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Simple Swaps For Sustainable Knitters & Crocheters

Knitting and crocheting are crafts which have been around for centuries, so you’d think that perhaps we might already know how to keep our crafting footprint down. Sadly, in the 20th century we lost much of that knowledge in order to make way for innovation. Rather than allowing the enormity of sustainability as a subject intimidate you, I’ve put together some ideas for simple swaps you can make to become more sustainable knitters and crocheters.

Shop your yarn stash before buying more

The amount of times a day I see jokes – from both crafters and yarn sellers – about how buying yarn and using it are “two separate hobbies”…

The reality here is that overbuying as a consumer generally fuels the overproduction of things in the first place. You only really need a whole room full of yarn if you’re actually going to use it – folks who make items to sell, for example. If you’re the kind of person that takes a whole year to knit one small item, then you really don’t need to buy all the yarn. Check out what you already have and see if it works for what you want to make – preferably before you go shopping for a basketful of squishy new yarn.

If the yarn in your stash isn't eco-friendly, don't throw it away
If the yarn in your stash isn't eco-friendly, don't throw it away

You’ll probably find that you already have what you need in your yarn stash, and you may well fall in love all over again with what’s to hand. By shopping your stash, you’re being more sustainable with your finances as well as the planet – because let’s face it, the best yarns are not cheap! Sure, it might have become discontinued, but there’s plenty of people selling or swapping items from their stashes that you might still find enough of that same yarn to complete the project you wanted to make with it. Ebay and instagram are good for finding people swapping or selling from their stash, you could also try asking around your crafty friends or even putting a notice up on your social media asking if anyone has any of that yarn left that you could have off them.

If you suffer from the fear of missing out, well, honestly, there’s always more yarn. Try waiting for a day or two before making a purchase – especially if it’s an impulse buy – and see if you still desperately want that yarn or whether you’ve forgotten about it. You might be surprised.

Choose your yarn carefully

I get it, it’s easy to be wooed by beautiful, soft yarns. But what is that yarn made from and how does that material affect the environment? Has it been treated in a way which could be damaging to the environment? Is there a better alternative which is eco-friendly, finances friendly and skin friendly? The key to becoming sustainable knitters and crocheters is to always ask questions about your yarn.

Many yarns, especially those at the cheaper end of the spectrum, are made from synthetic materials. The most common of these is acrylic, which releases hundreds of thousands of plastic microfibres into the water every single time it’s washed. These are the things that sneak through the water treatment works to end up in our rivers and oceans, or they end up back in our drinking water. The simple answer with acrylic yarns is to avoid buying them at all, but the problem is that it’s so widely used in our community that there are many yarns which are a blend of natural fibres (like wool or alpaca) with acrylic, and it’s not always obvious that these yarns contain acrylic.

Superwash wool is a popular base for yarns, but it's not particularly environmentally friendly
Superwash wool is a popular base for yarns, but it's not particularly environmentally friendly

Nylon is the next most common synthetic material to be found in yarns and is usually blended with natural fibres (especially wool) for strength and durability. While not as harmful as a fibre to the environment as acrylic, nylon isn’t great as its production pumps billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year – but here change is on the way. The development of bio-nylon means that we can retain the strength of these blended yarns without compromising on their sustainability, as (like its name suggests) this material is created organically and biodegrades. Econyl is another option you may see more of too, which is made from recycled nylon sourced from recovered fishing nets and other ocean plastics.

Aside from synthetic fibres, be wary of superwash wools and bamboo fibres.

Superwash wools are treated with harsh chemicals in order to make them washing machine safe, and it’s not clear if or how these chemicals are prevented from getting into the environment. There are some superwash treatments that are not harmful to the environment, but it’s nearly impossible as a consumer to tell which treatment has been used.

While bamboo is often seen as a “wonder fibre”, it typically requires harsh solvents in order to strip the useable cellulose from the stem of the bamboo. As with superwash treatments, it’s not always clear if or how these chemicals are prevented from getting into the environment. These chemicals tend to be highly toxic to both people and animals, meaning that those working in the production of bamboo fibres might be getting slowly poisoned by their job. There are some responsible bamboo producers out there though – you might see these yarns with GOTS labels attached, which ensures the entire system of producing the yarn is friendly to both the environment and the people who work in the supply chain.

The Global Organic Textile Standard certificate is one which can be easily recognised and trusted by consumers

All of this is a roundabout way of saying check the fibre content of yarns before you buy them. If you don’t know what they contain – ask the seller or the manufacturer. The more people out there asking for sustainable yarns, the better. If you already own yarns that are superwash treated or contain acrylic, don’t just get rid of them! Use them up or pass them along to someone who will, as the best thing we can do with fibres that have already been produced is to use them. Just make sure you know how best to look after them too.

Choose wooden needles or hooks over plastic ones

Sounds an obvious one, I know, but you’d be amazed how plastics sneak into our lives. From solid plastic needles and hooks to “soft grip” ones, there are alternatives out there which don’t require crude oil. There’s loads of wonderful producers of sustainable knitting needles and crochet hooks out there for you to choose from, you just need to take a look. (Not too far in this case, since I sell some lovely wooden ones!)

Wood is a great alternative to solid plastic, as it’s both warm to the touch and flexible (just like plastic) whereas metal is rigid and feels quite cold. Wood is also wonderful for those who have arthritis or less movement in their hands and fingers as it’s a more forgiving material to hold and work with.

For those who prefer the soft grip handles on crochet hooks, you could try ergonomically shaped wooden ones which are designed to be easier to hold. I’m hopeful that someone will produce soft grip handles that are made from bio plastics, as there’s some fantastic options out there that would be perfect for the job. Maybe some day I might be able to offer these types of crochet hooks, who knows.

For circular knitters, you could also look into investing in needles that are designed to swap wires. At present, there’s a few companies that are mostly plastic packaged who do this, but there are a growing number of smaller companies producing sustainable knitting needles and I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before they’re able to adopt this system too. In the mean time, we can put pressure on the current producers of these types of circular needles to drastically cut their plastic use by emailing, calling or leaving messages on their social media accounts to let them know that this is what we, as the end customer, want.

Buy second hand or vintage

There seems to be this idea that new is best which has evolved over the past few decades, but if you’re using something like a yarn bowl often (or you think you are likely to), then why not try to find one that’s simply in need of a new loving home? Second hand and vintage items are generally much cheaper than new ones and often they can be much more beautiful. Some of these may be handmade items that are completely unique too.

It’s true that a little TLC might be required for some second hand and vintage items, but you might just find it’s worth it. The best place to look for things like yarn bowls, project bags or row counters is probably a thrift store, flea market or car boot sale. Charity shops sometimes have knitting and crochet related tools too, or if you’re lucky enough to have a vintage shop nearby you could ask them to keep an eye out for you. Etsy is another great place to look for vintage items, but expect there to be a markup on the prices here.

You're on your way to becoming more sustainable knitters and crocheters

By making these first steps, you’re well on your way to turning your hobby into something more sustainable that you can be proud of. Whether you make clothes instead of buying them or you just make little things to help relax, you’re already on the path of being a sustainable crafter – it just takes a few extra little tweaks here and there.

I’ve said it before and I’l say it again though – the world doesn’t need a few people who do things perfectly, it needs lots of people who do things imperfectly. So even if you only make a small change, you’re helping to reduce the pressure on the planet’s resources – and that does indeed make you more sustainable knitters and crocheters.