[GUEST POST] – Regenerative Agriculture and the Role of Fiber-Producing Animals

I know you know, dear reader, that I’m a hippy and I prefer non-superwash yarn from sheep raised in the US. Being a knitter means a lot of things to me like creating art, taking my support away from fast-trash-fashion, and keeping my mind busy with calculating angles and counting stitches. But mostly, I see an opportunity for the knitting community to make the world better. Yes, better through seeing more technicolor sweaters around, but most impactfully, through the way the fiber animals are raised.

My BFF Renee has written all about going beyond expecting the animals to be treated humanely – about what we should know to be the gold standard and express that we support the efforts of the shepherds and farmers who raise the animals in this manner.

❤ Larissa

What does it mean to be a conscious consumer of animal fiber?  It’s safe to say that the animals involved in production of fiber should be treated humanely, fed a biologically-appropriate & organic diet, and given plenty of green space to roam.  These factors add up to “happy fiber”, a product we consumers can feel good about.  However, given the current state of our planet due to the uprising of industrial farming, perhaps we must take our ethical sourcing one step further.

Through the practices of contained animal feedlots, unmanaged grazing of livestock, monocropping, and heavy fertilizer/pesticide/herbicide use, we find that our soil is depleted of nutrients, our water supply is dwindling, and atmospheric CO2 is climbing (a contributing factor to global warming).  This isn’t great news for the future of our fiber and food supply; successful agriculture requires nutrient-rich soil, water, and a steady climate.  It’s no surprise that the natural world is getting out of whack; we’ve done a pretty poor job of working within the natural laws.  We impose our own systems that fight natural processes rather than work with them.

Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you, let’s visit the upside; things don’t have to continue this way.  Through holistic management and rotational grazing of animals, we can undo many of these wrongs that industrial agriculture imposes on the earth.  Rotational grazing is the process of quickly moving large numbers and high densities of animals through many small pastures (rotations occur anywhere from a day to a week).  This practice is intense, but disperses nutrients over the land, improves overall soil fertility, controls unwanted plants, enhances water retention, sequesters carbon dioxide out of the air and into the soil, and decreases the spread of parasites among the herd.  The effects of managing animals in this way are the goals of regenerative agriculture. “Do no harm” is then advanced to “improve what we’ve got”.  While it’s obviously a good thing to support sustainable and organic producers, we’re at the point in which looking beyond sustainable is necessary to reverse the damage to our soil and our atmosphere.

To get an idea of how greater soil fertility is reached through rotational grazing, let’s first consider how the bodies of ruminant grazers work. Fiber animals such as goats and sheep are mobile fermentation machines. They eat plants (grasses, shrubs, trees) which get fermented during digestion by microbes in their gut. What comes out on the other end is nutrient-rich poop that gets deposited back into the soil.  Their hooves act as miniature tills, breaking apart the top layer of soil, allowing nutrients and water to disperse downwards.  The soil now has a greater richness in microbial life than before, which means greater fertility. Microbes work symbiotically with plant roots, feeding the plant and depositing the plant’s carbon into the soil. Grazers and grasslands are co-evolved, and they completely rely on one another to flourish.  The land needs grazers to move nutrients around.  For example, the top of a hill or mountain tends to be more nutrient-poor than the base, considering rain and erosion drives the nutrients downwards.  How else, than through animals moving up and down in elevation, could nutrients cycle back up, against gravity, to the top? Given enough time and proper management, nearly any piece of depleted land can get transformed to viable farmland with the help of grazers.

The physical act of grazing by fiber-producing animals on managed grasslands retains water and sequesters carbon. To get a full perspective, consider the average fiber pasture in which the animals are given a very large area to roam, and they are rotated rarely, if at all.  The grass, therefore, stays quite short (usually only a couple of inches tall) since the ground is rarely given a rest from constant grazing. The roots of these grasses are also very shallow, since roots only grow deep when grasses grow tall. Now consider a pasture that is managed within a regenerative practice; a large herd of animals is rotated intensively through a large number of small pastures. This allows most of the grass to be resting at any given time, so the grass has the opportunity to grow tall. Consequently, the roots grow deeper into the ground. This is of huge importance because plants have the ability to transfer carbon out of the atmosphere and into the ground through their roots. The deeper the roots, the more carbon pumping, the less carbon in our air, and the deeper water can trickle easily.  It’s no surprise that this latter practice of rotation is a good representation of how grazers move in the wild; almost always on the move due to predation and seeking areas with more abundant grass.  If every farm practiced rotational grazing of their fiber animals, imagine the potential to reverse global climate change! (Now imagine if there were tax incentives for carbon sequestration on your land … but I won’t get too political). Everyone imagines that the best way to reverse global warming is to plant hundreds of trees, but grasses actually have a stronger ability to sequester carbon, so why not start with the millions of acres of animal pasture that already exists in the US? After all, the majority of this land is unusable to grow plans on due to poor water availability, topography, altitude, and poor soil quality.

We have a dizzying number of fiber options online and in stores, and knowing which buzzwords to look for can be tough.  Choosing fiber from organically-raised animals is a great start, but we can challenge our producers to do more.  The best way to go about this ethical consumption, as with anything, is to know your farmer and know their practices.  You may not be able to meet them in-person, but a quick phone call or email with a short list of questions (How many pastures do you rotate your sheep through?  How quickly are your goats rotated?  Do you test your soil?) will let them know that there is a demand for animal fiber from regenerative practices.  If we are to continue using our land as a resource for creating goods, we must take steps to build its fertility and vitality.  As Bill Mollison famously says, “Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”  If we move our fiber animals through the land in a way they naturally move in the wild, the biology of the soil with thrive, the environment and climate will being to correct, and the knitting community will help drive the revitalization of the Earth.

Renee Harding

New-to-Me Yarn Wish List for 2018

Using yarns that have been processed from sheep to skein in an environmentally-responsible way is becoming more and more important to me. I have gotten a good start on finding brands that exhibit this practice and that I like, but I know I need to branch out! I’ve used a lot of Quince & Co. as I’ve mentioned in a previous post. I love their yarn, and I’m looking for more yarn to love just as much!

Here is my list of brands I’d like to try this year. It’s helpful for me to see it laid out in list form, and maybe you can get some ideas too!

  • Blacker yarns – I really want to make socks with the mohair blends! Maybe Okanogan, a matching pair for husband and I? I just need to find a US supplier who isn’t out of stock!
  • Brooklyn Tweed – I can’t believe I haven’t used any yarns by Brooklyn Tweed yet. I do have a project in mind for their Shelter line, though – the R & R Hoodie by Tanis Lavallee. I already bought this pattern, actually, and I think this will get a whole lot of use :).
  • Blue Moon Fiber Arts – Seriously, I can come up with 4895 projects I could make with the plethora of colorways BMFA has. They have a lot of non-superwash yarn bases. I’ve got plans to make another (actually wearable this time) Crochet Pullover with the Cake DK base in Delirium.
  • Mountain Meadow Wool – I keep coming back to the website of this yarn company. And I get SO OVERWHELMED by the amount of yarn bases they have. I want to try all of them, but I don’t have a project in mind for any specific weight/drape/fiber of yarn. I’m going to make an effort to make something from one of their yarns this year. I had the opportunity last year to buy a sweater’s quantity at a seriously discounted price, but I passed it up because ugghhhhh so much regret.
  • O-Wool – I so so so need to try the environmentally-responsible washable wool from O-Wool. I’ve heard nothing but good things about how incredibly soft it is, and I can’t wait to come up with something to knit with it.
  • Pichinku – I already have a skein of Pichinku in my stash from when I supported Dana’s Kickstarter. I’m so impressed that the Peruvian women she works with are able to achieve such vibrant saturated colors only with plants native to the region. I need an extra-special project for this, but something small so that the garment’s weight doesn’t distort the baby alpaca. I’m hoping to have a reason to make something with this soon!
  • Sustainable Stitches – This yarn came as a surprise on my doorstep. Turns out, my wonderful cousin sent it to me as a thank-you for knitting her baby a wee bonnet with a puff on top. I’m so happy to have it. I think this and other DK-weight yarns from my stash are going to be included in a Camaro by Tanis Lavallee.
  • Swan’s Island – So, I’ll admit, I’ve used Swan’s Island’s yarn already before as I’ve outlined in my post about yarns I’ve used. I love it so much, I need to try every last base they sell. I also really want to visit them in Maine, but that’s another post. I already have a Zweig planned out in their Natural Colors Merino Fingering in Teal and Oyster. They also carry “EcoWash” yarns that have had an environmentally-responsible treatment to make them machine-washable that I’m very excited to try.
  • Tanis Fiber Arts – I sure do love to browse Tanis’s website at look at her yarns. She too has an environmentally-responsible washable wool called “Pure Wash”. The combination of this and her omgineedit colorways has put this on my list for a while. Although, up until now I’ve always balked at pressing the purchase button. I think I need to find something really perfect to deserve her yarn.

Hippy Nonsense

I’m going to reveal to you a totally-secret secret. Are you ready? It’s going to be a shocker. I’m a bit of a hippy. I’ll wait until you collect yourself. Good? Good.

The hippy nonsense runs deep in my blood, even if on the surface I look like a total normie. I don’t work on a farm like my BFF (hi Nae!), nor do I smell completely of patchouli (only a little, it’s in my soap, what do you want from me). However, there are a lot of aspects of my life that I’ve brought back to basics, removed technology from, or have a heightened sense of connection to. I live in the modern world, and I quite like living in a house and driving a car and using a smart phone, so I’m not trying to walk into the treeline and never look back. But for a while I haven’t been able to shake the sense that in some ways, technology has gone a wee bit too far and done us a disservice. In small ways through living my life I hope to make informed choices that don’t make the world worse, or maybe even make it better in the long run.

  1. I met all my meat – I started trying to eat in a more ancestral manner years ago, and it’s taken a while to get into a groove with it. One of the aspects I’m most proud of is our meat sourcing. The meat that our family eats has all come from within an hour’s drive, I’ve met most of the animals and can vouch for the environment in which they were raised (grass-fed beef and pastured pork & chicken), and I know the people in the process of it all. Like many, I’m appalled by the factory farms in our country. But I can’t in good conscience eliminate meat from our diet for a few reasons. Meat is nutrient dense and healthy (read about the science & such here), and it’s not something that can be easily substituted. And possibly more importantly, opting out of the system IN NO WAY helps to fix it. For everything we buy, we are voting with our money. I choose to vote for local, ethically & sustainably raised meat by people I trust. And I only drove one county over to pick it up.
  2. I make my cats’ food – Before I even adopted our first cat Kelly, I was elbow deep in research about the proper diet for cats. Probably embarrassingly, I got the idea from hearing Rachel Ray talk about how she would cook her dog a side of food when she prepared dinner. Before then, I never gave a second thought to Dog Food or Cat Food. I learned a lot of information about the nature and diet of cats from CatInfo.org and CatNutrition.org. So, when Kelly came home with us in 2011, we slowly introduced the food I had cooked for her using the recipe I found. These days, she and the two other cats we’ve subsequently adopted Minka (whom we call Weena, don’t worry about it) and George are healthy, shiny, non-stinky, well-hydrated, great at calculus, do our taxes… jk. Anywho, I love them, they say hi.
  3. Skincare – Not long after I started removing trash from my food supply, I started examining my skincare product choices. I’ve had dry and crappy skin my entire life, and I definitely used to believe that I needed the power of chemists to cure my skin of its hydrocortisone or benzoyl peroxide deficiency. It’s become clear since then that my lifestyle was largely the culprit – I have an autoimmune skin condition called herpetiformis dertmatitis. Basically, I get rashy skin from gluten, so TAKE THAT FARTWADS, IT’S NOT A FAD. For a while, I largely used apple cider vinegar, baking soda and coconut oil for practically everything. While mostly effective for things like washing your hair, I’ve since upgraded to using more ingredients. I make my own face & body lotion, lotion for my son, and remineralizing tooth powder. I use shampoo and makeup from a company called 100% Pure. There are other great companies for non-straight-up-trash skincare like Beauty Counter, Primally Pure and Primal Life Organics (to name a few – there are many more!). Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I haven’t been to a dermatologist since high school, and I don’t feel like I need to wear makeup to go to the grocery store. And put fat on your face. 🙂
  4. Cleaning products – While most people don’t generally worry about the ingredients in their cleaning products because it’s neither ingested nor applied topically to anyone, there are still a lot of concerns I have with common household cleaners. I don’t super duper want to poison my cats or kid, so I’ve been transitioning all of our products to things that would be non-lethal if any of the above licked them. This used to be another place where I used vinegar and baking soda for practically everything, but nature and technology working together have come a long way in the last 5 years. I use things for laundry ranging from natural to better-than-most. For a while I used Branch Basics until I ran out 😦 , then used BioKleen for a while. I needed something with a stronger detergent power for cloth diaper cleaning, so I opted to use Kirkland’s Environmentally Responsible detergent for those. And, yes, I do still use white vinegar as a fabric softener rinse thing. I don’t use dryer sheets, but rather opt for putting essential oils on wool balls. Smells nice, man. For general cleaning, I use a diluted liquid Dr. Bronner’s solution along with vinegar to clean glass – it works wonders with a squeegee, Windex is gross. I also have an enzyme cleaner called BacOut also by BioKleen which I add to laundry, especially cloth diapers. I have it in a spray bottle, too, for messes like food/drink spills in the carpet or stinky peepee from the aforementioned spoiled cats. I also buy nontoxic dish soap, dishwasher detergent and ant spray. It all counts.
  5. Cloth diapering – Since a few days after my kiddo was born, he’s been mostly in cloth diapers. I wasn’t keen to throw 10 stinky plastic and whatever else sacks into a landfill every day. I used to work from home and now I stay at home with him (he’s 2 now), so it’s not a big deal for me to do a load of diaper laundry every other day and to dispose of doodoos down the toilet. I use the laundry solutions mentioned above and it’s just part of our daily life. However, if I had to do it all over again, I’m not sure if I’d choose cloth diapers. There are a lot of brands that are better for the environment, like Seventh Generation. Cloth diapers may be a little too bulky and stiff for babies to get the best range of motion when they’re learning to move, and I honestly can’t say whether the manufacturing of and the daily maintenance of cloth diapers is more or less costly, both in money and to the environment – especially when compared to environmentally-friendly brands of disposables. That said, my 2 year old is in cloth diapers approximately 75% of the time and disposables the other 25%. He wears disposables when we’re on an outing, to his daycare 1 day a week, to his gym class once a week, and overnight. Whether this will prove to be the best choice in the long run remains to be seen, but I do still feel like it’s a bit of a hippy thing to do!
  6. Clothing – Buying clothing is a challenge for me. I never gave the clothing industry a second thought until being exposed to Katy Bowman’s work. There is a lot of unseen labor going into our clothes, and most of it is not something I would have endorsed had I known about it. Katy has written a wonderful post about eco-friendly clothes, and I promise it’s a great read dense with things that will enlighten you. So far what I’ve taken from this is to shop for clothes at thrift stores, online consignment websites, swap things with people in your community, source companies who have some set of morals and ethics that you agree with, and to make your own clothes. I’ve done some of these things, but I find it immeasurably difficult. For example, I just bought my 2 year old a winter coat from the store because I couldn’t find anything adequate in thrift stores. I’m happy with the coat, but I have no idea under what conditions it was made. Obviously, I’m knitting sweaters and socks and such, which I’ll talk about below. But I’d REALLY like to get into sewing clothes. And not just silly dresses that look like they’re from the 50s. I want to sew underpants and leggings and a zip up hoodie. But ohhhhh the fabric. This goes right back to the sourcing issue. Socially and environmentally friendly fabric is available, though scarce and HOLY EXPENSIVE. The clothing category is somewhere that I anticipate the most growth in my hippy nonsense success, but for now, it’s basically a list of things I need to figure out how to do.
  7. Knitting – I don’t think my purpose when I learned how to knit was to save the world, but my relaxing hobby and creative conquest is morphing into fixing global warming single-handedly. Well, probably more hands than mine will be needed, just let me be hyperbolic. I’ve outlined in two other posts how I choose yarn to work with and the concessions I’m currently making to make sure I don’t go bonkers restricting myself. Knitting is so damn fun with the colors and patterns and the kindest and most supportive community of any out there. I’m beyond thrilled to find a purpose tangential to the fun. Through knitting, and many of my other quests to bring things back to the Earth, I discovered that what I want to do is to support and add to the fiber animals being raised in a way that will regenerate the fertility of the soil, sequestering carbon. This plan will take a while to come to fruition (again hi Nae!!), but I don’t think I’ll be frustrated in the meantime in this knitting community <3.

This list may not be all-encompassing for the ways I’m trying to live the modern hippy lifestyle, but I for sure hope to extend the list as time goes on. Okay, that was a lot of typing, I’ve got a cardigan to knit! Ttyl.

My Current Concessions

As I’ve noted in a previous post, I try to make informed decisions when choosing yarn to buy. The broad categories are fiber type, treatment of the fibers (and everything surrounding their production), country of origin, and how it was dyed. In an ideal world, every strand of yarn would be made from the best quality natural materials, under the best circumstances by somebody I personally know, and dyed with plants/natural materials (and maybe some fairy dust).

Where I concede for whether the materials are natural plant or animal usually falls under the category of performance. At the moment, I’m letting myself buy whatever sock yarn I want, which is a good example of where a synthetic fiber (Nylon) is used to increase the strength and durability of the sock. Nobody wants to spend weeks (or days, idk how fast you knit, ya speed demon) knitting socks only to have holes in them after only a few hours of wear. If you want a certain property in your yarn, but don’t want to fork over a mortgage payment, synthetic fibers are going to make it less expensive and be a lot easier to find.

If you know anything about me, you know that I don’t like to buy superwash wool yarn. The fact that the process makes the wool less woolly bothers me a lot less than the means in which it gets to that state. Yes, the ability to throw your knits in the laundry with the rest of your clothes without the risk of ruining a hard-earned garment is very convenient. However, I’d much rather spend a few minutes a week handwashing my knits for the peace of mind that I didn’t contribute to the descaling and polymer coating process of superwash yarns that is not exactly environmentally friendly. The concession here is, again, the sock yarn. It is very hard to find non-superwash sock yarn, folks. And harder still to find non-superwash sock yarn that is dyed omg-so-cute-and-pretty-I-need-it. While I really like neutrals for my wardrobe garments, socks can be SO FUN. Also, when I’m knitting a garment for somebody who does not live in my house and over whose laundry I have no control (a sweater for my cousin’s 4 year old daughter for example!), I always use superwash yarn. There are yarn companies who have managed to find a means of procuring washable yarn that is processed in an environmentally friendly way (which is another post altogether) and this is always my choice if I can afford it.

The fact that I can drive 3 minutes to my local Target and buy literally anything I could need and a whole ton of crap I didn’t know I wanted is pretty awesome on the surface. But when you think all the way upstream of where the raw materials came from and whose hands made it, it can be a less romantic story and a lot less local. It’s a monumentally baby-step process, but I’m trying more and more to know who – the actual person – the items in my life came from. Not only has this ideal stocked my meat freezer with animals I’ve met, this has also led me to seek out yarn companies based in the USA and whose yarn materials originate domestically as well. For me, this is the easiest way to know whether the sheep have been raised and handled humanely, that the people who work for that company are compensated fairly, and that all of the business standards are at least up to whichever governing body controls them in the United States. It’s also important to mention that the more local you buy an item – and the more local its components – the less fuel is used to ship it to you, the presumed end user. But this is not to say that every US yarn company is infallible, so this is where my concession comes in. Maybe I’ll support a local indie dyer, my local yarn shop, or a US-based retailer, as well as international yarn suppliers who I know to be doing right by the process. I waver about whether it’s more important to support American people or good practices anywhere. I don’t know the answer to that question, which is why the baby steps may walk in circles sometimes.

The way yarn is dyed is kind of an anomaly to me. I tried to dye yarn once with things I found in my backyard. I kind of followed instructions, but my yarn just came out looking dirty. I have almost no constrictions on buying yarn based on the way it’s dyed. However, if a yarn is promoted to be dyed with plants or using non-toxic dye, I may see what I can do to prioritize it, but that’s almost a novelty reason at this point. From what measly research I’ve done, I know there are heavy metal-free versions of wool dye, which must mean that all of the other ones contain at least some amount of these compounds. I have no idea if huge companies dye their yarn with different materials than indie dyers. And I know that for most plant dyes to actually stick to the yarn, a mordant must be used, and I’m 100% unsure whether the mordant is environmentally friendly. It’s possible that there’s a dose-response curve leaning to safety or otherwise for all dyes. I don’t really know whether the manufacturing process of any kind of dyeing materials is toxic, and to what portion of the environment. What I do know is that I like undyed fibers, and the rest are a big hunko chunko research away from being understood by me.

All of that being said, I’m looking forward to each new-to-me brand of yarn I try out in the future. It will be a learning experience as well as funsies knitting times.

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.

Superwash Wool and Me

One of the things about my knitting that is unique is my rule about superwash yarn – I choose not to use it when I can. Let me preface this by saying I do have a proficient understanding of chemistry – I was a biochem major in college, so the use of the word “chemicals” is probably not going to appear without a qualifier. I’m definitely not an expert on the subject of superwash wool, though. Ashley at Woolful has a wonderful blog post that goes much more into depth than I am going to here.

To sum it up, superwash wool is when wool is descaled and coated in a type of plastic so that the fibers don’t felt and shrink when agitated a lot, as in the washing machine and dryer. In general, when I’m concerned about the toxicity or processing of a product, I am not concerned about the end product being a dangerous substance. This used to be my main concern when being more careful about unnatural chemicals in my home, products and environment. Generally, the most damaging part of using man-made chemicals to create or adulterate an item is in the manufacturing process. And mostly I’m concerned about the environment – plastic taking the Earth’s lifetime to degrade, degrading plastics leeching substances into the soil, the chemicals being released into the environment polluting the soil and water harming flora and fauna from the microscopic level up to big-ass birds and trees, and the carbon emissions of powering the manufacturing. This probably isn’t an exhaustive list.

Anywho, what I’m trying to say is that when I can, I choose wool that has not had the mainstream superwash treatment. I don’t mind hand washing my hand-knits. It makes me nervous to even put superwash items in the washing machine. I do make some concessions so I don’t go crazy, though (like letting myself buy whatever sock yarn I want because FUN and using superwash for non-knitter gifts). There are definitely plenty of companies that offer yarn that is the least amount processed as possible, so I don’t struggle with locating yarn to knit with. That being said, there are tons of indie dyers who have amazingly beautiful handpainted yarn, which is hard to resist.

Although it’s a small part at the moment, I hope to affect the environment positively an eensy bit with my knitting!