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Ask Dr. Laundry

Ask Dr. Laundry

Removing Stains From Wool

By Dr. Laundry March 4, 2010

Q. My husband has a white wool shawl that has not been washed in YEARS! (He reasoned that since he does not wear it so much, it does not need to be washed.) Anyway, not only does it smell bad, but it has tan, brown, and black body soil stains. He brought it to a dry cleaner 2 years ago, but he says that did not help much. I hand washed it 3 times with detergent in hot water, and it helped a little, but the darkest stains (and the smell) remain. What is the best way to deal with this problem? Is it really so bad to wash wool items in diluted chlorine bleach?

A. Thanks for your question. This is a very difficult problem to solve.

Wool always scares me as it is difficult to keep clean and can be easily abused. Stains and dirt set in wool faster than other fibers. It should be determined whether the item can be washed or should be dry cleaned usually based on the care label directions.

If washing;


  • Use lukewarm water, as hot water can cause shrinkage, dye loss/bleeding and loss of softness

  • Use a mild detergent and preferably a colorless one to avoid any dying potential

  • NEVER use a liquid bleach like Clorox® Regular-Bleach. On the back label of all our liquid bleach products is a statement: “Avoid bleaching wool, silk, mohair, leather, Spandex and non-fast colors.” Its sodium hypochlorite active can attack the wool fiber and unfortunately, the resulting yellowing is permanent and not reversible.

  • Always pre-test any product on a hidden seam BEFORE using (apply a drop to seam; wait 2-3 minutes; blot and air dry; no change means it should be ok to use on the item) to insure the product won’t damage the fiber/color.


Given that the item had not been cleaned in such a long time, I might be tempted to try a good solvent on the dark spots. This is essentially what your drycleaner would be doing. After pre-testing, carefully apply dry-cleaning fluid or paint thinner (dab with saturated cloth, followed by a clean cloth dabbing to hopefully transfer the soil to the clean cloth). ALWAYS do this in a well-ventilated area or outside.

In fact, it might be that given the severity of the stains, I would take it to another drycleaner and ask if/how he could get the stain AND smell out of the shawl. Once you get it clean, make sure the shawl has at least one cleaning per year.