Julia writes a feature for Knitting Magazine
NATURAL, ORGANIC AND SUSTAINABLE YARNS
Organic, certified organic, biodynamic, virgin wool, eco, eco-wool, sustainable, natural – all phrases bandied around the "green" message but what, exactly, do they mean and, more importantly, what do they mean for the hand knitter? The textile industry is one of the top ten polluters in the world. Can we, as hand knitters and crafters make a "green" difference? The answer is: yes – we definitely can, but first we need to look at what it all means and what's available to us.
Organic and certified organic – is there a difference? In a word: yes!
Organic farming means that the use of artificial chemical fertilisers and pesticides are severely restricted. Organic farmers rely on developing a healthy, fertile soil and growing a mixture of crops; animals are reared without the routine use of drugs, antibiotics and wormers and, in the case of sheep, organophosphate dips common in intensive livestock farming. Genetically Modified (GM) products are not allowed and – as a last resort – only seven of the hundreds of pesticides available to farmers are permitted (The Soil Association only allows four).
Certified organic means that, in addition, detailed records of every stage of production must be kept and, crucially, all of the above is inspected annually by a third-party certifying agency (such as The Soil Association).
Biodynamic – a less well known certification which, in addition to the certification processes of organic farms, also takes into account the broad ecological perspective of the land and the cosmic influences and rhythms. In addition at least 80% of livestock must be fed from the farm and soil health is improved by the addition of enlivened compost.
Virgin wool – an interesting term, probably invented by marketers, which, literally, means that the wool has never been processed, woven or refined into fabric. It could be argued that this term describes all knitting wool!
Eco – another recently coined term which covers manufacturing using environmentally friendly processes under Free Trade conditions. It can also cover recycled clothing and even eco-fleece made from recycled soda bottles!
Eco wool – wool taken from free range roaming sheep (are there any others?!) which have not been dipped and the wool has not been treated with chemicals, dyes or bleaches. Eco wool comes in the fleece's own natural colours.
Sustainable – the term "sustainable" is very subjective. It covers clothing that reduces environmental impact, supports and nourishes the earth and the people involved in making it; it can cover reusing, recycling, organic, fair trade and animal welfare but it isn't necessary to have them all together.
Natural – covers all fibres that grow in nature (cotton, wool, hemp, alpaca, silk etc). The processing of these fibres is done with as few chemicals and harmful impact on the environment as possible.
So, where does this leave the hand knitter? Let's look at yarns produced by animals first.
The "greenest" way to knit is, without doubt, to have your own sheep, shear them yourself, wash, card and hand spin the fleece on a spinning wheel. Or, if you don't happen to have a couple of sheep roaming your back garden!, check out your local farmers' market – it's amazing to find how much local wool is available and how many enthusiasts are out there and it's always nice to meet the people who actually look after the sheep whose wool you are knitting. The Guild of Spinners, Weavers of Dyers (www.wsd.org.uk) is a good source of local information.
The next greenest is certified organic wool. Certification means that every stage in the wool's production – from the grass the sheep eat, the care the sheep receive, the washing, carding, spinning and dyeing of the fleece – is done under organic standards and has been independently inspected by a certified agency. If the sheep need to be treated for fly strike (within the 3 months prior to shearing) their wool is not certified as "organic" and cannot be sold as such.
In the UK there are two main producers of British organic wool: Cornish Organic Wool and Garthenor Organic Pure Wool, both certified by The Soil Association. Cornish Organic Wool, as the name suggests, provides wool from sheep in Cornwall and the wool is spun and dyed in the county too. Their wool is cream and they were recently accredited for dyed wool and are currently launching their range of 8 new colours. Garthenor is based in Wales, which is also where their wool is spun, and they take their wool from flocks of traditional and rare breed sheep and concentrate on the natural sheep colours. Both these companies sell their wool on-line and through selected retailers. There are other small producers around the country, most of whom also sell on-line.
Eco wool comes between organic and non-organic wool in that the wool is un-dyed and only natural products have been used in the processing. As there is no legal definition of "eco" it is hard to know which products have actually been used and there is no traceability to find out exactly where wool labelled "eco" may have come from. Sirdar, giants in the hand-knitting industry, have recently launched their Eco Wool which is made from 100% un-dyed Virgin Wool and is made for them in Germany. It is being introduced through Sirdar stockists this year.
Going slightly down the scale is non-organic wool. If you can manage to find locally sourced hand-spun wool, which is not certified organic, it will, in all probability, be very "green". However, commercially produced "Pure Wool" or "Virgin Wool" or even "Lambswool" may not be as "green" as you'd like to think. It all goes back to the sheep in the field and, going through all the stages, your wool may have some or all of the following in it: chemicals ingested into the sheep from the grass it eats, poured onto the sheep to avoid fly-strike, bleach to remove any marks and get the wool a uniform colour, detergents to wash the wool, oils to make the spinning easier, chemicals used in the dyeing, shrink-proofing (to make your wool machine washable) and, finally, moth-proofing so it doesn't get eaten in a warehouse somewhere! That's quite a cocktail. Many people who think they're allergic to wool may, in fact, be allergic to the chemicals in the wool.
And then there's mulesing. As the aim of this article is to give you, the consumer, an informed decision the subject of mulesing cannot really be avoided.
Sheep are prone to fly-strike – basically, the flies will land on the smelly, dirty part of the sheep (usually their bottoms) and lay their eggs. When the larvae hatch they burrow into the sheep's warm flesh. They will then, literally, eat the sheep alive. Sheep dips were developed in order to prevent the flies landing but, as history has revealed, the environmental damage caused by these dips and the reported nerve damage to human operators was appalling and, although Synthetic Pyrethroid Sheep Dip is currently banned in the UK, organophosphate dips are still in use.
Mulesing is an alternative method of avoiding fly strike, which was developed in Australia in the 1930's. Basically, it is the surgical removal of strips of wool-bearing wrinkle skin around the tail of the sheep. The Australian wool trade describes this practice as a vital part of sheep husbandry and that it would be exceptionally cruel not to mules sheep. Animal rights campaigners say it is barbaric and increased resources into alternative anti-flystrike methods would result in equivalent or better welfare than today. It is worth noting that large retailers, notably Marks & Spencer, have called for mulesing to be abolished and their new range of organic knits come from non-mulesed flocks. Mulesing has already been phased out in New Zealand.
It is, at the moment, impossible to know if the merino wool you buy for hand knitting comes from mulesed flocks or not. If the wool comes from Australia, there is an 80% chance that it does.
Moving onto different fibres, the three others most readily available in the UK are alpaca, silk and cashmere.
There are currently no organic standards for camelids but The Soil Association has recently taken the decision to write up their standards so organically certified alpaca should be available in the UK within a couple of years or so. In the meantime, there are some excellent sources of local and international alpaca. A quick search on the internet will bring up any number of dedicated alpaca owners who are spinning their own yarn and selling it. On a slightly bigger scale UK Alpaca buys fibre from British alpacas and has it all processed and spun in Britain and it's available both on-line and from a selection of good wool shops in both natural shades and a handful of dyed colours. Many companies – including Designer Yarns' Mirasol collection – have alpaca ethically produced in Peru and other South American countries but you then have the air miles to take into account!
Silk is an interesting fibre as it is generally compared with cotton (or equivalents) but is, of course, produced by silk worms. Animal welfare groups have expressed concern about silk production for some time as, once the silkworm has constructed its cocoon, it is killed by immersion into boiling water so the continuous piece of silk it has woven isn't broken when it emerges from its cocoon. To make one pound of the finest silk, 2,600 silkworms must die.
Peace silk, otherwise known as vegetarian silk, is made from silk where the moths are allowed to make their way out of the cocoon naturally. As this results in the continuous thread of silk being broken, the fibre is spun rather than being reeled onto a spool in one continuous strand. Yarn incorporating peace silk is available to hand knitters but you need to hunt for it! There is currently no organic silk as standards have yet to be finalised.
Labour rights and Fair Trade organisations are also concerned about the exploitation and low wages often paid to silk textile workers as most silk production now takes place in China.
Finally, the other natural "wool" readily available is cashmere but, sadly, unless you can find locally produced Scottish cashmere this really is the most un-environmentally friendly yarn of them all. Most cashmere is now produced in Mongolia and, having traditionally been produced by nomadic farmers, is now produced in vast flocks, to supply the massive western market. There are now over 25 million cashmere goats in Mongolia (10 times the sustainable number) and 2,600 cashmere processing factories in China. The Mongolian Alashan Plateau is rapidly turning into a desert and dust bowl and the environmental damage caused by China's massive industrial revolution is well documented. So, even if your pure cashmere for knitting seems incredibly expensive, the damage to the world's environment is far, far higher.
Moving onto yarns produced from plants the most obvious is cotton. Starting with the "greenest", we're looking at organic cotton.
Organic cotton farmers have found that there is no need to rely on the dangerous chemicals used in "conventional" cotton farming. Pests are kept under control by natural methods – black ants, natural soap, chilli and extracts from local trees are amongst the methods used. Organic farmers also tend to grow on a smaller scale and do not use expensive harvesting machines, as a result many are reporting higher incomes.
Two organic cotton yarns are readily available for the summer 2008 season. Rowan Purelife and Sublime Organic cotton dk. Both yarns are fully accredited by international standards - bioReâ and SKAL respectively. Rowan's Purelife is grown in India and naturally dyed, using organic dyes, in Italy and comes in eight shades. Sublime Organic cotton dk is also grown in India and dyed, using environmentally friendly products, in Germany and also comes in eight shades. Both will be available from good wool shops throughout 2008.
Hemp is the, as yet, un-sung hero of the "green" market. Hemp is easy to grow organically and the processes used to turn the fibre into fabric are done without damaging individuals or the environment. Sadly, modern methods are being developed which rely on chemical rather than mechanical processing methods because they are faster, less labour-intensive and, therefore, less expensive. However, most hemp manufacturers in Eastern Europe – notably Romania and Hungary – still use the traditional mechanical processes. A quick trawl of the internet should find the enthusiast some hemp for knitting – notably from The House of Hemp in Cornwall – www.houseofhemp.co.uk - which guarantees that their hemp crop is grown without pesticides or herbicides and the finishing and spinning is completed using natural potato starch.
Bamboo and Soy Silk are being bandied around as the latest "eco" yarns but, looking into their production in further detail, the manufacturing processes they go through raise environmental and health concerns because of the strong chemicals used.
Bamboo is, undoubtedly, an environmentally friendly plant but the chemical solvents used to "cook" the plant into a viscose solution that is then reconstructed into cellulose fibre do raise concerns. There is a small amount of bamboo fibre on the market which is prepared using enzymes, however most bamboo fibre is chemically regenerated and these processes require sodium hydroxide, carbon disulfide and, from the little information one is able to gather, other chemicals including sulphuric acid. Many textile experts say that bamboo is nothing more than rayon made using bamboo as the source of cellulose. The only advantage is the growing of the bamboo.
Soya is very similar but it is difficult to ascertain exactly how the fabric is made – most web sites extol the virtues of the fabric but fail to explain exactly what goes into its production. It is likely, though, that very similar processes are applied to soy production as are applied to bamboo. Again, the growing of the soya plant is, undoubtedly, good as it adds nutrients to soil and does not require pesticides but what happens after that may be questionable.
Once again, most bamboo and soy fibre is produced in China so there is concern about the potential exploitation of low paid workers.
Finally, we move on to non-organic cotton, which has been used by hand knitters for many years and is produced by most well-known yarn companies. Sadly, cotton is at the bottom of the scale when it comes to "green"; in fact, it could be said that cotton is way off the bottom of the scale. Approximately 25% of the world's insecticides and 10% of the world's pesticides are used in the world's cotton production. Furthermore, it takes at least 8,000 chemicals to turn the raw material into clothes – which we then put next to our skin. In addition, the cocktail of chemicals is causing poisoning to thousands of workers who work on cotton production, often resulting in their death. In short, non-organic cotton is not good!
So, with all the information to hand – what is the hand knitter to do?
It is possible, with a bit of research, for hand knitters to only knit with organic or locally sourced yarns and this is the best option ethically and environmentally. If that seems unrealistic, it would make a real difference if every hand knitter in the UK (or, better, the world!) committed themselves to knitting one (or, better, two) garments a year out of either locally sourced or organic yarn.