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Sustainable Yarn Crafting

Alexis Hoy

Lately I've been thinking a lot about my impact and my family's impact in terms of the products we use, and particularly the ones we dispose.  Since digging into this, it's feeling for me very much like a party I am SUPER late to, but one whose block-rockin' beats I've been hearing in my periphery for years.  I've finally hit a straw-and-the-camel-back point in our household where I'm ready to get pretty darn militant about it (possibly I stepped on one tiny sharp plastic toy too many - Kinder Eggs, I'm lookin' at you), and I decided to take Yarn Club along with me.  Naturally, Here are some of the things we talked about:

Photo credit: Sara Gresbach

There are two ways that your yarn habit can fit in to your greening efforts.  The first is by making things that will support your waste reduction.  The second is by committing to use only yarn and related supplies that are themselves sustainable.  But first, some key terms!

The Stable Ones The Tricky Ones The Zeitgeisty Ones
sustainability green Slow Fashion
organic ecological (or "eco" or
"eco, friendly, etc.)
recycled upcycled Carbon Footprint
repurposed environmentally-friendly  
GMO (& nonGMO) natural  
fair trade    


Why "stable," "tricky," and "zeitgeisty?" The stable terms are ones whose meanings are easy to get a grip on.  They mean only one thing (although admittedly in Canada, "local" can be a subjective measurement).  The tricky ones are so named because they can be hard to pin down.  They're easily manipulated by advertisers and misinterpreted by consumers.  The zeitgeisty ones are those trendy terms you hear thrown around by the movement-du-jour.  "Slow Fashion" is one that, as a knitter with my particular set of interests, I see come up in my social media feed with great regularity. In our discussion at Yarn Club, a member mentioned that Karen Templer of Fringe Supply Co. blogs often about slow fashion. In Ontario, our local fibreshed movement is the Upper Canada Fibreshed.

The first way to work crafting into sustainability efforts is to make items that will help you on your quest to be more earth-conscious.  Embarking on this topic, I created my little crochet basket using plastic bags as a core to give the fabric the body to hold its shape.  I also enjoyed quick projects like the soap sachet pictured above, and Simply Notable's weightless produce bag.  Another easy thing to do for us yarn enthusiasts is to use up our stash.  Using existing resources rather than buying new ones is an obvious way to decrease the demands on our planet.  Equally, giving away things that you no longer have a use for (de-stashing perhaps??) redistributes existing resources. (Further on the topic of recycling plastic bags, see Milk Bags Unlimited. In Guelph, Dublin Street United Church is collecting for this cause.  Also in Guelph, the Stone Store is the place to go if you are trying to buy without packaging - bring your own containers to fill with bulk food items.)

The above lists the elements you need to consider in determining whether or not a product is sustainable.  Each step in the production chain must be considered.

Sustainable farming is a complicated balance of relationships and resources.  The Union of Concerned Scientists offers a good 101 overview.

Do you remember the bamboo-clothing-craze of the early '00s? I distinctly remember the labelling changing to "Bamboo-sourced Viscose" instead of the much more innocuous sounding "bamboo." Talk about pulling the wool over our eyes.  Bamboo fibre may start out in nature, but the process of turning the fibres from woody plant material into useable fabric is incredibly toxic to the environment and the workers who produce it.  Soy is another example of fibre that comes from a "natural" source but becomes a chemical wasteland on its way to being spun into a yarn.  Not to mention the fact that soy is an extremely pesticide-heavy crop unless it is grown organically.

Natural vs. synthetic dyes is such a can of worms, and I can only nod at it here.  Nor am I really certain there's a good and clear answer to the debate.  However, you can read more about it from Dharma Trading,  from Organic Lifestyle. Bonus points for reading about Rachel Brown's sequential method of acid dyeing, which I find fascinating.

Photo credit: The Rocking Yak

When you're considering the overall impact of a product, you mustn't overlook the impact it has on the workers who are making it.  What chemicals are they being exposed to? What is their working environment like? Are they being compensated fairly? Two companies worth investigating for their contributions in this area are the Mirasol Project, and the Rocking Yak, both of whom are working to support the communities in which they operate beyond the financial aspect.

Ways to reduce the carbon footprint of your project include buying locally produced yarn and tools; using natural fibres such as wool and other animal fibres, or cotton and bast fibres that require minimal processing to render into yarn; choosing yarns that haven't been "superwashed" or "mercerized" which are both chemical processes involving caustic soda.

I pulled these numbers from this article about estimating the total carbon footprint of a fabric.  The upside for us yarny types is that the energy required to turn yarn into fabric is being provided by us! We're so renewable...

A final and straightforward way to keep your knitting/crochet/etc green is to seek out existing resources.  Much like using your stash or even de-stashing unwanted yarn, this reduces demand for new materials and thereby reduces the overall planetary strain of your hobby.  Many people haunt second hand stores looking for sweaters that they can dismantle.  Pro-tip: since many machine-made sweaters are very fine gauge, and the yarn you can unravel from them isn't well suited to hand-knitting (unless you're VERY ambitious and blessed with vast fields of time), a good solution is to befriend someone with a spinning wheel and have them ply several of the yarn strands together to make a thicker yarn to work with.

That's it for me. What are your best green crafting tips?

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