The ethics of knitting yarns

Right at the beginning of this blog I said that it was intended to be an account of my own small steps towards a sustainability… perhaps I should have said a more sustainable lifestyle. Many of my musings have been about my own food production… vegetables, eggs, fruit… slugs as chicken food, but I’m also interested in the other aspects of my life – clothing, entertainment, my home and earning a living. My approach with the latter is to practice ‘poly-employment’ – not putting all my eggs in one basket, but having several income sources. At present I have two main ways that I earn a living – scientific editing and teaching adults (I teach ecology, conservation, biological survey and permaculture) – but I want another string to my bow.

With this in mind I am in the process of setting up a small business to make and sell teaching aids for the subjects that I run courses on. Over the years I have developed lots of tools to use to help me when I’m teaching – games, props, aides-memoirs, simulations and so on. I take an accelerated learning approach, and a variety of was of delivering learning is very important (different people learn in different ways and my aim is to cater for all). The knitted snails (in all their glory at the top of my blog page) are examples of a teaching tool – I use them for a story-telling exercise to demonstrate that small steps can take you a long way in either a positive or a negative direction. I have used them a few times, once with a group of trainee and experienced permaculture teachers who gave me very good feedback and, indeed, requested their own snails.

So I set to knitting snails… I know how to do it and you would think that there would be few ethical dilemmas associated with snail-knitting. You would be wrong! The dilemma comes with the materials used. There are two main components – yarn and stuffing. I’ll start with the latter.

The most common soft toy filling is polyester wadding – it’s lightweight and washable. I had a little of this hanging around the house and so it was the obvious choice for the first snails that I knitted. But when it was used up I was reluctant to buy more… it’s a petroleum-based product and, as such, not exactly sustainable. So what else to use? I considered wool or silk, but I expect that some of my customers will be vegan and, therefore, not want to buy any animal products. Which meant I was looking for a plant fibre. At this point I realised that the toys we made as children were stuffed with kapok and, whilst not washable like polyester, it is widely available and has a proven track record. My snails only need to be surface washable, so kapok it is… I even managed to find someone selling organic kapok.

But my problems were not over… there is a much wider choice of yarn than stuffing and each fibre has different qualities. I need a slightly stretchy yarn for the snails. The originals were made from oddments that I had lying around – the dark purple is pure wool and the lilac is a wool-silk mix. These are great to knit with, but not suitable for vegan customers. I am trying to use up lots of yarn oddments that I have here at home and I suppose that this is a sound approach because I’m turning a waste product into a useful resource, but in the long-term it’s not sustainable because I do not have an unlimited amount of left-over yarn and, anyway, much of it is sheep’s wool. I wanted to make a start on the knitting, so the first non-animal yarn available to me was acrylic – this is readily available and it is cheap. But, like polyester, this is a product of the petrochemical industry. So, although I did make some snails from acrylic yarn, this is not my ideal raw material.

So, I hit the internet…

I started off by searching for recycled yarn. The most readily available seems to be recycled silk. There are several problems with this for me. First, it’s not vegan; second, it’s not stretchy; third, its gauge varies, which is not ideal for the snails; and finally it’s quite expensive. There’s some recycled cotton yarn available, but it’s generally combined with acrylic.

Cotton, itself seems like a good choice except for its lack of stretch. However, conventionally produced cotton relies on high applications of pesticides and is water-hungry. Indeed, one source I found states that “2.5% of all farmland worldwide is used to grow cotton, yet 10% of all chemical pesticides and 22% of insecticides are sprayed on cotton” – astonishing figures. New organic cotton is available and there are yarn manufacturers that help support small producers. I decided that I would give some of this a try even though I don’t think it is really the ideal yarn for my projects… and, of course, there are ‘yarn miles’ associated with it.

OK, so I searched for eco-yarns and environmentally friendly yarns and came up with a whole list. There are some great manufacturers who support small producers across the world, but many of these make use of fibres from animals – sheep and alpacas, in particular. I am happy to use such yarn and I intend to explore the qualities of the different ‘wools’, but I still need to find something that will satisfy my vegan customers. I know that twine or linen can be made out of flax, hemp and nettle fibres, but they have little stretch in them and after some consideration I have had to dismiss them. However, I also know that other plants are being used to make yarn – bamboo seems to be appearing frequently in eco-clothing ranges at the moment. As I searched the internet, I started to come across yarn from some unexpected sources – maize, for example, and soya. And most bizarre of all, milk – yes milk!

So, my quest began to discover how such yarns are produced. One great source was a blog post on milk fibre, that suggests that its production relies on some unpleasant chemicals and that you need a huge amount of milk to make a small amount of yarn.

Typing ‘how is bamboo yarn made?’ into Google returned about 6 million results, so I thought I’d start with the first one… I wasn’t filled with confidence when it started ‘Bamboo yarn is derived from the bamboo tree…’ As a botanist, I can assure you that bamboo is a grass – a great big grass, but nevertheless a grass not a tree. I persisted… but all I discovered is that the process involves grinding up the plant and treating with water and ‘chemicals’. A less than enlightening article. However, a bit more searching and I discovered that all fabrics made out of reconstituted plant fibres are actually forms of rayon… now, I’ve heard of that! Rayon fibres are made from cellulose that can come from all sorts of plants, but the description that I found of its production suggests that it involves the use of caustic soda and carbon disulphide, and “results in a great deal of environmental pollution”. Sigh. So, is bamboo yarn, for example, eco-friendly? The general conclusion seems to be that it’s not entirely, but that there are some positives – bamboo grows well without the use of pesticides, grows rapidly and regrows when it has been cut (like your lawn, if you have one). And modern manufacturing processes seek to minimise the loss of chemicals to the environment, so pollution should be less than it used to be… perhaps eventually it will be produced in a completely environmentally friendly way, but not yet.

So, are there any truly environmentally friendly yarns? My inclination, for my own use, is to rely on British wool: sheep need to be shorn for welfare reasons and their wool can be processed and dyed using relatively natural products. In future I will knit my socks out of wool from Blue-faced Leicester sheep if possible. But for my vegan customers, I don’t have an ideal answer. This morning a package of different yarns arrived: bamboo, soya and cotton for me to try out… none of them have the give I really want in a yarn, but all of them are soft and may be wonderful to knit with. So, needles at the ready to produce so  eco(ish) snails.

… oh, and I’m knitting worms too!

Leave a comment


  1. I really appreciate you sharing your efforts to think about sustainability in a systemic way. It’s the same sort of conundrum I struggle with in my daily choices as well, and often selecting the best option is easy at all. I think the willingness to consider the consequences of the choices we make is the most important thing of all.

    • I have to agree – if people at least thought about their choices it would make quite a difference. I hanker for a world where there is a right and a wrong choice, but sadly everything seems to be a compromise to some extent. However, I’m just about to make my dinner almost entirely out of the garden, so at least I can feel good about that!

  2. I’m looking forward to seeing the worms of different fibres, I hope you post some photos. Good on you for looking for different types of wool to use and taking into account the ‘wool miles’. So many times you hear people using something they consider ethical but had to ship it in from far away, completely defeating the purpose!

    • I do find it hard to know whether to buy a product that has a lot of ‘miles’ associated with it but support a community that needs the income, or to buy local and support a local community.
      I am planning to start knitting worms soon and will certainly post pictures and an assessment of the yarns.

  3. I’ve been away from your blog for a while, and just catching up. This is a great post. We all need to think about things we consume in this way, and talk with others in order to learn more and develop new perspectives.

    If you’re militantly vegan or local or sustainable or organic, it’s easy to oversimplify a complex situation.

    • Sometimes I wish things were more black and white! I guess life must be much easier for people who are militant about one particular viewpoint… I am cursed by being thoughtful!

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