Many times I've said that shiny superwash merino singles are my favorite yarn to work with. In the past few months I've begun thinking about the sustainability of the so-called luxury yarns. I'm the world's laziest hand washer and will chuck just about anything in the washing machine. But does everything have to be machine-washable? How often do you need to wash shawls, for example? Does luxury have to mean environmentally harmful? In last week’s blog post I examined five reasons why superwash yarn is harmful for the environment. This week I’ll look into three sustainable alternatives to superwash yarns to start reducing your environmental footprint.
#1. Eco-friendly Superwash Yarns (Yes, They Exist!) The main reason why superwash yarns are environmental harmful is the treatment method itself: the chlorine-Hercosett process (read last week’s blog post for specifics). Today, the overwhelming majority of machine-washable wool is produced using the Hercosett treatment because it's fast, cheap, and effective.
However, in recent years other, less hazardous superwash treatment methods have been developed. One of these is the EXP process, invented by the Schoeller Spinning Group, which eliminates the use of chlorine by using natural salts instead. Another method, developed by Richter Kammgarn GmbH, uses low-temperature plasma in place of chlorine and eliminates the use of all hazardous chemicals, reducing water and air pollution.
As for the resin coating superwash-treated wool, there have been some preliminary efforts to develop bio-based polymers but these are not yet in widespread industrial use. But here's another problem: you won't find this information listed on the ball band. How can you tell if the machine-washable yarn you're thinking of buying is eco-friendly? The EXP process is the first superwash method to fulfill the strict guidelines of the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) or Eco-Standard certificates. If the ball band has one of these labels, the yarn is produced sustainably even if it's machine-washable.
#2. Felt-Resistant Fibers Another alternative is to use fibers and yarns that are naturally resistant to felting and therefore don't need the superwash treatment in the first place. Plant fibers, such as cotton, are an obvious choice but they both come with a heap of environmental concerns of their own. Some animal fibers, such as mohair or long wools, are also resistant to felting. A common misconception is that alpaca yarn doesn’t felt but this is not quite true. Alpaca fiber has smaller and fewer scales compared to sheep’s wool so it doesn’t felt as easily as wool does. Beware, though, that there are differences between alpaca types so make a swatch before chugging your favorite alpaca sweater in the washing machine. And believe it or not there are also types of sheep's wool varieties that don’t felt! This spring a new type of Down-type wool resistant to shrinking and felting was presented at the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival. While yarn produced from these Down-type wools might be hard to come by now, I’m sure they will become more prevalent as the fiber industry in whole moves away from harsh treatment processes towards more natural and sustainable alternatives.
#3. Think Before You Wash The third alternative might seem like such an obvious one but I feel this one has the potential to have the most impact: becoming more conscious — and conscientious — of what yarn to buy for what purpose, how often a knitted item needs to be washed, and what method to use when washing woolens. A baby sweater for a relative who is not used to handwashing? By all means get that superwash yarn… but preferably one with a GOTS certificate. A cardigan for yourself? Most likely you know how to care for woolens and non-machine-washable yarns. If the garment isn’t visibly dirty or doesn’t stink, airing it regularly will suffice with a handwash once or twice a year. An old way of washing wool items in the Nordic countries was snow washing: laying them in and covering with fresh snow. Sadly this option becomes less and less viable as the effects of climate change and global warming get more severe.
Resources for Finding Eco-Friendly Yarns I’ve set up a Pinterest board called Sustainable Knitting in which I collect articles and other resources related to eco-concisous and ethical yarns, slow fashion, and building a sustainable handmade wardrobe. Here are couple of more links to help you find sustainable yarn alternatives for your next knitting project.
I for one am starting to re-define my meaning for the words luxury yarn. I looked up the dictionary definition for 'luxury': a state of great comfort or elegance. What’s more comforting than knowing your favorite sweater is made with wool from ethically treated animals and processed and dyed sustainably?
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