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What yarns are the most environmentally friendly? “Eco” yarns have been getting a lot of buzz in the press–nearly every yarn-y magazine has run a “green” issue this year, and for the most part they seem to be talking about cool new stuff you can buy to feel “green,” but what of the real environmental impact of your yarn purchases? Here are my opinions on fibers and choices you can make towards a greener earth when it comes to yarn. (This list is by no means exhaustive–please add to it in the comments!)

1) Wool. Wool has to be everyone’s favorite knitting and crochet fiber. And for good reason, it has bounce and resilience, it is water resistant, and it keeps us warm. But raising farm animals uses a lot of energy. How can you use wool in an environmentally friendly way?

* Find a local producer–if you’re buying yarn from a local farm where its spun and dyed there, or you have a boutique mill in your area that processes wool from throughout your region, use it. You’ll be saving on lots of energy it takes to move yarn from wool gatherer to manufacturer, to distributor, to retailer. You’ll also be supporting your local economy.

* Use organic wool. Organic farmers and processors think about environmental impact of their work from sheep to skein. They don’t use chemicals on the feed they give their sheep, they don’t treat the sheep or the wool with harsh chemcials. Consider the O-Wool or Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool

2) Cotton. Cotton is renewable, it’s soft, but it is one of the crops that requires more chemicals then any other to produce and manufacture. If you want to use cotton, buy organic. Consider Galler Yarn’s Inca Cotton and Blue Sky Alpacas. Other “big box” yarn companies have come up with their own lines of organic yarn recently including Universal Yarn, Bernat and Lion Brand. Lion’s says it is certified organic, but the other two just say “organic.” Call the companies and ask about their certification. We need to be vigilant about “greenwashing” and using the organic label just to sell yarn.

3) Hemp. Hemp is a wonderful fiber, it softens with washing, its strong, naturally anti-bacterial, and is normally grown without any chemicals. Unfortunately, most of the hemp yarn available to us in the United States is produced in China which means a considerable amount of energy is used to transport it even before the yarn enters the US supply chain. (Even the US military, when they want to use hemp rope, cannot buy it from a US source because it is illegal to grow it here). If you love hemp, consider joining the Organic Consumers Association–one of their causes is lobbying for legal hemp farming in the United States. (They also support organic cotton and fair trade).

4) Soy Fiber. There’s a lot of interest these days in fiber that comes from corn and soy. Soy fiber is a by-product material using waste from tofu manufacturing and is therefore eco-friendly is many ways. Soy fiber does usually come from China. Soy yarn originated in the US with Southwest Trading Company, and they still have the biggest variety.

5) Corn fiber is being promoted by huge agribusiness, so I’m a bit wary about it, but I’m keeping an open mind. Corn fiber uses, but is not dependent upon, GMO corn. Here’s some an FAQ about it from the corn fiber (Ingeo) marketing board. Interestingly, dextrose, or corn sugar is the material used to make the corn fiber, which means that any plant that produces sugar, i.e. sugar cane, beets, etc. could be used to make fiber as well.

6) Flax. Linen is the the name of fiber that comes from the flax plant. Linen has a lot of the same properties of hemp, but it is produced all over the world and can be legally grown in the US and elsewhere. Louet Sales is the most famous producer of linen yarn and they’ve begun to expand their line of “Euroflax” to include linen blends. I’m excited about Claudia’s Hand Painted Yarn introducing hand-dyed linen.

7) Bamboo. I love bamboo. It is soft and silky, it has drape, and resilience. Like hemp, it’s naturally anti-bacterial. It’s renewable. But my love for bamboo stops there. Unfortunately, bamboo is most commonly processed like rayon (viscose). The rayon processing is very chemical-heavy, and these chemicals end up becoming an environmental hazard. Because bamboo is already popular as a “green” fiber, I worry that not enough is being done to create a more eco-friendly way of processing it. There are no US producers of rayon.

8) Tencel. Tencel comes from wood pulp, and is technically a type of rayon, but it is processed in a more sustainable way. Tencel requires a toxic solvent, but the solvent is recovered and recycled. The resulting fiber is strong and soft. It’s great for lace. Take a look at Just Our Yarns.

9) Use your stash. Not buying new materials is probably the best way to reduce our environmental impact. It’s hard for me to say this–I love yarn companies and the people involved, many of them have strong environmental missions themselves, but it can’t be avoided that lack of consumption is better than consumption when it comes to the environment.

10) Find your yarn second-hand.
*Swap with your friends, or folks on Ravelry
*Go to the thrift store and buy yarn or unravel old sweaters
*Talk to your relatives who used to crochet or knit
*If your knitting for charity, you can often get donated yarn for free.
*Re-knit something you didn’t like much into something else.

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