How Sustainable is Your Yarn?

20151007_125641I love working with natural fibres, and British wool in particular. I love seeking  out small producers and listening to them share the story of their yarn. Maybe that stems from a childhood spent on the hills and the fells, seeing sheep in their natural environment. I like to think my British wool is a more sustainable purchase. It’s a natural product, available in a myriad of undyed shades and it’s biodegradable. But is there more to this issue of “sustainability” than just sourcing and disposing of the product?

The whole issue of sustainability is complex and fraught with issues that divide as much as they unite those of us who care about the natural world and our fellow humans. This is especially true when it comes to textiles as many of us don’t really consider the manufacture or disposal of our clothes. For knitters, crocheters and many other yarn crafters, the question of sustainable yarn is only just making it’s way into the mainstream debate. And while many of us are proudly carrying our re-usable coffee cups and refusing plastic bags, there is a huge proportion that continue to knit, crochet and craft with plastic yarn without any thought of it’s origins or future environmental impact.

For years now I’ve had to justify why I’m not a fan of man made fibres and prefer to use cotton, linen or wool for my makes and my designs. My  dislike of acrylic yarn isn’t snobbery. I just care about the long term environmental impact of mass produced textiles and yarns. They  use chemicals, oil and energy to an extent  that is not ecologically sustainable. Many are neither recyclable  nor biodegradable and end up in incinerators or landfill sites. The availability of cheap yarn has opened up knitting and crochet for everyone, with little or no consideration of where the yarn comes from, how it’s made or what might happen to our  projects when they reach they end of their natural life (I’m pretty sure most pilled and baggy acrylic sweaters still end up in landfill and oddments and left overs suffer the same fate).

The production of oil-based synthetic fabrics like nylon, acrylic and polyester requires the mining, refining, and processing of oil. In addition, both man made and natural fibres  use a myriad of toxic additives and colours, as well as massive amounts of energy and water. Many of the chemicals used in the textile industry (such as lead, nickel and formaldehyde) are known to have a negative impact on public health, nature and biodiversity. In addition, many textiles are made in sweatshops  linked to multiple human rights violations, including child labour, sub-minimum wages,and unsafe working conditions.

That all sounds pretty vile and it’s clear that the debate isn’t as cut and dried as man made Vs natural fibres anymore (if it ever was!).

There are no easy choices, and over the years I’ve had to make compromises, requesting “wool rich” yarns for commissions or choosing cotton yarns that might (or might not) have been dyed using harmful chemical in factories that don’t respect their workers  rights. Cotton production is one of the largest industrial consumers of pesticides, fertilizers and water. Contamination of the natural environment and negative impacts on human and animal health are common in cotton growing regions. (You can read more about cotton production on the WWF website if you’re interested).

Then of course, there are yarns made from linen, hemp, bamboo, tencel, recycled polyester and reclaimed fibres. How are we supposed to find our way through the maze of sustainability issues and find a solution that works for us? And, now of course, there is a growing interest in sourcing vegan or cruelty free yarns. Many suppliers sell “vegan” yarn and there are forums and facebook groups dedicated to sharing new discoveries of “cruelty free” yarn. However,  vegan yarns are often  made from nylon or a combination of polymers. Once again this raises the question of “sustainability”.  And, I keep asking myself, is the marine life affected by plastic pollution  of less value than a sheep? But that’s an issue for another day perhaps. There are a number of online retailers selling plant based fibres that have addressed this issue and I’ve included  some of them at the end of this post – they are a great source of information for anyone looking to source non animal fibres – whether that’s for ethical or personal reasons – or maybe you’re just one of the many who find wool, cashmere and alpaca too “scratchy”!

Fortunately, there are a number of yarn companies, shops and small scale suppliers who care about animal welfare, human rights and  the long term sustainability of  their products. Many are offering a choice of fibres which might make us feel a bit better about the impact our craft has on the environment (and our fellow humans). I’ve compiled a short list which you’ll find at the end of this post. It’s not exhaustive (and do let me know if your favourite isn’t listed here). In addition, I would suggest seeking out small batch wool producers or asking where your wool comes from. Visit yarn shows such as Woolfest (held every June in Cumbria) and talk to suppliers about the rearing and shearing of their animals – genuine interest will be meant with genuine enthusiasm and you shouldn’t be surprised by the amount of love and care that goes into that small flock of sheep, alpaca or goats!

When I do use man made fibres I make sure to think of them as long term projects. I use socks with a small nylon content (meant to add strength and durability), I darn the heels and toes and make sure they last. Leftover scraps of yarn are crocheted into baskets and homewares rather than simply being thrown away. I like to think that by the time they are worn out, there may be a way to recycle or reclaim the fibres and put them to another use. I compost left over wool, and cotton fibres are added to my local council’s textile collection for recycling.

As more of us begin to question the environmental and ethical impacts of our yarn choices, we should take some comfort from the wider textile industry, which has been considering these issues for a number of years already.  Many factories now employ “closed loop” manufacturing processes which reduce pollution, recycle water and reduce exposure of factory workers to harmful chemicals. Plastic manufacturers are being forced to consider alternatives to plastics made from oil and are investing in ways to reclaim post consumer waste, one of the most exciting I’ve come across is  Econyl (use by Finisterre in its swimwear ranges for a few years now), made from 100% post consumer waste nylon. There’s no doubt that regenerating existing nylon and man made fibres is preferable to using new. In the long term, we might see more regenerated yarns available for sale to knitters and crafters (some are mentioned in the list that follows). Perhaps we’ll come to see sustainability as more than just a man made Vs natural fibres debate, but for now my choice for personal projects will still be linen, organic cotton or wool  sourced in the UK from small scale producers and companies that care about the provenance of their raw materials.

Your version of what is sustainable might differ from mine, that’s OK. All I’m asking is that we start to consider the human and environmental impacts of our purchases and ask questions about their manufacture and disposal. I’m interested to know how a love and respect for the natural world sits with our constant cravings for quick, easy and convenient choices. I was raised to love nature, to feel a sense of awe and wonder when I climb a mountain or swim in the sea. It’s hard to feel that way when faced with images of towering landfill, incinerator chimneys or beaches scattered with rubbish washed in with the tide.

Shopping online? Try these:

erika-knight-studio-linen-1080x714

London shop Knit with Attitude prides itself on sourcing and supplying a wide range of ethical and sustainable yarn, check out their current stock online or in their bricks and mortar shop.

New to me (but not so new to the scene), online shop  Yarn Yarn sells ethically sourced natural fibres (many of them organic). Many have a price tag that won’t make your eyes water!

Wool and the Gang sell FSC certified Tencel yarn (Tina Tape)  and now have a scheme which donates to Friends of the Earth every time you buy a ball of their Heal  the Wool

Katia Yarns sell a blend of cotton and recycled polyester, which has attracted a lot of interest among yarn enthusiasts. They have also launched “Earth” a blend of merino wool and polyester sourced from recycled PET bottles. These are in addition to their organic wool and cotton ranges. You can buy Katia yarns from Yarnplaza. I’ve been very impressed with the range and prompt service of this online retailer.

Erika Knight sells a gorgeous linen made with 85% recycled rayon and 15% linen that is incredibly soft and has beautiful stitch definition. Studio Linen has become one of my “go to” yarns for soft, drapey garments.

A long time favourite of mine is Eco Baby from Debbie Bliss, a Fairtade, organic cotton that gets softer and softer with washing and is incredibly durable (I’ve been using cotton washcloths made from this yarn over over 5 years – used every day they show very little wear).

Finally, Vegan designer Kate Morris designs garments made from plant based yarns  and has put together a useful graphic on the relative sustainability of various plant based fibres on her website. It’s worth taking a look at how she has classified the merits and environmental impacts of various non animal fibres – I found it really helpful.

 

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