Let’s talk about what constitutes an “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” yarn/fabric fiber.
Basics things to keep in mind regarding textile labeling:
100% Wool, 100% Silk : Animal fiber=high carbon impact, no matter how you slice it. In addition to supporting cruelty.
Made in China : Most likely, the workers were paid low wages and scarce water was used to dye the yarn (specifically from the Yangtze river of Yellow river, which most of India and China rely on for clean water). It also means the untreated runoff from the dyeing or bleaching of the fibers will further hurt the water supply of those in the area.
Synthetic Fiber: ALWAYS means that 1) it harmed the environment in production, 2) it won’t biodegrade, and 3) it will poison the soil after it wears out and you throw it away.
So synthetic is bad, wool is bad, and “made in China” is bad. What’s GOOD? Let’s start with energy use.
Here is an except of an article from oecotextiles.wordpress.com detailing the energy use per kg of fiber:
|Embodied Energy used in production of various fibers:|
|energy use in MJ per KG of fiber:|
|flax fibre (MAT)||10|
SOURCE: “LCA: New Zealand Merino Wool Total Energy Use”, Barber and Pellow, http://www.tech.plym.ac.uk/sme/mats324/mats324A9%20NFETE.htm
“Natural fibers, in addition to having a smaller carbon footprint in the production of the spun fiber, have many additional benefits:
- being able to be degraded by micro-organisms and composted (improving soil structure); in this way the fixed CO2 in the fiber will be released and the cycle closed. Synthetics do not decompose: in landfills they release heavy metals and other additives into soil and groundwater. Recycling requires costly separation, while incineration produces pollutants – in the case of high density polyethylene, 3 tons of CO2 emissions are produced for ever 1 ton of material burnt. Left in the environment, synthetic fibers contribute, for example, to the estimated 640,000 tons of abandoned fishing nets in the world’s oceans.
- sequestering carbon. Sequestering carbon is the process through which CO2 from the atmosphere is absorbed by plants through photosynthesis and stored as carbon in biomass (leaves, stems, branches, roots, etc.) and soils. Jute, for example, absorbs 2.4 tons of carbon per ton of dry fiber. “
That information is just the tip of the iceberg, but it gives us something to start with. There are a handful of fibers that weren’t analyzed on this list, but we can clearly see that wool and synthetics use the most energy to produce. We can also take into account that conventional cotton production isn’t very efficient, but yet is still better than wool and synthetics. Let’s dig a little deeper.
What makes something eco-friendly?
Like the term “natural”, ” eco-friendly” is often liberally applied without much proof.
Many lifestyle Youtubers and bloggers talk extensively about the many brands of clothing that are “sustainable”, but the fact is, shopping at a our normal rate isn’t sustainable no matter what brand you are buying from. Also, many times something is Fair-Trade, it still isn’t made very well because in order to keep the prices reasonable by the average person’s standards, something has to be cut- and since it isn’t wages, it is fabric quality. Spend some time on “sustainable” clothing websites and you’ll see that many use viscose rayon, wool, and silk. None of which are low-impact.
Organic cotton is widely accepted as eco-friendly, even though cotton production in general is incredibly unsustainable and damaging to poor communities around the world. Cotton takes immense amounts of precious water from those who need it, and workers aren’t necessarily paid well. Even if produced in the United States, where wages are better, cotton still uses much more land than other crops.
My point is: We should never believe that the label “Fair-Trade” or “Sustainable” makes something good.
After much digging into the impacts of manufacturing over the course of a year, here’s what eco-friendly means to me:
~grown without pesticides
Nettle, hemp, and linen/flax satisfy this criteria
~ improved soil and air quality in the area grown (through carbon sequestering)
Hemp sequesters 1.8-2 kg of carbon for every 1 kg grown!
~minimal water usage
Cotton uses 8,000 to 10,000 liters of water to grow 1 kilogram. Hemp uses 300 to 500 liters of water to produce 1 kg- of which 30% is suitable for fabric production. Still a significant reduction.
~minimal land use
~didn’t need many chemicals to soften the fibers before turning them into fabric or yarn
This is why viscose-type yarns or fabrics are problematic. Usually, a type of ammonia is used to break down the fibers before spinning and weaving. Tencel is an assumed exception because the chemicals are not dumped but are reused.
~made or partially made in a 1st world country (so that impoverished didn’t have to deal with the possible manufacturing waste)
Ideally, spun by a small business owner who charges a fair price for the work they put into the yarn and dyed the yarn with natural/biodegradable dyes and mordants.
The fibers that I think are most sustainable:
Not much info is available regarding soy yarns besides the fact that it is “upcycled” waste from the tofu and soymilk industries. This is one of the two by-product fibers that I think are good to use due to the fact that the material would otherwise be discarded-much like coconut flour for baking, a by-product of coconut oil manufacturing. Soybean yarn is not very easy to find, but unspun fibers can be purchased on Etsy and spun in a custom blend.
The second by-product material that I think is worth using. More than a billion tons of banana stems are thrown away each year. Banana silk is made from those discarded stems, and serves as a strong alternative to silk- both fabric and yarn. It can be found on Etsy and on the website Darn Good Yarn.
Nettle has been used for thousands of years both in India and in parts of Europe. Nettle is a perennial and doesn’t require seeds to spread, which leads to more yield without the need to purchase new seeds. It also provides useful by-products such as sugar, starch and tea leaves. Handspun and undyed nettle can be purchased on Etsy.
I’ve already mentioned some amazing benefits of hemp earlier in this post, but some other cool things include the fact that hemp is hypoallergenic, doesn’t require pesticides, and is extremely durable. Hemp can be made into fleece, canvas, jersey, yarn, and rope. All of which can be purchased at Etsy stores. I hope to follow a Pintrest rug-making tutorial with hemp and jute rope soon.
One of the very first fabrics mankind used. This fiber comes from the flax plant and does not retain heat- making it especially great to keep you cool while you sleep. I can testify from personal experience that it really does! Linen is a totally natural fiber and stronger than cotton. I recommend purchasing (as always) from an individual or small business on Etsy. However, I myself do purchase linen yarn occasionally from yarn.com, as they have a pretty good selection.
Washing your fiber:
Eucalan is the most popular wash for home yarn or weaving projects. However, it is not vegan. It contains lanolin- derived from sheep skin. And, a modified version at that.
A better choice:
Soap nut liquid is much safer for your skin and the earth. To make some, simply boil 2-4 soap nuts in 2 cups of water. Let cool, and use 2 tbsp of the solution per sink-sized load of yarn or weaving to wash. The rest of the solution can be stored in a jar in the refrigerator for around 2 weeks.
Main Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash
In addition to teaching for a living, I also love to crochet and sew. I’m new to selling on Etsy, but I have written a pattern for a great pair of crochet socks. I hope you’ll check it out and support me! 🙂