Published on February 20th, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans1
Earth-friendly Yarns for Eco-conscious Knitting
Most knitters know few pleasures greater than working with yarn and needles in hand. Yarn’s beautiful colors and unique texture keep the eye interested, and the repetitive hand motions and soft clicking of needles make for a soothing activity.
Unfortunately, as with most things, there is more to this creatively pleasurable process than meets the eye. Let’s spin out the ethical and environmental issues you face as you skein-up for your next project, and review the latest eco alternatives for earth-conscious knitters…
Wool yarn is sustainable and renewable, and it resists mold and mildew by wicking moisture away from the skin. While wool has many qualities that appeal to the ecologically conscious, there are some downsides to knitting with with it. Once yarn enthusiasts examine the process that yields the rich colors and soft durability of wool, the hobby does not seem quite as wholesome and therapeutic…
Shearing, Mulesing, and Pesticides
In some parts of the world, domesticated sheep have to be sheared to avoid heatstroke and the wool can be harvested without any necessary injury to the animal. With small flocks of sheep, it’s easy for workers to take great care to prevent injury, but larger flocks pose risks for the sheep. In larger operations sheep are often injured during shearing by workers who have limited time on their hands.
Mulesing is a process that truly mars the reputation of wool. A section of skin and wool beneath the tail of the sheep is sliced off in an attempt to prevent insect infestations. In larger flocks, workers perform this operation on the sheep without any sort of anesthesia, in order to prevent flies from laying eggs in their flesh. Hopefully, Australian sheep will be safe from mulesing by 2010, as the practice is being phased out.
Dipping sheep in pesticides to kill or prevent parasites was another controversial practice. This practice was required by law in the past in major wool-producing countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand; however, laws prohibit the use of such dips today.
The horrifying effects of the chemicals in the dips were observed in farmers who administered the treatments and in people whose water sources were adulterated by the chemical run-off. If humans who accidentally ingested the chemicals suffered, imagine the condition of the sheep that were dipped in it! Alternatives like naturally boosting the immune systems of the sheep and keeping infected sheep in a separate pen are in place on many farms today, thankfully.
Cashmere wool is typically harvested by hand-combing wool from a specific breed of Himalayan goat during the molting phase; the process is costly but humane. Some of the goats are shorn but the process is not cost-effective, as much time is needed to cull the pure cashmere fibers from the hair since combing the wool off by hand guarantees purity. The luxurious softness of cashmere fibers is unrivaled—few wools other than cashmere can be worn so comfortably next to bare skin.
- Cashmere yarn often costs anywhere from 3–5 times as much as eco-friendly bulkier-weight wool yarn. For purchases, check Local Harvest for a nearby farm—both cashmere goats and sheep that provide conventional wool enjoy a cruelty-free life in many states and many producers. Local purchases ensure peace of mind on a number of levels, as some cashmere yarns from Mongolia, for instance, travel a great distance.
Alpaca wool makes another great yarn for earth-conscious knitters. Alpaca wool can be dyed but why buy dyed when there are over 75 naturally occurring colors, ranging from shades of white to brown and black to silvery pinks and grays? Fans of alpaca wool claim it is lighter than cashmere and more durable than sheep wool.
Alpacas, which resemble llamas, are raised mostly in South America, primarily for the purpose of harvesting their fibers. Typically, they are not used as working animals in any context. These animals are gentle on the planet and contribute to their surroundings in a sustainable way:
- Their manure is reputed to be excellent fertilizer (if they are fed organic diets)
- Instead of hooves, they walk on soft pads
- They do not uproot grass as they are grazing, so it continues to grow naturally
Other Eco Yarns
To go beyond wool, skip synthetics and poke around the Web for a growing variety of plant-based and recycled options, including:
- Bamboo* For tips, considerations, and purchasing information, visit Knitting with Bamboo Yarn at About.com.
- Hemp and Hemp Blends
- Soy, truly a vegan yarn made from soybeans, available dyed and undyed.
- Recycled Silk, made by respinning leftover fibers from India’s weaving mills. For background info, projects, and product purchasing, check out About.com’s Recycled Silk Yarn page.
* Keep in mind that there are energy costs associated with harvesting and processing some naturally occuring constituents.
For varied texture, look for blends such as bamboo/wool, bamboo/silk, or bamboo/alpaca, and blends of hemp and modal or cashmere. Note that most of these alternative options bring different weight and size considerations to the table—it may take an adjustment period to get used to working with them.
All kinds of green knits are available on-line and in specialty yarn stores. Recycled wool is also sometimes available; one resourceful seller on eBay finds luxurious sweaters at thrift stores and unravels them carefully so that the wool can be reused.
Wool from small flocks and wool from New Zealand and England—where mulesing is either prohibited or considered illegal unless performed by a veterinary surgeon—are other safe options to consider, though finding a local product is best.
When selecting your color palette for a given project, choose naturally occurring shades or other wools and fabrics that have been dyed naturally.
- Natural plant dyes are usually fixed with salt or vinegar, rather than harsh chemicals that irritate sensitive skin.
- Excellent colorfastness and a wide range of vibrant colors are definitely possible with natural dyes.
- Additionally, many natural wool dyes contain inherent antimicrobial properties, which keep harmful germs and bacteria away.