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Natural vs. Synthetic Yarn – What You Need to Know

When you walk into a yarn store these days, you might feel either starry-eyed or just completely overwhelmed. There are so many yarn options to choose from that we often just gravitate to the one that feels good to the touch and is a color we like. But what else should we be taking into consideration about the yarn we buy? The big question we should be asking is, “what is this yarn made of?” So, in this article we will cover the difference between natural vs synthetic yarn and fiber – and why it’s important to understand the difference.

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So what is the difference between natural vs synthetic yarn?

Natural yarn is made of fibers that come from nature – animals and plants, while synthetic yarn is made of fibers that are man-made chemical compounds.

There’s a lot of controversy in the textile industry surrounding fibers and how they are produced. And each of the varying types of yarn – both natural and synthetic – have pros and cons regarding their production and the qualities of the resulting fabric they make.

Why is it important to understand the difference between natural vs. synthetic yarn?

I’m a huge fan of making informed decisions. You may be familiar with the concept of “voting with your dollars,” where the view is that everything you buy directly informs the industry about what is going to make them the most money and what should be put out into the marketplace.

Making informed decisions about what we buy and what we’re voting for can only be achieved by being informed, right? A lot of the time we don’t even realize that we aren’t informed or are maybe even MISinformed.

So, in the spirit of being informed…(not in the spirit of judgement)…

By far, the biggest issue surrounding sustainability in the fiber arts industry is the fiber. And sustainability in our craft is an important issue to understand because, IN AMERICA ALONE, over 40 million people knit or crochet. That’s a lot of yarn.

The most common yarn you find in craft stores is acrylic which is a synthetic fossil-fuel fiber produced using coal-based and petroleum chemicals. It is cheap, low-quality and toxic to the people who make it. Synthetic yarn is not eco-friendly or sustainable because it is made from man-made fibers using resources that cannot be sustained forever and are not biodegradable. The processing of these fibers is often highly hazardous to the workers who produce it and to the earth by pollution.

Slow Yarn Movement Sustainable Crochet Image hand dyed yarn hanging up

Alternatively, natural yarn made of plants is sustainable because plants grow back constantly. Natural yarn made of animal hair is sustainable because they continue to re-grow their hair. Natural fibers are biodegradable, meaning they will break down easily into the earth and do not leave behind toxic waste.

With natural yarn, however, we still need to take into account whether or not the plants or animals were grown and treated in a respectable way and how the yarn is processed – which affects the people and the planet alike. There’s a lot to talk about here, but that isn’t what we’re covering in this article. If you want to read more about the challenges (and solutions!) regarding sustainability and yarn, you can read more about the nemesis of sustainable crochet here.

So understanding the difference between natural vs synthetic yarn is important so you can make informed decisions about what yarn you “vote” for with your buying decisions and how you feel about how that yarn was produced.

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Common types of synthetic yarn:

  • Acrylic (made from coal & petroleum chemicals, acrylonitrile or vinyl cyanide; many acrylic yarns contain carcinogens that are absorbed through the skin when worn)
  • Polyester (made from coal & petroleum)
  • Nylon (made from petroleum oil)
  • Microfiber (made from Polyester)
  • Spandex, aka Lycra or Elastane (made from polyurethane)
  • Rayon, including Modal, Viscose and Lyocell (semi-synthetic made from reconstituted wood pulp using sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide)
  • Kevlar (para-phenlenediamine and terephytholoyl chloride yielding hydrochloric acid as a byproduct)

Common types of natural yarn:

Natural yarn made of ANIMAL fibers include but are not limited to:

  • Alpaca (from the fleece of alpacas, this yarn is super durable, free of lanolin and great for warm winter garments)
  • Camel (collected from Bactrian camels by shearing, combing or hand gathering the fiber shed during molting season and is normally blended with other types of yarn)
  • Cashmere (a type of goat originating in Kashmir, India; super luxurious and insulating)
  • Llama (made from the fine undercoat of llama and often blended with other fibers)
  • Mohair (from angora goats, mohair is lightweight and breathable)
  • Silk (a protein secretion from insect larvae)
  • Wool (from sheep, this is the most common kind of animal fiber found on the yarn market)
  • Yak (yak down has a long and rich history being used by nomads in the Tran-Himalayan region for clothing, tents, ropes and blankets. Even warmer than merino wool, yak is commonly blended with other natural fibers)
Eco Friendly and Sustainable Crochet Guide Image sheep profile wool

Natural yarn made of PLANT fibers include but are not limited to:

  • Cotton
  • Hemp
  • Linen (from the flax plant)
  • Bamboo
  • Eucalyptus
  • Banana
  • Soy

Where does recycled yarn fit in?

Recycled yarn is another great sustainable option. Also called “upcycled”, recycled yarn can be made of natural or synthetic fibers – or a blend of both. It is sustainable because it keeps materials out of landfills and oceans and gives them a second life. There are recycled yarns in almost every fiber you can think of – both natural and synthetic.

If you’re interested in knowing more about sustainable crochet and how to integrate it more into your craft, I wrote a 6-part series covering everything you need to know. The series includes lots of tips on how to make simple changes to the way you might be doing things now in order to be more eco-conscious.

Sustainable Crochet 6-part Series:

  1. Sustainable crochet: what is it and why do it?
  2. The nemesis of sustainable crochet: yarn
  3. The cotton conundrum: organic vs. conventional cotton
  4. The slow yarn movement: an overview
  5. 10 tips to more sustainable crochet
  6. My top 10 under $10 sustainable yarns
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