In the crafting world, plastic is everywhere – from product packaging and plastic tools to materials which contain plastics (and often aren’t clearly labelled as such). So how do you go about crafting without plastic?
The vast majority of the tools you’ll need to use when working with natural dyes are wooden or metal; from stainless steel pots to wooden spoons, plastic only starts to get introduced as packaging for dyes and mordants.
The way around this is to collect and harvest your own dyestuffs – either by growing them in your garden or collecting them from your kitchen or around your local area – and then storing them in paper bags or glass jars until you’re ready to use them. You can even make your own iron mordant from rusty nails, or perhaps investigate alternative colour binders such as soya milk, salt and lemon juice.
If you’re new to natural dyeing, take a look at my post on getting started; I’ve found a wealth of information while learning which I collected together to make it a little easier to get started experimenting.
Sewing without plastic
This is where things start to get tricky. While you can choose to use fabrics made from natural fibres, there’s many tools which are either made from plastic or generally come packaged in the stuff. Interfacings are often made from polyester, though if you look around you should be able to find interfacings made from cotton – Empress Mills and Croft Mills are two such places which stock fusible cotton interfacing. You’ll also find battings and waddings made from natural fibres if you look for them, so making bags, coats, quilts or anything else without plastic fibres should be reasonably straightforward.
Sewing with natural fibres is becoming easier to do too, as organic cotton and tencel threads are finding their way into more stores. While some companies have swapped plastic thread spools for wooden ones, it’s worth also knowing how you’re going to dispose of these – if you can save them up and reuse them by breaking a bigger spool into smaller ones then great, but I haven’t yet found a useful way to use my empty wooden spools. Still, they’re much better for the environment than plastic spools, which generally are made of plastics that can’t easily be recycled.
Needles and pins often come packaged in plastics, particularly sewing machine needles. These cases can be reused, so they’re better than single use plastics, but as yet I’ve not found an alternative for buying sewing machine needles. Pins can be bought in metal tins or cardboard boxes though, so it’s a step in the right direction. Be aware that some pins have plastic heads – if you really want to use pins with coloured heads (or need some with heads that are easy to grasp), have a look for glasshead pins. These are very similar to pins with coloured plastic heads, however the glass means that you can safely iron over these without melting your pinheads!
Some sewing tools you can make yourself (such as tailor’s hams or pattern weights), so you know exactly what goes into them. Others may take some searching to find non plastic versions. One of the main tools I wanted to start The Haberdasher Bee with was a wooden handled seam ripper, as I couldn’t find any available at a reasonable price (handmade products from woodturners are often beautiful but costly, therefore making them unaffordable for some crafters, while plastic seam rippers are cheap and readily available).
Accessories such as buttons can now easily be found in plastic alternatives, made from everything from shells to “vegetable ivory” (corozo) to milk casein (codelite). There are also elastics made from natural rubber and a range of trims made from natural fibres. You can find these accessories at sustainable shops such as Offset Warehouse and James Tailoring.
Knitting and crocheting without using plastic
As with sewing, trying to avoid using plastic when knitting or crocheting can be a bit of a minefield. Knitting needles and crochet hooks are readily available in a range of materials, including wood and metal, so that’s reasonably straightforward, but when you start using other tools it can be difficult.
Blocking mats are extremely popular for evening out your tension on knitted or crocheted items. Many are advertised as using an “eco friendly” foam called EVA (ethelyene-vinyl acetate), however EVA often isn’t environmentally friendly at all. While it’s preferable to using other foams made with more toxic chemicals, EVA is often made from fossil fuel derived ingredients and therefore it doesn’t degrade and its not recyclable. You can get wooden blocking mats, though these are expensive – one 30x30cm wooden board often costs the same (if not more) as a pack of nine interlocking mats made from EVA. These wooden boards don’t interlock, which means you can’t use them for anything bigger than 30x30cm. It is absolutely possible to block items without using blocking mats, but many people find it far easier to use a mat for this. At present though, I haven’t found an alternative to EVA mats that is as flexible and reasonably priced.
There are lots of tools for both knitting and crocheting which, like sewing, typically come packaged in plastic but aren’t necessarily made from plastic. Row counters can be made from metal – some as jewellery that you wear as you need to use them – or you can even use an app on your smartphone or tablet. Sock, mitten and glove blockers are just as commonly found made from wood or metal wire as they are from plastic. Yarn needles almost always come packaged in plastic too.
Perhaps the easiest way to reduce or even cut out plastic when knitting or crocheting is to try and avoid using yarns that contain synthetic fibres. Acrylic and nylon are the typical synthetic materials used in yarns, while stellina and lurex provide a metallic shimmer effect to some yarns. Acrylic is often extolled for its virtues of being easy to work with and very soft, but it sheds a huge amount of microfibres every time it gets wet and these microfibres are part of our global problem with plastics: they’re hard to filter from water and so they’re easily ingested, both from our food and from our drinking water. Nylon isn’t quite as terrible as acrylic; it doesn’t shed as many fibres, but its not often recycled and production tends to rely heavily on fossil fuels. It is worth noting, however, that bio-nylon is starting to find its way onto the market, so it shouldn’t be too long before this makes its way into commercial yarns as a replacement for ordinary nylon.
For those making toys and amigurumi, plastic safety eyes can be very easily replaced with either buttons or by making eyes from yarn. You could knit or crochet circles quickly, use little circles of woollen felt, or even embroider them on with yarn. This tutorial by Wanida Baokantee for embroidering animé style eyes could be a lovely alternative for making dolls, while this crochet eye tutorial by ToyFoxStore gives a little more realism and adds extra details to your amigurumi creations than you would normally get from plain old plastic safety eyes. You can also swap out your regular polyester toy stuffing for wool, cotton or kapok fibre stuffing – all of which are washable and biodegradeable.
How do you ensure you’re crafting without plastic?
First of all, take your time to search for the right tools and materials from plastic free, sustainable businesses. There are others out there besides The Haberdasher Bee, and we aren’t terribly hard to find since we’re usually pretty proud of the fact that we’re plastic free.
If you can’t find what you need from a sustainable business, it’s time to start emailing bigger businesses and asking what they’re doing to reduce their use of plastic. Some businesses will only change how they operate based on customer demand – so while no one questions their use of plastic airfill packaging, or polystyrene packing peanuts, or the copious amounts of plastic wrap that they likely receive their shipments in, then there’s no reason for them to change how they do things. Crafting without plastic is a personal choice – one that should absolutely be encouraged – but it also requires support and ease of access to plastic free products, and this is where businesses need to step up. Little businesses like mine are often more focussed on being sustainable than big chains, so it might just be worth shopping around to find what you need without plastic packaging. We also definitely appreciate your custom more, so you’ll often get great customer service, hand written notes and sometimes little freebies like sweets as a thank you for shopping with us. That being said, even shopping behemoths like Amazon offer plastic free options now, though I believe you have to request it on your account.
When choosing yarns, fabrics or other products where you aren’t sure whether it contains plastic, ask! Most companies are happy to answer questions about their products – and this is also a way to tell them that you want more plastic free alternatives.
There will be some items which aren’t yet available without plastic packaging or made from another material, but that’s okay. If it’s not available, you aren’t doing anything wrong by owning or using it. I’m working hard to find alternatives to these items, and I’m sure others are too, so hopefully it won’t be long until there are more plastic free alternatives out there. The important thing is that you’re actively trying to be more sustainable.