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What is eco-friendly yarn?

Surely any yarn made from natural fibres is environmentally friendly, right? Well… unfortunately that isn’t actually the case. As more crafters are looking to create with environmentally friendly materials, there can be some confusion as to what an eco-friendly yarn is.

There are lots of things that need to be considered when looking for a sustainable yarn to knit or crochet with. One of them is of course whether the yarn is biodegradeable, however that’s not enough to be considered environmentally friendly, as there’s many processes applied to yarns before they’re ready for you to purchase.

Cotton's an eco-friendly yarn, isn't it?

Unless it's certified organic cotton, sadly cotton isn't an eco-friendly yarn
Unless it's certified organic cotton, sadly cotton isn't an eco-friendly yarn

Sadly, no – cotton isn’t an eco-friendly yarn, despite it being among the most popular fibres. Modern cotton production takes millions of litres of water to produce, not to mention all the pesticides! There are several types of cotton which are perfectly evolved to the specific climates of the countries they are naturally found in, however many other countries which don’t have ideal climates have adopted cotton as a crop and so use copious amounts of irrigated water in order to grow it. This water is often siphoned from rivers and other eco systems, polluted with pesticides as the cotton grows and what’s left returns to the local water system and takes the harmful chemicals with it, poisoning the rivers and potentially the supply of drinking water for local people.

If that’s not bad enough, there’s the potential for child or slave labour to be used in cotton production.

There is, however, an alternative you can look for which has all the good features of cotton without the bad: organic cotton. Looking for an accredited certification ensures that no pesticides are used and water irrigation is minimised, so you can be sure it has a much better environmental footprint. Even better, though, is that workers on organic cotton farms are fairly paid and generally healthier (thanks to not using hazardous chemicals), so you can be sure that you aren’t contributing to a child or slave’s misery.

The fibres to look for

There are a few fibres you can look for which are far more sustainable than cotton, even if they don’t have any certifications.

Hemp is naturally very pest and disease resistant, it doesn’t require very much water to grow and grows very quickly. These three things alone make the plant a sustainable choice, but when you consider that different parts of the plant all have multiple uses, there’s also plenty of opportunity for farmers to earn reasonable wages – if they’re allowed to grow it. Historically it has, unfortunately, suffered from being mis-cast as an hallucinogenic drug due to it being a member of the cannabis family, despite it not containing any hallucinogens whatsoever. Thankfully, this incredibly strong fibre is finally beginning to be recognised for what it is and hemp fibres are starting to find their way into the hands of crafters.

Flax is incredibly fast growing, taking just three months from planting to being ready for harvest – and as it is native to Europe, it doesn’t require any additional irrigation. There’s a reason why Irish linen is considered among the best in the world, and the Irish weather is a large factor in this! Flax is also rather hardy and so no pesticides are required, plus (like hemp) flax is used for many purposes, so nothing really goes to waste – even the leftover stalks can be turned into biodegradable plastics. Linen is a strong fibre that can be used for many years, though when put in a compost bin it biodegrades in just two weeks. Harsh chemicals can be used to strip the usable fibres from the flax plant however, so it’s best to look for “bio-linen” or linen which has been subjected to a bio-enzyme treatment to be sure that water isn’t being polluted during the processing of linen fibres.

Organic bamboo is a great fibre to use when making summer or athletic clothing
Organic bamboo is a great fibre to use when making summer or athletic clothing as it's soft, breatheable and moisture-wicking

Bamboo is another fast growing plant which doesn’t require much in the way of water or pest control. It’s commonly used to create viscose and lyocell fibres – viscose isn’t all that great for the environment though, so do look for certifications and indications of whether the bamboo is a lyocell fibre. It’s possible to find GOTS certified bamboo, so this is the best to use if you can find it. Overall though, bamboo is a good option to swap to – soft, breatheable and moisture-wicking, it’s perfect for summer makes or for use during exercise.

Tencel is an artificial fibre, meaning it’s made from plant matter but turned into a useful fibre by man-made means. It’s a brand name of lyocell and is made from sustainably sourced wood fibre, mostly that of eucalyptus trees. The processing of wood fibre into useable yarn is carefully monitored and over 95% of the water and solvents used are recovered and reused, with none being released into the environment. There are strict manufacturing controls on tencel, meaning that it is among the most eco-friendly fibres you can craft with, despite being man-made.

The certifications to look for

There are many organic certifications out there, though there are two main ones that you’re likely to come across in relation to textiles: the Global Organic Textile Standard (also known as GOTS) and the Organic Content Standard, which may also come with a certificate from The Soil Association.

The Global Organic Textiles Standard is a sure way to know you’re buying eco-friendly yarn. This certificate takes into account everything from how the fibre is produced to worker’s wages, living conditions, the metal content of dyes and how water is managed throughout the processing of the fibre.

The Soil Association looks, as its name suggests, at the state of the soil a plant is grown in. They help farmers find better ways to look after the land they’re farming and so you’ll see their certification on anything which is grown in soils meeting their strict standards. This includes yarn, as many farmers of natural fibres also grow food and other useful commodity crops either at the same time as plants destined for yarn, or during a different growing season. They also work directly with both GOTS and Textile Exchange’s Organic Content Standard – so you can be sure that certifications are granted on genuine grounds.

In addition to organic standards, there are others you can keep an eye out for, including animal fibre production and recycled content standards.

Responsible certifications like these show you that animal fibre yarns are eco-friendly
Responsible certifications like these from Textile Exchange show you that animal fibre yarns are eco-friendly

Textile Exchange provide certifications for responsible fibre production from down, mohair, wool and alpaca, plus recycled content. All stages of a supply chain are monitored for responsible fibre production, ensuring that fibres not only meet animal welfare and land management standards, but also how that fibre is processed, dyed and treated. Recycled yarns, such as yarns containing recycled cotton, must have their content verified in order to gain either a Recycled Claim Standard or Global Recycling Standard certificate.

Another commonly cited certification is Oeko-Tex Standard 100. This certification looks at the chemicals used in the processing of a fibre, ensuring no dangerous heavy metals are present and that other chemicals which are potentially damaging to health are restricted. It also has four levels of classification, depending on skin contact – levels one and two are the ones you’ll most likely want to look for, as level one is suitable for using against the skin of babies and children, while level two is suitable for direct skin contact with adults.

What to be aware of

Soy is most commonly grown in Brazil where pristine Amazon rainforest is deliberately burned or logged to make space for this crop, so be wary of yarns containing soy fibre. It’s not bad by itself, but the destruction of rainforest to make space for soy farms is fuelling climate change through the simultaneous release of greenhouse gases and removal of trees.

Fibres which have been superwash treated should also be carefully considered before purchase. On balance, animal wool is a far more sustainable option than yarns derived from fossil fuels like acrylic, especially so if it has a certification from Textile Exchange, but the superwash treatment is harsh and potentially damaging to the environment. It also removes some of the best properties of wool, so it’s perhaps best avoided. However, if you do need a machine washable wool, look for a GOTS certification. There is a type of superwash treatment which swaps chlorine for natural salts, and this is a suitable treatment for GOTS certified textiles so you can be sure that certified yarns use a more environmentally friendly superwash treatment.

Should you throw away the yarn you've already got if it isn't eco-friendly?

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

No! If you already have superwash, cotton or synthetic yarns, the most sustainable thing you can do is to use what you have. It’s not always easy to find eco-friendly yarn – and as disappointing as it can be to discover that something you thought was better for the environment isn’t as good as you thought, it’s much worse to just throw it out. If you really can’t bear to use the yarn after discovering it might not be all you thought it was, see if there’s someone else who can make use of it.

We should all be actively trying to use more of what we have anyway, so work through what’s in your stash before buying any more – then when you do need to buy more yarn, you can look for the fibres and certifications detailed above. I’ve said this on multiple occasions, but don’t be afraid to ask your local yarn store – or even directly ask the yarn brands – if you can’t find the certifications or fibres you’re looking for. The more people ask for eco-friendly yarns, the easier they’ll become to find, as more brands will respond to the demand for them.