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OK knit and crochet friends, I have a question for you:
Do you know whether you are choosing safe and sustainable yarns?
If you spin and dye your own yarn, then I envy your knowledge. And you probably don’t need to read this article because you likely know exactly where your yarn comes from and what goes into it.
But the rest of you? Listen up! If you are trying to move towards a more sustainable lifestyle then you may need to reconsider the yarns you use for your knitting and crocheting projects.
But don’t just take my word for it. Here are a few facts about the production of some common yarns:
1-) Acrylic is basically just plastic
If you have been doing yarn crafts for a while, you probably know that acrylic is a “synthetic” yarn. But what does that actually mean?
Like many plastics, acrylic is a polymer formed by the “free radical polymerization” of a monomer (in this case the monomer is “acrylonitrile”). If you remember making little flower necklaces as a kid you can probably recall tying the little flowers together. That’s basically what happens with polymerization…you make a long chain of flowers (the polymer) from multiple single flowers (the monomer).
Of course, the polymer requires additional processing to become the actual yarn. This process is energy demanding, requires organic solvents, and the end result is not biodegradable. Oh, and the acrylonitrile monomer is considered a possible human carcinogen (although this does not necessarily apply to the polymer).
Now, I admit I do use acrylic yarn. It’s inexpensive and widely available. When I first started knitting I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on yarn (nor did I know much about yarns), so acrylic was my go-to choice. But I am slowly phasing it out as I gain more experience and am willing to pay for safer and better quality yarns.
For more information, please read:
2-) Some wool comes from inhumanely treated sheep.
Do you know what “mulesing” is? It’s basically “sheering” the sheep starting from the butt region, but they take skin with it. The argument for mulesing is that it is the most effective way to protect the sheep from an infection called “flystrike” (the infestation of a live mammal by fly larvae). However, mulesing is often done without anesthetic and is traumatic to the sheep. And sadly, whether mulesing is in fact the most effective way of preventing flystrike (or effective at all) is questionable.
Fortunately, many people are speaking out against mulesing and it is being phased out in some places. Finding a yarn brand that uses wool from non-mulesed sheep is not impossible… you just need to do your homework first.
For more information: I have opted to leave links out due to the graphic nature of this topic. Please e-mail me at [email protected] if you would like to talk more on this topic.
3-) Cotton is pesticide-heavy
Did you know that cotton production makes up 2.5% of farmed land but uses 16% of total pesticide use? Yea, gross. And you better believe that those pesticides end up EVERYWHERE: your food, your clothes, the water, and of course, your yarn. In fact, cotton has a reputation for being the “dirtiest” crop in the world.
Aldicarb, parathion, and methyl-parathion are among the most concerning pesticides used in cotton production. The World Health Organization (WHO) categorizes all three of these pesticides as “1a” -the most toxic of the WHO’s categorization system. Aldicarb is so toxic that just one drop absorbed through the skin can kill an adult! It functions by inhibiting the enzyme “acetylcholinesterase,” which is responsible for breaking down the neurotransmitter “acetylcholine” in between nerve cells. Upon exposure to aldicarb (or other acetylcholinesterase inhibitors), acetylcholine builds up in the region between two nerve cells and as a result nerve impulses can’t flow through through the nervous system. It causes nausea, vomiting, cramping, and high blood pressure (among some of the lovely symptoms) and is also an environmental concern.
Fortunately, a few manufacturers supply organic cotton. To ensure that your yarn comes from organic sources, look for cotton yarn that is certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard. The seal looks like this:
For more information, please read:
- this article by the Rodale Institute.
- this report by the Environmental Justice Foundation.
- this summary on aldicarb by Toxipedia.
- the GOTS website on sustainable production of textiles.
4-) Any yarn can be harmful with high impact dyes
Many dyes-both synthetic and natural- require the use of an additive (or “mordant”) in order for the dye to bind to the yarn properly. Unfortunately many mordants contain toxic heavy metals such as chromium, tin, and aluminum. I have to say, I was horrified when I saw that some dyers use potassium dichromate (a chromium-based mordant)…even chemists shy away from that stuff. It’s highly carcinogenic!
Many natural dyes exist that have a lower environmental impact on the environment than chemical dyes. However, many of these “low-impact” dyes still require mordants to bind to the yarn. In addition, even though these dyes have a lower environmental impact, no dye has a zero environmental impact. And even low-impact dyes can be harmful if the dyer does not ensure that the waste is properly disposed of to prevent water stream contamination.
If you want a zero-impact yarn, choose non-dyed yarns. I get it though….most of us want some color in our life! Fortunately, you can find yarns certified by Oeko-Tex, a third-party company that tests and certifies that textiles are free from specified harmful chemicals. The certification is optional, so you’ll know that companies that go through the effort of getting an Oeko-Tex certification are committed to sustainability.
For more information, please read:
- this guide on natural yarns dyeing.
- this article on low-impact dyes.
- this summary of chemical mordants.
- this brief discussion on GOTS versus Oeko-Tex certification.
I hope this post will help guide you make educated yarn choices for your next project…especially if you are trying to lead a more sustainable lifestyle! As always, I’d love to hear from you! What did you already know about the yarn industry that concerned you, and what didn’t you know? What do you look for when choosing a yarn or yarn company? Comment below!
I’ve been considering getting back into knitting and maybe even crocheting and my go-to has always been cheaper acrylic yarn. I never thought it could be plastic in string form. Thank you for breaking the material in yarn!
I really like the layout of your site and how clutter-free it looks. Subscribing as I need help in these areas and I know you’re onto something! 🙂
Go for it! They are such great hobbies!
Most synthetic yarns are in fact plastics (including super soft polyester and nylon). If you’re comfortable with acrylic and don’t want to spend more money on natural/sustainable fibers (some get REALLY expensive!), you could always look for yarns made locally or that support a good cause! Strike a balance that works for you!
Thanks for subscribing! Speaking of yarns, I was thinking making up a printable for my subscribers that lists out companies with sustainable yarn options. Is this something that would interest you?
Tabitha t says
Yes on the list, please! I saw this post and wondered what I should check out instead.
Lou | mallooknits says
Very interesting article! Amazing information, many of which I wasn’t aware of . The brand I use for my most of my projects has an Oeko-Tex certification for their cotton yarn. I will have to check for their wool though. Thank you so much for all that great info!
No problem, I’m glad you found it useful! Oeko-Tex certification is great! Fingers crossed that your favorite wool also has the certification (it probably does if it’s the same brand, but it’s always good to check). Also, I love your site! 😀