I never thought I'd be exploring the scintillating world of dryer sheet alternatives, but deciding to use cloth diapers can bring you down paths you never ever thought you'd find yourself. Amidst an overwhelming amount of information about all things cloth, I learned that dryer sheets could no longer be a part of our regular laundry routine. No worries there, as I've long known that dryer sheets were full of not-so-lovely chemicals, are less than earth-friendly in landfills, and that they made my towels less absorbent. But they made things smell nice and come out soft. So. Meh. We continued to use them anyways.
But faced with finding an alternative so that the diapers we plan to use will, um, actually absorb everything that a baby is capable of generating, I stumbled upon the solution of using wool dryer balls, as recommended by many a cloth-diapering website.
Perhaps you've seen the spiky-looking plastic dryer balls that you toss in with your clothes and they rattle around and soften things up. This is almost the same concept. Except that wool is awesome and natural and NOT plastic, is much quieter tumbling around in your dryer, lasts longer, won't damage your clothes with pokey bits, and actually absorbs moisture. Unlike plastic.
Other awesome things about wool dryer balls:
1. Since they actually pull moisture out of your clothes, this shortens drying time and in turn saves money.
2. They reduce static just like dryer sheets do.
3. They soften your clothes like liquid fabric softener/dryer sheets - without the chemicals!
4. They’re made out of 100% wool and are safe for kiddos to play with and chew on, if they get a hold of them.
So I looked high and low for places to buy these magical balls. Many online stores sell them for at least $7 or $8 apiece for a single tennis-sized ball. This seemed kind of steep to me. And while Etsy has some wonderful sellers who make wool dryer ball sets for more reasonable prices, I really thought I could figure out how to make some. I mean, it's a ball of yarn. How hard can it be? (Ha ha. Yeah. Read my verdict at the end.) Armed with advice from a few tutorials found online, I set out to do it myself.
First I needed to find 100% wool yarn. The yarn cannot be blended with any acrylic fibers or other non-wool materials, or else it won't felt up nice and solid. I have a pretty big yarn stash already, but after tearing through my bin I discovered that I had NO wool yarn. So off to the store I went. I really wanted to make some fun colored balls, but the yarn was far too expensive and I would have ended up spending over $6.00 per ball that way - not really a cost savings there. So I ended up buying 2 large skeins of very utilitarian-looking Lion brand fisherman's yarn, the only other wool option at the store. Note to self: I could really use some sheep.
I also picked up some cheap knee-high pantyhose to hold the dryer balls during the various stages of felting - very, very necessary. You can also use an old tube sock or old tights/pantyhose. I had none of the above. I'm pretty sure the last time I wore pantyhose was to my freshman homecoming dance (and only because my mom made me) where my friends and I dressed in floor-length skirts and stuffy cardigans and looked about as unhappy as teenagers can look. Cardigans and nude pantyhose will do that to you.
No nonsense! Still sassy as ever!
With all supplies secured, I started making the core of the ball by wrapping the wool around two fingers. Then I tied it off in the middle to make a little butterfly shape.
Now the fun part! Making a yarn ball!
I wound a fairly tight ball until it was about the size of a lime.
Ta da! Dryer ball core, complete. Once the lime-sized ball was done, I secured the tail end of the yarn so that it wouldn't unravel during the first felting. The tail can be tucked into the core with something pointy and sharp. I used a tiny crochet hook to thread it under and through a hunk of the yarn ball.
With several cores ready to go (I started with three), it was time for the first felting. The cores went into the nylon (be careful that the balls don't unravel during this step) and each ball was tied off with NON-WOOL yarn. This is where all that spare acrylic or cotton yarn comes in handy. Tying off each ball into its own separate nylon compartment prevents the balls from felting together into a giant mess in the washer.
My nylon full of dryer ball cores looked like this when it was ready for felting:
Next, I tossed the whole nylon caterpillar into a hot wash cycle. The hot water helps the wool fibers to felt more quickly, but I've read that you can use cold or warm water, too. I'm impatient, so I went with hot water. And I was doing some other laundry at the time, so I just washed it with my other stuff. After the first wash, I tossed the caterpillar in the dryer to complete the first felting. I used high heat - you can use lower heat if you'd like, but it will take longer to dry and felt up completely. Once the dryer cycle was done, I snipped the strings and removed the cores from the nylon.
Now as I may have mentioned, I'm pretty impatient. So of course I got excited and removed my newly-felted cores from the dryer while they were still a bit damp. They came out smelling like a ripe wet sheep and I started to think that I really messed this up. But happily, the smell went away completely once the balls were completely dry. I completed the final yarn layer while the balls were still slightly damp, and finished drying them later. The smell & dampness won't hurt a thing, just as long as the balls are eventually dried completely.
So my finished cores were nice and firm and felt dense. (If the core is still a little loose after the first felting, another hot wash/dry felting cycle should do the trick.) With my cores, some of them turned out perfect on the first try and others needed a second felting. Once I was satisfied with how the felting turned out, I completed each ball by weaving in a new end of yarn (again, using a pointed tool or small crochet hook to secure the end), and continued to wrap the yarn around the core until the ball was approximately the size of a tennis ball. At that point, I tucked in the tail end of the yarn again and was ready for the final felting.
Here is what a felted core looks like (left), next to an almost-finished ball (right), that has been built up to tennis-ball size and is ready for its final round of felting.
Once all of the balls were ready for their final felting, I tossed them back in the nylon, tied off each section, and ran them through another hot wash/dry cycle. After this round of felting, the balls still felt too loose to me so I washed/dried them again. The dryer balls will get more and more felted on their own when being used, but I wanted to be extra sure that these puppies weren't going to come unwound. NOTE: They may come unwound. One of mine did after a couple of uses. Just cut off any wooly clumps & stuff the loose end back into the ball, toss it back into a nylon or sock (remembering to tie off the end) and wash/dry again. It will re-felt back together.
Here are the finished dryer balls after several uses. They get delightfully fuzzy:
The two skeins of yarn made about 7 tennis ball sized dryer balls, with a little bit of yarn left over. My yarn cost was about $10.00 per skein, and I also had to buy the pantyhose. Total supply costs: approx. $23 plus tax, or about $3.30 per ball.
Unknown costs: Felting the balls does take quite a bit of washer and dryer time, so that's a fair amount of water and electricity. And while winding the balls is not necessarily hard to do, it is very time consuming.
Verdict: Unless you have tons of time, or have some kids or friends who want to help you mindlessly wind yarn balls, I think the Etsy and/or private seller route is probably worth it in the long run. Between mindlessly winding yarn all day and numerous lengthy washing/drying cycles, these ended up taking forever and being less cost-effective than I had hoped for. I also think I'd be happier with more solidly felted balls that use wool roving instead of stringy yarn - the yarn just doesn't feel like it felts up solid enough, and they can come unraveled over time.
HOWEVER, they still work great. And I want more.
So how many dryer balls do you need per load? Estimates:
For small light loads, 2 to 4 dryer balls.
For medium-sized loads, anywhere from 4-8 balls.
For a huge load of wet towels and jeans, use as many dryer balls as possible – as many as 10-12, or more if you really want to! A good rule of thumb: the more you use, the more drying time it will save you.
Whew. Who would have thought that I could talk so much about wool dryer balls? I guess we all have our secret passions...