As more people are looking to become more environmentally friendly in their lives and their crafting, questions about sustainability are increasingly on many people’s minds. How do you know if the materials you’re choosing are more or less sustainable than ones you were previously using? This question comes up a lot when discussing whether wool is a sustainable material or not, so I thought I’d take a look into it.
Firstly, I should clarify the definition of “wool” in this post. While wool is typically understood to mean the fleece of a sheep, there are so many animals out there which produce fibres which can be used in the same manner as sheep’s wool. For the purpose of this post, wool refers to any fibre that can be made from an animal fleece, and so it includes fleeces like alpaca, cashmere, camel and yak. I’ll refer to it from now on as “animal wool” rather than simply “wool” to hopefully make things a little clearer.
Natural vs synthetic materials
When compared to synthetic materials like acrylic or nylon, animal wool is definitely more environmentally friendly, simply because it is a natural material and so it can naturally decompose and biodegrade at the end of its life. It is also a renewable resource, as the fleece naturally grows back regularly during the animal’s life. An average sheep might live between 10 to 20 years, meaning that one animal can provide multiple fleeces in its lifetime.
As most synthetic materials are made from fossil fuels, they don’t naturally degrade and take hundreds of years to break down. Acrylic in particular sheds hundreds of microfibres when washed, which is causing a lot of issues in rivers and oceans. Microplastics, including the fibres shed from synthetic materials, are in our water and our food. Fossil fuels are also not a renewable source of material; they are finite and at some point they will run out.
Animal wool does shed some fibres, though it’s not nearly as much as acrylic does and again as these are natual fibres, they do decompose reasonably easily. Many animal wools are antimicrobial, especially wool from sheep, so you don’t need to wash woollen items nearly as often as they won’t start to smell. You only need to spot clean woollen items and shouldn’t give them a full wash unless they’re covered in dirt. Because you’re not washing them as often, the small amount of fibres shed when woollen items are washed has a negligable impact.
It is worth bearing in mind, however, that technology to make sustainable versions of synthetic materials is constantly being developed and so one day in the future, there won’t be materials made from fossil fuels any more. It’s therefore worth keeping an eye out for brands which adopt genuinely biodegradable and environmentally sustainable versions of materials like nylon and polyester. It has been technically possible to make these materials from plant based fibres, waxes and proteins for some time; it’s simply not been economically or commerically viable due to the technology required to produce them, the costs of the raw materials and the commercial demand for them.
Consider where the animal wool is sourced from
When considering the environmental impact of animal wool, you need to be looking at where the wool is sourced. Many cheaper woollen yarns come from far away countries and so there’s a huge amount of carbon emissions involved in getting those animal wools across the world. The best thing to do to avoid high carbon emissions is to look for locally sourced animal wools. I don’t necessarily mean that you should bother the farmer down the road who keeps sheep, but when we’re thinking of sustainability in materials, we should be thinking of our “local area” as being our country or our continent.
Here in the UK, we have many species of sheep which produce excellent wools for crafting with. Blue Faced Leicester is the most popular, but there’s also Dorset Horn, Shetland, Herdwick, Shropshire, Suffolk, Masham, Jacob, Welsh, Kent Romney, Whitefaced Woodland, Cheviot, Devon, Teeswater, and Wensleydale. All offer something slightly different in the texture and density of their fleeces. There are also flocks of sheep which aren’t necessarily native to the UK but are farmed here – and there are other wool producing animals here in the UK too.
British kept alpacas and llamas offer a more local source of their wool, as do various species of goats. You might choose to use these wools over sheep’s wool as they have slightly different qualities and densities. Often, when looking online (particularly for yarns), the company will state where the animal wool is sourced from which makes it easier to choose materials which are produced within the UK. If there’s no information, you can simply ask the company where they source their animal wool from – this may even help show the company that consumers care about where they source their materials.
There will always be some wool-producing animals which can’t be easily farmed in the UK – such as camels and yaks. In the case of these fibres, it has to come down to your individual choice; typically yak wool is quite expensive because it is so dense, so a small amount of it is often blended with other fibres. If we try and source materials only from the UK, other areas can suffer – particularly those which are less well off. Many people in lower income countries depend on farming animals for their ability to produce wool, and we shouldn’t outright cut this income off from them; rather we should be encouraging everyone globally to source more locally and demanding companies be more transparent about the steps they’re taking to both reduce their carbon emissions and support the farmers they buy from. This should become easier to balance in the future, as we de-carbonise transportation, though right now our best option is to try and find a balance between sourcing as locally as we can and occasionally getting some materials which come from further away.
What about the environmental impact of the animals themselves?
This is where things can get a little murky as to how environmentally friendly animal wool is. Animals can have devastating impacts on the environment for many reasons – not least human actions taken in order to farm them, such as the clearing of woodlands to create grazing pastures.
Diet is one of the biggest factors, as a diet of poor quality grass grown on poor soils might not sit too well and cause more methane to be released into the air from flatulence, while a good diet of quality mixed grasses and meadow flowers could reduce flatulence. The difference in diet can also affect the environment in other ways too, as animals which have a good diet are likely to have better quality poo which in turn feeds a whole range of plants and animals. Animal manure is, after all, one of the best sources of natural fertilisers for plants; without it, the soil wouldn’t regenerate its nutrients and microbial life as well as it does when animals are present.
Ultimately, unless you’re a farmer who is very interested in being the most environmentally friendly you can be in your production of animal wool, it’s difficult to define the environmental impact of farming a particular animal for wool. There are so many variables caused by laws, farming techniques, economic status, land quality and other things that at present it just isn’t possible or even practical to measure. Even across Britain, the quality of pastures varies due to soil compositions and farming techniques.
So is animal wool sustainable, or not?
Overall, I do believe animal wool is sustainable when compared to fossil fuel alternatives. There may be ways in which we can improve the environmental impact of farming animals for their fleece, but it is a renewable, biodegradable resource that should not be underestimated. After all, it’s evolved over countless years to be the best possible material for keeping something warm.
The important thing is that we make conscious choices about our materials – such as choosing to buy organically farmed, fairly traded or locally sourced materials. Even plant based natural materials raise serious questions about sustainability and environmental impacts – cotton, for example, is one of the world’s thirstiest, dirtiest crops because of the amount of irrigated water and pesticides used to farm it in areas outside of its natural growing regions – so we shouldn’t just dismiss a renewable resource like animal wool.
Instead, we should be learning better ways of looking after our clothes so that they last longer and teaching others how to make their own clothes too. We can petition our governments to improve environmental laws and encourage farmers to adopt regenerative farming techniques. All of these actions will help to reduce humanity’s environmental impact.