ScrapHappy April 2018 #2

Yesterday’s ScrapHappy was very practical, but I’ve also been more frivolous with the scrappy activity.

You may recall my participation in The Sisterhood of the Travelling Sketchbook last year, for which my contribution was (unsurprisingly) crochet. Before I settled on what to include I did one or two trials and these have been sitting around ever since. One of was an African Flowers motif, just the right size to sit on a greetings card. So, a card base, a scrap of handmade paper and a bit of stitching and I had created this:IMGP5257It’s made me think that I should make lots more pieces of crochet specifically for greetings cards.

My second scrap yarn creation was rather unplanned. On Thursday evening I arrived at Knit Night to discover that, whilst I had taken my knitting, I had completely forgotten the pattern. Since I was at a critical point with respect to shaping, I couldn’t make any progress. However, I had promised to take along a couple of roll-up armadillo patterns for two of our new members to see (I think they thought I was joking that such patterns were available). Anyway, there was general enthusiasm about either knitting or crocheting an armadillo and everybody seemed to want one. So, I rooted about in the scrap pile in the stock room and found some lovely soft alpaca yarn, borrowed a crochet hook from the shop and started work on a little crochet armadillo. I had made the body and head by the time I went home. At home I finished off the tail, ears and limbs and dug out a small ball of wool from an old unravelled cardigan (you don’t get more scrappy than that) and made the shell. Yesterday I delivered him to Jude in Red Apple Yarn… his new home (at least until Jude’s grandson spots him):

I’m rather pleased with how this little alpacadillo turned out, with his lovely floppy ears – scraps can be used to produce some delightful things.

I’ve been inspired to write this (and future) ScrapHappy posts by Kate, who provides links to other (mostly sewing) ScrapHappy bloggers at Tall Tales from Chiconia on the fifteenth of every month… do check them out.







The wonder of wool

Yesterday I went on an adventure with Kate … over the mountains to Builth Wells and the magical land of Wonderwool.

Kate helped me to get to grips with crochet on a course last year and, since then, I haven’t looked back. It seemed very appropriate, therefore, for us to go to a festival of wool together. The most direct route between Kate’s house and Builth Wells involves a 20-mile stretch along a single track road over the mountains, complete with hair pin bends, plummeting drops and tiny bridges:

The road's so small it barely appears on the map!

The road’s so small it barely appears on the map!

We were quite surprised, therefore, to meet an articulated lorry part way! Fortunately for us, he had clearly decided that he’d made a mistake and had pulled in to one of the very few places it was possible to pass such a large vehicle – a forestry track where, with some manoeuvering, he could turn around. He wasn’t still there when we came back, so clearly he’d managed it.

We got to Builth and the Royal Welsh showground without further incident but ill-prepared for the woolly assault on our senses. There was just so much to see and so many stalls. We spent at least the first hour wandering around, stroking things and saying ‘wow’ before we were able to pull ourselves together enough to sit down with a coffee and formulate a plan. This was quite difficult, because all the stands were so mixed up that it was not possible, for example, easily to compare all those selling alpaca yarn without walking about 15 miles back and forth. However, part of the reason for going was inspiration and there was certainly plenty of that… from felt quilling to interesting bags, from a dragon to an autumn woodland, as well as yarns in every colour and gauge. Not to mention a few of the most important contributors: sheep and alpacas!

Wonderwool Wales 2014

Wonderwool Wales 2014

So, I know you’re itching to know what I bought! Well, I was quite restrained and only purchased a hand-carved lucet, a ball of yarn to knit socks for Mr Snail-of-happiness and a piece of hand-dyed cotton scrim to use for nuno felting:

Yarn, scrim and lucet

Yarn, scrim and lucet

And then, I wanted some yarn to make a Bavarian crochet blanket (in the style of Teddy and Tottie). This is what I bought:

Yarn for my Bavarian crochet

Yarn for my Bavarian crochet

I fell in love with this yarn for several reasons: it’s amazingly soft (a mix of alpaca, Blue-faced Leicester and Wensleydale wool), it comes from Yorkshire and all the yarn colours are named after places I knew as a child because that’s where I grew up. The three I chose are: Eccup (the reservoir a mile from my old family home), Filey (a seaside town we used to go to for the day in summer) and Bramley Baths (well, we used to go swimming at Meanwood Baths, but close enough!). I also love the company name… and the fact that the yarn came with a lovely cotton bag. It wasn’t cheap yarn and so it’s going to be quite a luxurious blanket, but I’m really looking forward to working with it. I was unsure about which colours to choose and dithered a lot about ‘Filey’ because it’s not a colour I would wear, but (as Kate pointed out), I’m not going to wear my blanket, am I?

Now, I think I was quite restrained, don’t you?



What’s in a yarn?

Recently I have been concentrating again on researching yarn ethics… it’s a long time since my original post. There is so much information out there and it can be really hard to wade through it all to find out what you want to know.

Having sifted through a whole load of web sites* and tracked down a very useful book**, I have managed to distill some of what I have learned into a diagram to help you and me understand what different yarns actually are:

Yarn types

Plus, here is a little table listing some information about the various yarns you might come across:

Yarn Natural/MMF Source Polymer Fibre
Wool Natural Animal Protein Spun yarn
Alpaca Natural Animal Protein Spun yarn
Silk Natural Animal Protein Spun yarn
Acrylic Manmade Petrochemical Synthetic Polyacrylic
Hemp Natural Plant Cellulose Twine, yarn
Flax Natural Plant Cellulose Twine, yarn, linen
Bamboo Manmade Plant Cellulose Rayon, Acetate, Viscose
Bamboo Natural Plant Cellulose Twine, yarn
Soya Manmade Plant Protein Rayon
Milk Manmade Plant Protein Rayon
Cotton Natural Plant Cellulose Spun yarn
Cotton Manmade Plant Cellulose Rayon
Wood Manmade Plant Cellulose Viscose
Nettle Natural Plant Cellulose Twine, yarn

I hope this will be useful when you are choosing a yarn or a fabric.


* Amongst my favourites are: and

** Eberle, H., Hornberger, M., Kupke, R., Moll, A., Hermeling, H., Kilgus, R., Menzer, D, and Ring, W. (2008) Clothing Technology… from fibre to fashion. Verlag Europa-Lehrmittel. ISBN 978-3-8085-6225-3.

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!

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