In my fourth plastic reduction mission, I swapped out bottles of commercial fabric softener for acid rinsing with citric acid. One plastic-free option I didn’t mention in that post was swapping out my liquid fabric softener with dryer sheets, which come packaged in cardboard boxes.
Truthfully, that option didn’t even occur to me because dryer sheets are so wasteful in themselves. In addition to the fact that they’re a single-use product, most dryer sheets are made of polyester and as such are non-biodegradable. Their chemical softening ingredients aren’t great either. According to the health and wellness website Sixwise.com, some of the most harmful ingredients in dryer sheets and liquid fabric softener alike include benzyl acetate (linked to pancreatic cancer), benzyl alcohol (an upper respiratory tract irritant), ethanol (linked to central nervous system disorders), and chloroform (a neurotoxin and carcinogen). These chemicals don’t rinse out either. In fact, since fabric softeners are specifically designed to stay in your clothes for extended periods of time, such chemicals can seep out gradually and be inhaled or absorbed directly through the skin. Dryer sheets are especially problematic as the chemicals in them get released into the air when they are heated up in the dryer and can pose a respiratory health risk to those both inside and outside the home.
As I mentioned before, using a simple acid rinse will have notable softening effects on your laundry, but it won’t be as drastic as commercial fabric softeners and while it reduces static cling, it doesn’t eliminate it from all fabrics. There is, however, a very simple solution–and one that can add scent back to your clothes (homemade detergent and softener is almost scent free).
Felted wool dryer balls are the way of the future. Six tennis-ball sized wads of felt bounce around in the dryer with your clothing, and somehow magically make your clothes feel a lot softer than when you don’t use them. Even more magically, these little guys can last for years, which is obviously a lot more attractive than single-use dryer sheets!
I expect that some minor softening powers involve residual lanolin in the wool, but most of it probably comes from the fact that the balls help clothes separate from each other in the dryer, which probably reduces the friction on the fabric surfaces a little. At any rate, in addition to making the fabrics feel softer, they also do wonders for eliminating static. Best of all, a few drops of essential oil on the balls before they go in the dryer will also leave your clothes nicely–and naturally–scented without leaving weird, flaky residue on your clothes.
Better still these balls are really easy to make yourself. For under $20 (maybe even $5 if you’re super thrifty!), you can make 4-8 balls that will probably last at least 3 years, if not more. At the most minimal end of the spectrum, all you need is a quantity of 100% wool yarn, some cheap knee-high nylon stockings (or old ones of your own), and access to a washer. The cheapest, most widely available wool yarn I know of is Lion Brand’s Fishermen’s Wool, which comes in 8 oz/227g/465 yd/425 m skeins and costs somewhere between $8-10. You can make about 3-4 balls per skein of Fishermen’s. Alternately, I would suggest unraveling a few old wool sweaters, which can certainly be found at a thrift store for very economical prices if you don’t have a few unfashionable gems languishing in a drawer. You can definitely find a couple pairs of knee-high nylons for $1 at Walmart and many Dollar Stores across the country. You really shouldn’t pay more as they will be destroyed by the felting process, since some wool fibers will probably adhere to the stocking and force you to rip the stockings to free the ball. Veer on the side of caution and purchase enough stockings to use a new one for each washing cycle you will use to felt. (You may need to wash the balls up to 6 times, depending on the yarn.)
All you do is wind the yarn into balls a little larger than the size of tennis balls (about 8 inches in circumference), put them into the stocking tying knots between each ball, then put them through 1-2 hot loads of wash. Let them air dry, then cut them out of the stocking and inspect the felting. If the strands of yarn can be pulled apart from each other, tie them into a new stocking and repeat the process until the balls are fully felted.
Having done this a couple of times now, I can say with certainty that I vastly prefer to wrap my yarn balls in a solid layer of roving before felting them. Roving is carded, unspun wool, so it’s just a bunch of free fibers. When they felt, they’ll give the ball a uniform appearance much like those in the first picture above. The layer of roving also locks the yarn strands into place, which means they definitely won’t come undone in the dryer later (and make a huge, tangled mess!) The outer layer of roving also felts much more quickly than the yarn, so you may only need one major wash to adequately felt the outside.
Once you’ve felted the outside, you can go back and needle-felt designs and figures onto the exterior of the ball if you wish, or sew on scraps of wool felt. I rather enjoy these simple hearts below. If adding details, tie the balls into nylon and launder for one final time to make sure the designs adhere to the ball. When you’re ready to use your dryer balls, select between 4-8 balls, put a few drops of an essential oil of your choice onto each (if you want scented laundry), toss them in the dryer with your wet clothes, and dry as normal. Enjoy!