Are you using sustainable yarn?
There are a lot of different yarns that you can choose from that may meet your sustainability needs. But what is sustainable yarn? Also, if there is a such thing as sustainable yarn – what counts as unsustainable yarn…?
For the record, I understand that sustainability might not be the first thing on your mind when choosing yarn.
There are a lot of aspects of weaving that require certain types of yarn (strong, absorbent, warm, etc.) Those yarn traits are probably the main thing you are looking for. Unfortunately, some of the more traditional yarns aren’t always the best for our planet. They may require pesticides to grow, use a significant amount of water, or be made from non-biodegradable materials.
The good thing is that we are living in a time where we have access to other choices.
We also live in a time where it feels like you have to pick and choose what “type” of sustainability you are looking for.
Sometimes finding the sustainable yarn option might mean choosing between the fiber that is vegan or that one that requires very little processing. It can be hard to not feel a bit overwhelmed when facing these choices.
Knowing your options is a good first step.
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Natural doesn’t necessarily mean sustainable
That would be too easy.
If you are worried about your weaving footprint, then buying natural yarns over synthetic yarns is a really good place to start.
Natural yarns are those that are either cellulose (made from plants) or protein (taken from animals). As opposed to synthetic yarns that are made from petroleum and plastic.
I talk more about types of yarns in my choosing the right warp post HERE.
While synthetic yarns definitely have their time and place (that is a different post!) their link to petroleum and other fossil fuels plus their tendency to “shed” micro-plastics into our water are problematic. To say the least. Specifically, polyester is known to leach plastic into the water and end up in the fish that you eat!
Just because your fibers are grown instead of created, though, doesn’t make them perfect.
It is important to look at how they are grown and their effect on the environment to really understand their impact.
What to look for in sustainable fibers
How it is grown/ cultivated
Different fibers require vastly different environments and resources. While some may grow easily with little water and little need for pesticides, there are others that may take a toll on the soil by depriving it of nutrients. These crops then require more water to grow.
Plant fibers that take less resources are inherently better for the environment, but they are not your only option.
Sustainability usually describes the impact of the plants used to create your yarn. Another thing to look at is the way the protein fibers that you are using are harvested and the way the animals are treated.
Let’s look at silk
Traditional silk is created by farming silkworms specifically for that purpose. These worms are then boiled and the silk is harvested from their cocoons. There is a different method of silk creation called peace silk that does not kill the worms but instead lets them hatch. In this case, the silk isn’t as long as traditionally harvested silk since the cocoon is broken. The resulting fabric doesn’t have the same shine.
The issue with peace silk, though, is that the silkworms have been raised over centuries purely for the purpose of silk production. Ultimately, they only live a few miserable days after hatching. If you are looking for a more humane option than traditional silk, arguably, a silk alternative would be a better choice.
That being said, if you are not worried about that humane treatment of silkworms (no judgment) then just make sure to look at the other sustainability questions when searching for a silk yarn that you will use.
The fiber’s afterlife
While we all want our yarn and yarn creations to last forever, fiber is inherently ephemeral. This is why we have way less ancient textiles than ancient pottery or metalwork. While they can be preserved to make it last longer, a lot of textiles (notably non-synthetic ones) will break down when exposed to the elements for extended periods of time.
With the exception of woven artwork, this is actually for the best. When your woven towels, blankets, and other textiles are no longer usable it is ideal for them to break down and return to the earth. Otherwise, they end up sticking around indefinitely adding more volume to our overflowing landfills.
Most of your cellulose and protein fibers will be biodegradable. Whereas synthetics either won’t break down or will break down into the micro-plastics mentioned earlier.
What if the fiber is processed and not grown?
While generally most processed yarns are not going to be on the sustainable end of the spectrum, processing doesn’t necessarily make it a bad choice.
When looking at processed yarns it is important to not only think about what the yarn is made from but also how it is made. It is also important to consider the work conditions of those that are making it.
Certain seemingly sustainable yarns are a bit deceptive.
Rayon is one of the biggest examples of this. Due to its shiny nature, it is a good alternative to silk if you are looking for a vegan option. Unfortunately, vegan does not necessarily mean good for the environment.
Rayon initially seems good on paper. It is most often made from bamboo which is known to be one of the most sustainable plants due to its fast-growing nature. That is why it is often marketed as “green”.
While rayon is a cellulose-based fiber, it is essentially lab-created. It is put through a rigorous process to turn cellulose into yarn. During this process, the bamboo is turned into a pulp using potentially dangerous chemicals. Since rayon is made in an open-loop system, these chemicals can leach back into the environment during processing. These same chemicals are also inhaled by the people processing the yarn.
Don’t start to feel lost though! I know it is starting to seem like I am only giving bad news, but there is potentially a better option when looking for more sustainable fibers.
Tencel (brand name for lyocell fiber) is technically a type of rayon because it is a man-made cellulose fiber. Unlike most rayon, though, Tencel is made from sustainable eucalyptus trees in a closed-loop system. This means that the chemicals used to turn eucalyptus into yarn won’t enter back into the environment. The chemicals used are also safer for everyone involved. Overall, it can be a better choice.
Tencel and rayon are also similarly shiny. Rayon could arguably have more luster, but the sustainability of Tencel might outweigh that for you.
Should you buy organic yarn?
Another thing to consider is organic or conventional?
Organic yarn may seem unnecessary if you think about organic purely as a classification for foods that we consume. This is completely understandable!
Since we won’t be consuming cotton or other natural fibers – is it worth it to spend the extra money?
In my opinion? Yes, if you can.
Organic yarns mean that they were grown without the use of pesticides. Textiles won’t be passing on pesticides to our digestive systems, but they have an overall effect on the environment and the wildlife where the fibers are grown. If you take a look at the bigger picture when it comes to organic fibers, they are worth it.
The price of organic yarns (much like organic foods) can be prohibitive for some people, though. So to this, I say: be mindful of what you are using and make the best choices that you can.
Organic vs conventional yarn – cotton
Cotton is one of the most used fibers around the world.
Conventional cotton uses pesticides to deter pests and these pesticides can leach into the surrounding environment and water systems. The pesticides can also linger on the finished cotton and cause skin issues in those with sensitive skin. Overall, conventional cotton is one of the thirstiest plants to produce. It results in 16% of the world’s water usage!
Organic cotton, on the other hand, uses insects that do not harm the cotton to deter the pests that would. It is also grown while utilizing crop rotation which makes the soil healthier and requires a lot less water.
91% less water.
During processing, conventional cotton uses chemicals to clean and dye the cotton and can negatively affect the workers that are processing it. Organic cotton doesn’t have this issue.
Aesthetically, organic cotton is also a more luxurious yarn to weave with! All organic cotton is hand-picked instead of picked by a machine. This makes it so that the longest cotton fibers are preserved resulting in a softer yarn.
Learn more about cotton HERE.
Linen and hemp are also a good choice for sustainable yarn, but just like cotton – organic is even better. Conventional linen and hemp are biodegradable and use less water than conventional cotton. Hemp is also naturally resistant to pests so it requires no pesticides to grow.
You can learn more about linen HERE.
I wish I could say it was easy to always identify the sustainable choice and/ or the right choice for your weaving. Instead, arming yourself with some knowledge and making sure you are making informed decisions is one of the best things that you can do.
These are some of my favorites that I have in my own studio:
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