How I Choose Project Yarn

When I’m shopping for yarn, there is a lot that I consider. I attempt to identify the best choices, then be realistic from there based on what actually exists, is available, and is what I consider to be a reasonable investment. My process is ever-changing too. Sometimes I make more concessions, sometimes I want to be as strict as I can. I almost always start with a project in mind. I don’t think I’ve ever, for example, bought a sweater quantity of yarn then figured out how to use it later – that gives me the straight up willies, I can think of 10 “what if”s that could go wrong. Anywho, here’s a basic list and some information on my decision-making process.

    1. Fiber – After I’ve identified a pattern that I’d like to hitch my wagon to, I figure out what I’d like the fabric to be like. I’m pretty steadfast about using natural fibers – wool, cotton, linen, bamboo. However this is where the gray area creeps in. There are fibers made from natural things like Lyocell, which is a strong fiber made from recycled cellulose that adds sturdiness and shine to yarns, especially sock yarns. A totally natural fiber that I didn’t mention above is silk, but there are some moral/ethical concerns since most silk requires the silk worms to be culled in order to harvest the silk itself. There are companies now that do not need to sacrifice the silk worms in order to get the silk, which may play into my decision making process if possible. Then there are the entirely man-made polymers like nylon and acrylic. Nylon is often added to sock yarn to increase it’s strength and durability. Acrylic yarn is usually very soft and affordable – this is widely available in mainstream craft stores. I generally don’t use acrylic yarn because I don’t like the way it feels, if it gets exposed to flame it could melt (unlike wool which is flame resistant), and I’m not sure how it’s made. Some synthetic fibers are made from a large percentage of post-consumer recycled materials which is great, but it is still true that the raw materials needed to make synthetic fibers are petroleum-based non-renewable resources. Not only that, but any plastic manufacturing process is not a green one.
    2. Treatment – Once I’ve chosen which type of fiber I’m working with, I go a bit deeper into its story. Looking into its “treatment” can mean a lot of things, and I have a set of ideals that I’d like my selections to meet.
      1. For synthetic fibers, ideally they’d be 100% recycled materials
      2. For silk, ideally it would be ethically harvested without harming the silk worms
      3. For cotton & linen (and bamboo if applicable), ideally they would be organically grown
      4. For wool, ideally it would come from sheep who were raised as humanely as possible, in a carbon-sequestering farming method, and the fiber would not have the superwash treatment
      5. And it should go without saying, but unfortunately I know it doesn’t – ideally every person who handles the fibers from raw materials to the factory would be paid a fair wage and work in adequate conditions. This means ranchers shouldn’t have to cut corners with their flock because of external budget reasons, field workers should not be doused in pesticides and diesel fumes, factory workers should be safe and have reasonable hours – you get the picture.
    3. Country of Origin – Growing up in the United States, it was normal for pretty much everything in our house to have a “Made in _____” label on it, the country in question almost never being the United States. Sometimes this can be a good thing when another country’s business is properly supported by international trade, but other times this can be a supernotgood thing. American companies will often outsource parts of their business, especially manufacturing, abroad for mostly nefarious reasons. Other countries will often not have as strict of guidelines about building the factory itself and the treatment of workers (occupational health & safety, number of hours worked a day/week, living wages), and they can do it for less money since raw materials are cheaper and wages are lower. I waffle on the sourcing of my yarn a little bit, but I usually come back to supporting American businesses. The more local the better. If there is a yarn that would be perfect for a project that I just can’t find closer to home, or that is doing it right from an ethics & such perspective (like Pichinku whose Kickstarter I supported!), I’m happy to support their business. Living in the United States, though, I can find practically anything I need. When I am looking for a project’s yarn, I do like to go the extra step to investigate whether not just the retailer/dyer has their business in the US, I like to see where the sheep were raised or the crops were gown where they sourced the yarn base from. Sometimes this information isn’t easy to find, but often those who are committed to supporting or running a US-based yarn brand will say so proudly.
    4. Dye – Dye is arguably the most fun part of choosing which yarn you’ll use for a project. This is where the artist in you can come out if you yourself aren’t the pattern designer. And while choosing the color palette is extra funsies, there are still some things to take into account. Most yarn whether dyed commercially or by your favorite indie dyer is dyed using acid dyes. These are pigments that set into the fiber using acid, usually acetic acid (vinegar). There are also acid dyes that have a more environmentally friendly spin because they eschew heavy metals in their pigments. Then there are a plethora of plants and other natural items that can be found around your very own environment that give off a shocking amount of color. Often, many of these plant dyes won’t be as color or light fast without the use of a mordant (natural tannins in things like walnut husks or a compound called Alum for example). While the end product yarn dyed with any of the above won’t be toxic, the manufacturing of and disposal of some dyes and accouterments  may not be entirely Earth-friendly. Heavy metals are among the compounds that I wouldn’t want in my garden soil, yanno?

There are definitely more things to consider like breed-specific wool, how the yarn is plied, whether to buy from your local yarn shop or online and more. I could likely come up with a longer list, but the gist is that I don’t walk into a chain craft store and buy whatever is cheap and a neat color.

TL;DR Version

  • Personally, I stick with almost exclusively wool with other natural fibers here and there. I do make a concession for nylon in sock yarn if I’m spellbound by how pretty it is :).
  • I try to buy yarn that is the least chemically adulterated and is produced using the most ethical means. Obviously, perfection is hard to come by, but I make sure at least a few boxes are checked.
  • I buy as local as I can as often as I can, but don’t beat myself up from supporting good businesses in other countries.
  • I enjoy the natural beauty and frankly genius of natural dyes, but I don’t let that hold me back from selections at the moment. That would SEVERELY limit the choices available to me.

Phew. Okay bye, love you.

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