firmly you wrap it.
Start a yarn dryer ball by wrapping yarn around your fingers into a butterfly, and then winding around the entire thing.
Photos by Caitlin Wilson
To start, wrap one end of the wool yarn around your first two fingers, held a finger’s width apart, about 10 times. Pinch the bundle in the middle, between your fingers, and pull it off your fingers. Then, wrap more yarn tightly around the middle, creating a little yarn butterfly. Fold the two “wings” into the center, and wrap yarn around the whole, as tight as you can, until you make a little ball. Continue wrapping tightly. When the ball is about the size of a tennis ball or a baseball, use a yarn needle or crochet hook to pull the tail end of the yarn under several previous wraps, and then cut the end short. Stuff the ball tightly into old nylons or knee-high stockings. Tie a knot right next to the ball, or use a piece of cotton or acrylic yarn to tie off the stocking. You can add as many dryer balls as will fit in the stocking.
Fleece and Roving Dryer Balls
I’ve successfully felted locks I only had to flick a little with a dog brush to fluff up. Unwashed fleece still contains its natural lanolin oils, so don’t use large quantities if you have a septic tank system; it’ll deposit oils into your wastewater. Carded roving is already washed, and wrapping is a breeze because the fibers are arranged in a continuous strip.
A dog brush works well to fluff up wool. Wrap roving tightly around a yarn core to make use of many types of fiber scraps.
Photos by Susan Verberg
Flick or comb the individual locks of fleece until they’re nice and fluffy and resemble roving. Tightly wrap a few fluffy locks around themselves. Hold on tight. Keep adding fluffy locks until the ball becomes too large to hold tight. Switch to carded or commercial roving, and wrap it tightly around the ball until it’s the size of a tennis ball or baseball. Because roving is fluffy, the end will felt invisibly against the ball and doesn’t need to be secured. Stuff the ball tightly into old nylons or knee-high stockings. Tie a knot right next to the ball, or use a piece of cotton or acrylic yarn to tie off the stocking. You can add as many dryer balls as will fit in the stocking, but knot the stocking between each ball to keep them separate.
Yarn Core Dryer Balls
Instead of using quality roving for a center that’s never seen, you can use yarn leftovers from a knitting project, or, even better, a remnant sweater. Finally, a use for that wool sweater that had no business going into the dryer, but did anyway, and now fits nobody! Cut it up into strips about 1 inch wide, and use it to wrap centers for your felted dryer balls.
Tie off the stocking between dryer balls to prevent them from felting together.
Photo by Susan Verberg
To start, wrap a sweater strip tightly around itself until it makes a ball about 2 inches in diameter, or use the method described in “Yarn Dryer Balls” to make a butterfly ball with yarn leftovers. When the core is about the size of a golf ball — or when you run out of core material — start wrapping with roving instead. Wrap the roving tightly around the core until the ball is about the size of a tennis ball or baseball. As with the “Fleece and Roving Balls,” there’s no need to secure the end. Stuff the ball tightly into old nylons or knee-high stockings. Tie a knot right next to the ball, or use a piece of cotton or acrylic yarn to tie off the stocking. You can add as many dryer balls as will fit in the stocking, but knot the stocking between each ball to keep them separate.
Pack dryer balls tightly into the stocking. Prep as many or as few as you’d like.
Photos by Susan Verberg
Rock ‘n’ Roll
Once you have a nice collection of individually secured dryer balls in nylons, you can start the washing and felting process. Add your collection of dryer balls to a hot-cold laundry wash. The wash has to be hot-cold, because the shock between the two temperatures, combined with moisture and agitation, is what causes the wool to felt. In my experience, washing new dryer balls with a load of towels does the trick, but if you notice your dryer balls aren’t fully felted after the first wash, you can put them through as many times as needed to felt them all the way through. There’s no need to run them through the dryer when they come out of the felting wash. First, cut them out of the nylons, taking care to peel the nylons gently from the surface of the felted wool, and admire your handiwork.
After felting, cut the dryer balls apart, and then peel off the stocking pieces.
Photo by Susan Verberg
When you’re ready to give them a test run, add 4 to 6 dryer balls to the dryer along with your laundry. You’ll need to experiment to figure out the most efficient timing and temperature settings for the new setup. If you like scented laundry, you can add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to the felt balls. Store them in a basket or bag between uses, and keep your cats at bay. They won’t see the difference between dryer balls for you and new, perfect toys for them!
Susan Verberg homesteads in the Finger Lakes region of New York, where she explores traditional brewing methods and textile arts. Find her blog online here.