Socially conscious yarn. I knew it would be more difficult than the fabric guide. I just didn’t realize just how much more difficult it would be! When I started the research, I was overwhelmed. I knew I needed to research two types of yarn : hand knitting yarn and machine knitting yarn. Hand knitting yarn is usually found in hanks or skeins. It’s what everyone thinks of when they think yarn. It’s what you see everywhere. Machine knitting yarn is wound on a cone and most often has some sort of sizing on it to keep it as smooth as possible so it doesn’t catch anywhere in the machine mechanisms. You can certainly hand knit with coned yarn and use hand knitting yarn in your machine though.
I started with hand knitting yarn. In all honesty though, compiling a list of ethical hand knitting yarns is almost unnecessary. If you’re reading this and you knit, you should really have a Ravelry account. And if you don’t, get one. Why would I bother trying to google organic yarn when Ravelry has a huge searchable database? That website is possibly THE most awesome website ever. Anyway, I searched the yarn database for organic yarn. That gave me 785 results. 17 pages. And then, I realized that I didn’t need to input the word “organic” in my search. There’s already a search option for it. So I removed my search term and clicked the option. Great. 2508 results. 53 pages. And you want me to sort through that? And I haven’t even begun to search for non-organic stuff. Like recycled polyester and tencel… So yeah. I promise I’ll do this but not this time.
Sustainable Machine Knitting Yarn
So. Machine knitting yarn. Here, the difficulty is actually finding yarn. There aren’t that many people using knitting machines. Knitting machines are usually found in industrial settings so most manufacturers cater to the industry. The cones are 1 kg (over 2 lbs!) and you can’t split them up. I have found a handful of manufacturers and retailers.
Then, when I wanted to find sustainable yarn, I ran into another issue. While the fiber content of a yarn is always listed, more detail is difficult to impossible to find. And none of the ones that say they’re organic have any sort of certification displayed. Fair trade? Forget it. There is absolutely no way to know. I always hope that since we’re going one step up in the textile chain (yarn rather than fabric), there’s less of a negative impact on workers and the environment but really, what do I know?
At this point, all a person can do is weigh the pros and cons of every possibility. So here are some of the main fibers you’ll find and the ethical concerns one may have about each one.
Cotton: if it isn’t organic, it uses a lot of water and pesticides.
Acrylic, nylon, polyester: petrochemical, ’nuff said.
Linen, hemp: I believe these grow quite well and don’t require a whole lot of pesticides and chemicals. Processing them does require a lot of water though.
Silk: Silk is made from moth cocoons so it’s quite natural. I haven’t found any evidence that silk is a polluting fiber. The ethical concern surrounding silk is that the moth larvae are killed. There is something called peace silk that doesn’t kill the larvae and lets them hatch. Though apparently, sometimes, the caterpillars themselves are left to starve.
Wool: Organic wool can be found which is great. This source says that even when it isn’t organic, wool is eco-friendly (note that the source is talking about rugs but wool is wool is wool, right?). But that’s not quite true. Here and here, you’ll see mentioned the use of pesticides on the sheep themselves, the amount of water necessary, and how the sheep can actually overgraze and deplete the land. There are loads of different breeds of sheep and you can find specific breeds when shopping for hand knitting yarn. In cones though, you’ll find “wool”, maybe “lambswool”, and “merino”. Merino is gorgeously soft. Wear against the skin soft. However, there is one ethical concern there : mulesing. From what I understand, if your merino is from Australia, the sheep has likely had the procedure. If it’s from New Zealand, nope. To be sure, mulesing has no impact on the earth but it does have one on the sheep. It’s up to the consumer to decide how they feel about that.
Alpaca: I love alpaca. It can be incredibly soft and is very warm. Apparently, alpacas don’t eat a lot and are very hardy. No need for pesticides. Absolutely everything I’ve read points to their having less of a negative impact than sheep.
Cashmere: Cashmere comes from a goat. It should be a great sustainable fiber but it’s popularity has created some problems.
Rayon: Rayon/viscose is actually made from wood pulp. Lots of heavy duty chemicals are used to process the pulp. Tencel/lyocell is the exact same thing except for the fact that it uses a closed loop system and less harmful chemicals. The impact on the environment ends up being much smaller. Bamboo fiber is made in the exact same way. Bamboo grows well without pesticides so it can be a good choice IF it’s processed the same way as lyocell. Bamboo made the rayon way is just as harmful. The issue with bamboo is that there aren’t two names to differentiate between bamboo-lyocell and bamboo-rayon.
This is actually just a brief overview of available fibers. I haven’t gone into mohair, angora, camel, llama, soy, corn…
The fiber itself is not the end of the story either. There’s the dyeing process that can be either very damaging (chemicals, lots of water) or low impact.
And now, who actually makes coned yarn?
JaggerSpun : Their wool is sourced from USA, Australia, and New Zealand. They have one organic choice : The Green Line, only available in a sport weight, which is at the top end of what my machine will take. It may even be too thick for my machine. When I was a student, I got to try their Maine Line yarn. Knits well but it’s a little bit scratchy. I own loads of their Superfine Merino and it’s absolutely lovely. I wish I knew more about the sheep and the dye though. The website has a list of retailers that carry their yarns.
Silk City Fibers: They carry a very wide variety of yarns. Viscose, bamboo, wool, cotton, linen, acrylic, blends… I’ve never tried them but here are some interesting choices from a sustainable perspective : Ecocot (100% organic cotton, fair trade, dyed in Europe according to ecological standards). Linen (100% linen), Linen 14 (100% linen), Natures Way (100% mulesing free extra fine merino wool). They have a list of retailers on their website.
Yeoman Yarns : UK based, can order directly from their website. I just discovered them while doing research. Through Knit It Now, a US based store I also discovered during research for this article! They carry a wide variety of yarns as well. A lot of them have some acrylic content. They do carry Eco Cotton 2Ply (100% cotton, certified eco), Silk Bourette 4Ply (unwashed pure natural silk), and some 100% merino wools.
Aurora Silk: Silk, of course. They do carry peace (Ahimsa) silk but not in a knitting yarn. They ship internationally.
The above are manufacturers. I did find another one but they didn’t have a website that I could find. Besides, all the yarns of theirs that I saw were acrylic. Below is actually a retailer that carries yarns for which I haven’t found a manufacturer.
Halcyon Yarn: I have ordered from them several times. When a yarn I needed ASAP was back ordered, I called and asked them to remove it from my order and they did, no questions asked. They carry Jagger yarns among others (they don’t seem to have The Green Line though). And no name yarns. One of them is a bamboo that I’ve used. There’s also a tencel yarn that comes in the exact same colors. They also carry silk that I haven’t yet tried. Right now, I’m using their organic cottolin (60% organic cotton, 40% linen) and I’m enjoying it. They also carry a selection of hand knitting yarns.
I have to include Sarah’s Yarns. They carry Jagger yarns and were the ones who were able to supply me with the yarn I needed when Halcyon didn’t have it. Their customer service was friendly and very helpful.
And that’s all I have! If you know of any other manufacturers or retailers who have something special, please do comment. Pleas also comment if you feel some of my information is incorrect or my sources unreliable. After all, I’m just muddling through here and doing my best. I will update this post when new information comes.