Did you know that in America alone, over 40 million people knit or crochet? That’s a lot of yarn. Unfortunately, the nemesis of sustainable crochet is yarn. There is a huge amount of controversy around almost every angle surrounding sustainable yarn, but there are a few undeniable issues that we need to talk about, so we will stick to those in this article.
What we talk about in this 6-part series:
- Sustainable crochet: what is it and why do it?
- The nemesis of sustainable crochet: yarn
- The cotton conundrum: organic vs. conventional cotton
- The slow yarn movement: an overview
- 10 tips to more sustainable crochet
- My top 10 under $10 sustainable yarns
What we’ll talk about in this article – part 2 of 6:
The top 5 challenges and solutions involving yarn and it’s production processes:
- Challenge #1: Synthetic vs. natural yarn
- Challenge #2: How yarn is enhanced – dye & superwash
- Challenge #3: How the people are treated – the ethics
- Challenge #4: How the animals are treated – the ethics
- Challenge #5: How the earth is treated – the ethics
I used to work for a major corporate bank. Rather than referring to things as “problems”, they used the term “opportunities”. I actually love that. It’s such a mind-shift way of looking at something that would otherwise seem futile. By looking at a challenging situation as an opportunity makes solutions to the problems seem achievable. It takes a lot of the power out of it when you simply refer to it using a term that implies positivity.
That’s how I look at this situation with yarn. There are many challenges that face the reality of fully sustainable crochet… all of them opportunities to do it better. And all of them have achievable solutions or accessible alternatives. I will address the five biggest challenges and offer solutions to each.
Let’s dive in.
Challenge #1: Synthetic vs. Natural Yarn
By far, the biggest issue surrounding crochet and all fiber arts, is the fiber. Yarn type is segmented between natural (cotton, wool, hemp, etc) and artificial/synthetic/man-made (acrylic, polyester, nylon, etc).
The most common yarn you find in craft stores is acrylic which is an artificial fossil-fuel fiber produced using coal-based and petroleum chemicals. It is cheap, low-quality and toxic to the people who make it. Other synthetic yarns include nylon, polyester, polyamide, elastic, microfiber, modal, rayon, and spandex. 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.
So what kind of sustainable yarn should we use instead?
Natural Yarn: There is a huge assortment of natural yarn. Animal fibers include but are not limited to: alpaca, camel, cashmere, llama, mink, mohair, silk, wool and yak. Plant fibers include but are not limited to: cotton, hemp, linen, bamboo, eucalyptus, and banana.
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 fiber, however, we definitely need to take into consideration whether or not the plants or animals were grown and treated in a respectable way and how the yarn is processed. We’ll talk about that next.
Recycled yarn: In addition to natural yarn, there is another exciting kind of sustainable yarn – recycled. Recycled yarn (also called upcycled) may (or may not) be made from synthetic materials, but keeps those 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.
The only time you’ll find me using a synthetic yarn or stuffing is if it is recycled. I don’t love that it had to be made in the first place, but I love that I’m re-using it instead of it going to the waste pile!
And guess what…there is a certification for that! Recycled Claim Standard (RCS) and The Global Recycled Standard (GRS) are voluntary standards that are available for yarn sourcing companies to participate in. In order to be considered GRS, a company must use verified recycled materials (pre-consumer or post-consumer), meet responsible production criteria including social and environmental processing requirements and chemical restrictions, as well as other requirements.
It is important to know that there are many recycled yarns out there that don’t hold the official certification. I personally believe that is 100% okay. One of my favorite yarn brands – Hoooked – whose entire ethos surrounds recycled and plant-based yarns, doesn’t hold the GRS certification but I still trust the brand entirely.
GOTS certified yarn: Look for yarn that is GOTS certified. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibers. I highly respect this certification because it’s requirements are extensive – beginning with the harvesting of the raw materials, and continuing through the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, trading and distribution of the textiles. You can read the entire 33 page standard manual here.
Personally, I sort of consider the GOTS certification the golden ticket to choosing sustainable yarn. It basically takes all the issues we talk about in this article and solves them. Well, I guess it doesn’t SOLVE them, but it assures you that the yarn you’re about to buy wasn’t a culprit in any of the challenges we talk about here.
Challenge #2: How yarn is enhanced – dye & superwash
Many dyes (both synthetic and natural) require an additive – also called a mordant – in order for the dye to bind to the yarn. Many mordants contain toxic heavy metals which can be highly carcinogenic. Honestly, the only 100% eco-friendly choice regarding dye is to choose non-dyed yarn.
GASP. I know, it just isn’t realistic.
There are two approachable solutions to the yarn dye challenge:
1) Choose yarns that are OEKO-TEX certified
OEKO-TEX consists of 17 independent research and test institutes in Europe and Japan who work together to develop test methods for the textile and leather industry. Their goal is to create trust in textiles through increased product safety, sustainable production and transparency. They have several different certifications that a textile can achieve.
Their most well known certification is their OEKO-TEX STANDARD 100 which means that the textile has been tested for harmful substances and is harmless for human health. In my opinion, that’s a start, but certainly doesn’t hit the mark for me when it comes to choosing a sustainable yarn.
I’m more impressed by their OEKO-TEX MADE IN GREEN certification which not only assures that the textile is made of materials that have been tested for harmful substances, but also assures that the product has been manufactured in environmentally friendly facilities under safe and socially responsible working conditions. Also, that the supply chain is traceable and transparent. Love it.
2) Choose recycled yarns
Recycled yarns carry with them the color of the previously dyed fabric they are made from. Most recycled yarns are made with sustainability in mind, so they aren’t dyed again.
Why did it have to happen that we took a beautifully sustainable and eco-friendly yarn (WOOL) and totally ruin it? Superwash wool yarns are not sustainable. Period. We took something that was totally biodegradable and coated it in plastic.
Why did they do it? Because wool shrinks and that’s not very convenient now, is it? It shrinks because it felts. Wool has tiny scales that grab onto each other when they are rubbed together. The scales on wool are THE things that make wool so magic! The benefits of wool that we’ve all come to know and love include but are not limited to: warmth, moisture wicking, fire resistant, odor resistant, stain resistant, UV resistant.
And most of these benefits are achieved by the presence of the magic scales. But these awesome little scales do not behave well when we want to wash and dry the fabric in the machine because, again, when they are rubbed together (which happens vigorously in the washer and dryer), they grab onto each other which shrinks the fabric – felting.
Felting is a fun fiber art in and of itself, but felting is trouble when it comes to yarn if we want something to be machine-washable and shrink-resistant. So, the powers that be decided to come up with a process to deal with these clever little scales, so the wool would become machine washable and dry-able. Unfortunately, when this process is done, we also say bye-bye to all the above said natural benefits of the fiber AND make it non-sustainable in the process.
To achieve a washable wool that doesn’t felt, you can either get rid of the scales or coat them in something which prevents them from grabbing onto each other. Most superwash techniques do both via the Chlorine-Hercosett process. During this process the fiber is chlorinated with chlorine gas or a chlorine acid bath, followed by the application of a polymer plastic resin (usually Hercosett 125) to coat the fibers. This process uses far more water and energy than traditionally processed wools and the hazardous chemicals create toxic waste. Also, now, every time that great machine-washable wool garment is washed, it sheds some of that toxic coating into our water supply.
You can read all about the chemical process of superwash wool, but the point is that it alters the fiber, masking all its beautifully natural characteristics making it non-sustainable, all while polluting the earth. Boo.
We love superwash because it “enhances” the wool in 3 main ways: makes it machine washable and dryable, makes it take dye beautifully because those pesky waxy scales are not trying to repel it, and it makes the wool softer because those scales are flattened and coated.
But is it really worth it?
So much of the reason why we crochet beautiful garments with wool is because we inherently know how amazing the fabric is. But when you buy superwash wool, all of these things go out the window with the toxic superwash muck.
So how do we address the superwash challenge?
1) Avoid buying superwash wool
When you buy wool, pass up the ones that involve “superwash”. You’re probably investing hours into making that gorgeous wool garment – isn’t it worth it to spend 10 minutes hand-washing it and laying it out to dry in order keep the beautiful properties of it’s wool fabric? Probably.
2) There are some newer alternative superwash processes
If you insist on buying superwash, there are some positive advancements being made to introduce more eco-friendly and sustainable ways of doing it. I’m still not the biggest fan of it either way since no matter what it requires extra processing which equals extra energy and resources. AND, no matter what it still ruins the super special properties of natural wool.
BUT, if you insist, here are 2 more sustainable superwash processes to keep your eye out for:
EXP Process: “EXP” stands for EX-Pollution. Instead of chlorine, this process uses natural salts as the oxidizing agent to remove the scales, and then adds polymer patches on the surface of the yarn to make it machine washable. The “ecological” polymer is still suspect, but it’s supposedly more eco-friendly than the traditional ones used in the Chlorine-Hercosett process. EXP is also the first wool finishing process to meet the GOTS standards which is encouraging.
Naturetexx Plasma Process: Designed for merino wool, this technology uses only air and plasma to modify the wool. Powered by renewable energy, this process sounds totally and sublimely sci-fi. On their website they describe the process as follows,
“A plasma field is generated by discharging a voltage between two electrodes in a special machine. Carefully prepared wool passes through the plasma field where electrons and ions in the plasma interact with the wool fibre. They alter the friction profile of the fibre surface, removing the normal felting effect of untreated wool.”
Cool, huh? This Naturetexx Plasma process is both GOTS certified and OEKO-TEX certified!
Unfortunately there’s no clear labeling when one of these alternative processes are used. But, if the title involves “superwash” AND the yarn is labeled GOTS certified, you can be sure it was processed using an alternative, more sustainable superwash method.
Challenge #3: How the people are treated – the ethics
The textile industry is one of the largest economic markets in the world, generating $450 billion and employing over 25 million people around the world. Fair labor is a massive social justice issue that is rampant in many industries – and the textile industry is no exception. Shockingly, only $3 billion of that $450 billion in revenue is considered fair trade or environmentally stable.
At a more micro-level, the textile yarn market is valued at $12 billion. It is very intertwined with the general textile industry, where there is a huge focus on the actual creation of garments versus the making of the yarn. The issues surrounding the textile industry are largely due to fast fashion and the increasing demand of cheaply made, and constantly evolving trendy apparel. More on slow fashion and the slow yarn movement later in series part 4.
In the massive textile industry, sweatshops are still rampant. Workers are obligated to work 10-18 hours per day for very low pay. They work in unhealthy conditions where they are exposed to toxic materials in unventilated areas. They also endure debilitating overuse injuries because of poor ergonomics and eye strain. The exploitation is devastating.
And don’t even get me started on the topic of women in the textile industry where they are paid even less and are victim to more extreme physical and verbal abuse than men. Many of them receive no grace for maternity needs.
And although much of this isn’t technically forced labor, employees stay in these horrific conditions because opportunity is scarce in developing countries and they need to keep any job that will provide for their families.
In the US we are fortunate enough to have strict labor laws, and several other countries do as well. Many countries have labor laws but little accountability for enforcement. And still in most countries, there are no regulations and certainly no enforcement of fair labor.
So, what is there to be done about it?
Yarn + Fair Trade
In short, fair trade is an approach to trading where there is a partnership between producers + traders and businesses + consumers. The principles surrounding fair trade ensure that the people and the planet are put first. There is a Fair Trade certification that can be earned, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find easily accessible sustainable crochet yarn suppliers that are registered as Fair Trade certified. They are out there, but I’m not going to lie – for me, it just isn’t practical. And practical crochet is my thing. I want to provide you with options that are sustainable AND accessible.
Fair trade in its own right, however, is a model that can be followed even without the official certification process. And you can definitely find sustainable yarn suppliers that are committed to the principles surrounding fair trade (as seen in the colorful image above). The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification which we talked about earlier, is more readily found in the yarn world (organic yarn) and has clear criteria around fair treatment of workers in order to earn their certification. This is probably the most black and white way of ensuring the yarn you’re buying was produced with respect for the workers who made it.
You can also research the companies themselves. Many sustainable yarn companies place a high emphasis on where they source their yarn, how workers are treated and how the yarn is processed, but may not officially hold certifications in these areas. For example, Rowan is a company I use for sourcing some of my 100% cotton DK. And although they aren’t certified fair trade or even certified organic, I know they only source their fibers from companies that place a high importance on the ethics surrounding how the people, animals and land are treated, so I feel good about using the yarn I buy from them.
Challenge #4: How the animals are treated – the ethics
Wool is the most popular yarn made from animal fiber. Although wool is an amazing and sustainable fiber, there are important ethical considerations to be made when you choose what wool sustainable yarn you will use.
Most of the world’s wool comes from Australia where, unfortunately, a process called “mulesing” hasn’t been legally prohibited. The most commonly raised sheep in Australia are merinos who have been bred to have wrinkly skin so that they produce more wool; more skin = more wool. This wrinkly skin collects urine, dung, and moisture which attracts flies who lay their eggs in these folds of skin. The eggs hatch into maggots who then eat the sheep’s skin, often leading to death. This infestation is called “flystrike”.
In order to prevent flystrike, the ranchers perform a horrific procedure – often without painkillers – where they restrain a sheep upside down and carve large chunks of skin away from the sheep’s rear-end with metal shears when they are lambs between 2-10 weeks old. This procedure is called mulesing and is an incredibly painful mutiliation. Mulesing is an attempt to make the sheep’s skin smoother and not grow wool around the hind end in order to lessen the threat of flystrike. But even so, many sheep still become infested with maggots and die.
Because of the issues with flystrike, some veterinary associations in Australia recognize the benefits of mulesing to the welfare of the sheep, but doing it without the use of painkillers is simply unacceptable. There are alternative ways of dealing with flystrike that don’t involve mutilating the animal. The most profound of them being to choose to farm more flystrike resistant, plain bodied sheep without skin wrinkles versus sheep that have been purposefully bred for unnaturally wrinkly skin in order to increase wool yield.
Another option is dagging (aka crutching) where the wool around the tail and between the legs of the sheep is sheared more often to prevent it from getting mucked up with urine and poo which is what attracts the flies. Also, they can be spray washed to keep them cleaner.
When you buy wool, ensure it is non-mulesed. Australia is the only country in the world where mulesing is practiced but there are definitely merino farmers in Australia that produce non-mulesed wool – so just make sure you know before you buy! If you see on the label that the wool was sourced from Australia but doesn’t specify it is from non-mulesed sheep, they are likely to have undergone this barbaric procedure.
And again, if the the wool is GOTS certified, you know its non-mulesed and good to go.
Challenge #5: How the earth is treated – the ethics
Second to oil, the textile industry is one of the largest contributors to harmful environmental effects. Mass produced synthetic yarns like acrylic and polyester use chemicals, oil and energy to a degree that is not ecologically sustainable. These yarns are also not biodegradable, giving them a big strikethrough on the list of sustainable crochet yarns.
Conventional cotton, when not managed well, is also suspect on the list of sustainable yarn due to its effect on the land. Even though it is natural and fully biodegradable, the amount of water, pesticides and insecticides used to grow conventional cotton can contaminate the earth and kill massive amounts of biodiversity in the soil. The topic of cotton is so important that I’ve dedicated the entire next post in this series to it so I will leave it at that for now.
Now that you know all about the ethical issues with how sheep are treated, you should also know about the impacts sheep farming has on the planet. Raising sheep for wool has contributed to an unhealthy amount of land clearing – cutting down trees to make room for grazing, which causes erosion and a decrease in biodiversity.
Also, sheep – like cows – release significant amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere. In Australia and New Zealand, where huge flocks of sheep are raised, the amount of manure generated by them has significantly contributed to greenhouse gases over the past 250 years.
As you can see, even natural fibers create challenges in the sustainable yarn world.
So, where do we go from here?
I feel like I need to look at you and say, “take heart.”
Because right now we’re at that point in the movie where everything is coming to a climax and the outlook seems grim. At this point are you thinking, “so is there even one sustainable yarn that is going to make the cut?” The answer is an enthusiastic, “YES!”
I know there’s a lot to learn. I commend you for doing the work to become educated. And I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, whatsoever. I certainly didn’t know all this stuff when I started to crochet – and I’m constantly learning more all the time.
“Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.”Marian Wright Edelman
This seems like a fitting truth for our topic. Being educated and knowing about the challenges surrounding sustainable yarn is the first step to being empowered to make better choices when it comes to selecting our materials. And this leads me directly into our next topic – and I promise, it’s the last battle scene before the hero enters the picture!
Coming up in part 3 of this series: “the cotton conundrum: organic vs. conventional cotton”.