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:

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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.

 

An Ethical Wardrobe?

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Photo Credit: Fashion Revolution

Do you ever stop to think about the person who made your clothes? Or wonder where the raw material came from? I’ve noticed a trend among “lifestlye bloggers” for posts about “ethical fashion” which led me to reflect on my own purchasing choices. A couple of weeks ago my Instagram feed seemed to be full of bloggers  wearing the new season from People Tree (One of my favourite mail order fashion brands), even my favourite Lifestyle blogger wrote about her foray into ethical fashion. In her blog post Dominique talks about how difficult it is to know what  “ethical” fashion is, she signposts readers to some great retailers in her capsule wardrobe collection and talks about the difficulty of making the “right” choices on the high street. I applaud her for her honesty.

I began to wonder, is is better to hold on to those sweatshop items, chemically dyed t shirts and leather shoes or is it “better” to chuck everything away and replace them with an ethical alternative? Truth is, I have no idea, but my gut tells me to hang on to what I have. The environmental impact of throwing “stuff” away is huge – even recycling creates pollution – there really is no “away”. Once something is made, it’s really hard to dispose of. Even the most eco friendly materials carry an environmental cost that we often forget.

Scanning my own (fairly minimal) wardrobe I can spot at least a dozen items over ten years old. You see, my philosophy is “buy once, buy well”.  There are a few  items labelled ethical or fair trade. The Patagonia trainers I bought in 2007, worn down at the heel now, but regularly cleaned and with new laces they make an appearance every spring and I love them. The organic denim Howies jeans  – the pair that I hang on to even though they are practically worn away – and the pair I “keep for best”. A People Tree vest that has served me well, the extra long length means it’s great for tucking into jeans under a jumper in winter and perfect for hot summer days. When I bought them, these clothes felt like a huge investment, so I hang on to them for as long as I can. At least half of my wardrobe comes from charity shops and I’ll come clean and tell you I have 3 t shirts from Primark*  – work horse t shirts –  a bit faded but worn regularly and a reminder of the year when Mr T and I  practically lived on thin air in order to meet our goal of paying off the mortgage before we hit 50! (More about that another day).

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Years ago I worked for a charity that supported fairtrade education. We would run workshops for schools and community groups telling them the story behind their clothes. The reality of life in a clothing sweatshop, dye studio or weaving shed can be pretty grim (that’s a euphemism for bloody criminal that we expect anyone to work in such conditions). My colleagues and I would dress in our ethical cropped trousers, our organic cotton t shirts and “educate” our audience about the possibilities of a more equitable future. It felt good to spread to the word.

But, the reality was that only a couple of items in my own wardrobe actually met the strict ethical standards I was encouraging others to choose. I simply couldn’t afford to replace everything. When I did buy new I had to consider the price. I wear clothes out, I patch them, remodel jeans into shorts and when they are finally no longer fit to be worn I cut them into dusters. Items I grow tired of go to the charity shops or to friends. When I do buy new, I think about the conditions of the factory workers who make my clothes. I try to buy from companies that pay a living wage or engage in debate with trade unions about making workplaces safer and fairer. That’s not easy to do. Campaigns like Fashion Revolution’s #whomademyclothes certainly help to raise awareness and encourage consumers to think about the social impact of what we buy and the truth is, there are very few companies that can claim to be truly ethical at every stage of the supply chain.

I’ve also begun to consider the ethics of the things I make for myself. Where did the wool I knit with come from? Who spun and dyed it? The ethics of handmade are just as difficult to wade through as high street fashion. I try to buy wool that is reared, spun and dyed in the UK. I like to buy from independent makers, small businesses that share my view of the world (or at least I hope they do).

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Seek out small batch, local wool that has been minimally processed

There are dozens of books and websites around to guide you through your  ethical wardrobe dilemmas, but no clear cut answers. The approach I’ve adopted is this.

  • Shop wisely. Buy what you need, and when you can, choose retailers with strong ethical and environmental principles.
  • Look after what you have. Follow the care labels, mend, patch and replace zips and buttons when necessary.
  • Ask questions about where your clothes / wool / fabric came from
  • Throw nothing away (but see below). Everything can be repurposed, old towels can be cut down into facecloths and make great alternatives to paper kitchen towel. Cotton sheets can be used as dusters.  Old woolly jumpers make great liners for hanging baskets. Explore your resourceful side!
  • Buy natural fibres. When you do finally throw “stuff” away remember acrylic  never degrades, man made fibres won’t rot down.

 

If you want more advice about making ethical wardrobe choices check out Safia Minney’s book “Slow Fashion” or read Lucy Siegle’s ethical and green living columns for the Guardian such as this one. Visit Labour behind the Label‘s website or check out Fashion Revolution’s 2017 campaign resources.

If we all start to ask questions about where our clothes come from (and what happens to them after we’re finished with them)  that’s a start to building a more ethical wardrobe isn’t it?

* It’s certainly not the only high street store with a poor record on environmental and human rights.