The History of Wool- Mother Nature’s Diaper Cover

thehistoryofwool

Wool soakers are common in today’s cloth diapering wardrobe and often seen as a luxury item. The history of the soaker dates back to the mid 19th century and saw a peak in popularity and use around 1940’s.  Wool is seeing an artisanal resurgence in the 2000’s and is becoming more mainstream.

thehistoryofwool

Ever wonder how parents survived without their lifesaving modern, waterproof diapers? For the most part, up until diaper covers used a more breathable and pliable vinyl in the mid 20th century, babies wore no covers at all! Diapers were changed right as they were damp- before the wetness leaked onto clothing or furniture. Lap pads were also commonly used, often made from old blankets, that would be laid down to protect laps or furniture.Mary Thompson Henrietta, Clothing for Children (1949) 116 Similarly, some mothers chose to place a rectangle or square of rubber or sheeting in the diaper’s wet zone as it was folded for extra protection. Your Child- The First Year of Life  (The Prudential Insurance Company, 1950) 52 Before disposable diapers, mothers also practiced infant potty training (also known as elimination communication today) and babies were using pierced potty chairs or small pots at 3-4 months and out of diapers by a year. Lena K. Sadler and William S. Sadler, The Mother and Her Child (1916) 177  This meant covers were not as necessary as they are today.

“She even knitted me a pair of wool ‘soaker’ pants to cover my doll’s diaper- exactly like the ones that she knitted for the baby. That was the rage in that day [1940’s] because plastic pants were not available to cover the cloth diapers. It was a time before the use of disposable diapers that now create huge landfills. In that day white cotton diapers were used. They were always so soft and could be used for burp cloths, too. The daily routine was to soak, launder, and fold the diapers.” Rosemary Coplin Dahlberg Gravel and Grit: Childhood Memories on a Kansas Farm (Crossbooks 2010) 107. 

The benefits of textiles, especially wool, were well known and understood in the early 1900’s. Wool was appreciated as a diaper cover because of its breathability. To what degree families lanolized the covers is unclear, and the earliest reference to the act of lanolizing I’ve found was 1930, but even without lanolin added (lanolin left naturally would eventually wash away) wool would still provide some degree of waterproofing and would absorb some of the urine. The soakers would be laid to dry and re-used because of their self-cleaning nature. “The majority of the country’s population did not have sufficient means to furnish clothing, diapers, and bedding for multiple changes per day, so preserving the cleanliness and dryness of the fabrics used by and around the infant was or paramount importance.”Anita A. Stamper, Jill Condra, Clothing  Through American History: The Civil War Through the Gilded Age-1861-1899 (2011) 187.

vintagesoakerpatternThe baby boom coupled with the shortage of rubber (just enough for elasticized waistlines and paint legs of ‘waterproof’ panties) contributed to the wool soaker’s hey-day of the 1940’s. Stores took advantage of this fact and stocked more patterns and kits, like soaker kits from Bucilla for .50, for mothers to create.  These soakers were simple with a drawstring closure. Some featured ribbed cuffs around the legs and waist. Anne Macdonald, No Idle Hands- The Social History of American Knitting (Random House 2011)  ”I had four children between 1938 and 1946 and during the intervening years whenever I had any slack time I knitted only one article, SOAKERS, but I did it two hundred times. They guaranteed a more contented baby, one without diaper rash or winter child and that seemed the precursor of all those sniffles. ‘Modern’ mothers bought the latex pants at a dollar a pair, but their babies suffered sore bottoms, often severe enough to require medical attention, a problem during the doctor shortage of the war years. Another plus for soaker knitting was that mothers developed strength of character to counter the ridicule of those who espoused the ‘why bother?’ school of mothering.” -Vivian Filipak, Mansfield OhioAnne MacDonald, No Idle Hands- The Social History of American Knitting (Random House 2011) 

vintage-baby-knitting-crochet-patterns-coats-clarks-no-130
Source: Angel Elegance Vintage

A baby’s layette in the 1940’s through the 1960’s was practical, and those homemade knitted sweaters were coupled with coordinating soaker pants of wool. Soakers were not just for waterproofing, they were part of the wardrobe. Leggings and socks would be pulled up to or over the diaper. Today, moms are rediscovering the practicality of this practice with modern baby leggings.

It would seem that wool covers have been in use rather consistently through the last several decades, though their overall use surely declined with the increased popularity of disposable diapers beginning in the 1960’s, and by the 1990’s cloth diapers were no longer the norm.

Image source: Disana
Image source: Disana

Disana, a popular German maker of knitted wool diaper covers, dates back over 30 years. This simple cover debuted in 1970. The simplicity and design have stood the test of time and as more families learn the benefit of wool as a waterproof cover through the Internet, they’ve become a staple for cloth diapering parents.”Disana History” http://www.disana.de/en/about-us/the-company/history/ Aristocrats, another longstanding maker of wool covers, began in 1989 in BC, Canada. “About Aristocrats” http://www.aristocratsbabyproducts.com/About%20Us.html  These wool covers resemble those made from an old wool sweater, with knitted bands at the waist and leg openings. They too, continue to make their covers in the natural cream wool and have an especially good reputation amongst modern moms.

Image Source: Sloomb
Image Source: Sloomb

Wool would see an enormous resurgence in popularity in the early 2000’s thanks to the Internet, and artisans working from home to create new styles of soakers with a fashionable twist. Loveybums, Stacinator, Luxe, Sustainable Babyish, and Cranky Pants all took the wool cover to the next level. New innovations in knitting also made possible a tighter weave in the covers beyond the handknits that had a more open weave. Sustainable Babyish introduced their interlock wool soakers, longies (pants), and shorties (shorts) in 2007.Erina Nau, private message, May 19, 2014 These covers were made with felted wool and had a stretch to them. They fit a little trimmer than hand or machine knit soakers and could be worn as clothing. Erin Nau, of Sustainable Babyish (Sloomb for short) popularized this style of wool and brought woolies, as they’re affectionately known in modern cloth diaper circles, into the mainstream. Sloomb was not the only brand to make shorties or longies, and there were still many other WAHM’s to choose from, but they popularized the style. Now Sloomb makes machine knit woolies and has brought back their interlock, but in natural cream only.

Image Source: Cranky Pants Blog
Image Source: Crankypants Blog

Other artisans took the old fashioned, handknit wool items and turned them into wearable works of art, using custom dyed yarns, or designs and patterns that any modern mother would adore. One such brand, Crankypants Knits, created a signature style with monster faces and striped legs for their wool longies. Amy Kett, a skilled knitter, started selling her creations on websites for WAHMs like Hyena Cart and Etsy, and she couldn’t keep up with their demand. Customers would order custom knits to their desired specifications, including other more intricate designs featuring game characters or other fantastical themes. Even though the cost was high, many over $100, moms knew that wool items retained their resale value and many could get close, if not all, of what they paid on a diaper Buy/Sale/Trade forum like Diaperswappers.com.

The aforementioned websites Hyena Cart and Etsy gave work at home artisans who were often also moms a chance to bring in an income while putting their knitting skills to use. At present (2014) wool is a growing niche with a devoted following, but is also finding a place with regular cloth diapering moms who are learning about the benefits.  Modern twists to wool, such as making wool wraps that close with velcro or snaps, are just another way of making wool more convenient for the user.  Access to websites with free or low-cost patterns for hand knit or upcycled soakers made from sweaters also gives everyone the chance to try wool for a low cost, as long as they are able to put their basic sewing or knitting skills to use. It is also easy to find wool wash and lanolizing products for wool at every major diaper retailer, making caring for wool more convenient than ever.

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Have a request for a future article on the history of cloth diapers?  Let me know what you think in the comment section!  

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  • Jenn

    Very interesting! We love using wool for our son as it’s cute, doubles as clothing and keeps his bum clear. We mostly have interlock and up cycled, but there are a couple gorgeous hand knits in there. I always love seeing the woolies on the babies in ‘Call the Midwife’, it makes me think of how long its been around!

  • Hillary

    I’m interested in wool, so loved this history blog!

  • Stacy Mojica

    Fantastic research and writing! Thank you for taking the time to explore this subject and educate cloth diapering families on the history of wool.

  • Kelly Jo Sweeney

    I love using woollen covers or soakers. I’m from the UK and my grandmother had a lot of old patterns for woollen covers, which were known as pilcher pants in the past, although I think soaker is generally used in Britain now.

  • Wonderful post, thank you! I’d love to co-create a post with you on Elimination Communication. I run the Go Diaper Free company/community/authored the book and am a Director of the DiaperFreeBaby Mentorship Program. Let’s get in touch!

  • Once I started with wool covers I never looked back! They are the best for nighttime and they are such a quick fun knit that I love making my own.