Beatrice is keeping me clean

In my younger days I did a lot of dressmaking, but I don’t do so much now, partly because I don’t live alone (as I did until I was nearly 30) and using a sewing machine is not very sociable. Knitting and crochet, on the other hand are quiet and portable and I’m better at them! However, the older I get the more sewing I find myself doing. This way I can choose eco-friendly fabrics and turn them into garments that I actually want to wear and that won’t fall to bits after a few months.

I’ve been wanting a new apron to wear whilst cooking for a while now. My old one was ok, but didn’t provide the coverage I wanted and didn’t have pockets. I hadn’t seriously looked for a new one, but happened to see mention on the Facebook ‘Make do and Mend’ group of a pattern for, what looked to me, like a perfect pinny. It’s called Beatrice and it’s a design from Sew Me Something. I bought the pattern (delivered the next day) and ordered some fabric (one length of organic cotton and one of an organic cotton/bamboo mix from The Organic Textile Company) and some bias binding. And then, helped by the vaarks as pattern weights, I made my pinnies…

I’m really pleased with the results… although they may be too nice to get dirty! I think I might make another in denim to wear for gardening…

Oh and just a reminder, in case you missed it, that yesterday’s post involved a give-away… you can check it out here.

The trouble with quality…

… is that it lasts!

Don’t get me wrong, I still think that it’s good to buy products that won’t need to be replaced soon, I just wish that the people who owned our house before us hadn’t invested in expensive, plain dusky pink carpets in all the bedrooms and the living room. We’ve been here 14 years now and the carpets are still going strong. This has saved us huge amounts of money because the only floor covering in the house that we have needed to replace in all that time has been the lino in the kitchen (we now have a floating bamboo floor that can be sanded down and resealed when it becomes worn) but I do dislike the carpets. I wish that they’d chosen something with flecks (so it wasn’t so obvious when they needed vacuuming) and something not so… pink.

We reduce the impact with a rug in the living room

We reduce the impact with a rug in the living room

However, I simply cannot bring myself to replace something that isn’t worn out. I have considered re-carpeting the living room on a number of occasions, but I know that all I need to do is vacuum and maybe shampoo it and it will look as good as new (well, nearly) and so I don’t visit the local carpet shop or start researching environmentally friendly carpets. We do have a nice rug in front of the fire which covers up quite a bit of the pinkness, but it’s still there in the rest of the house and it’s NEVER going to wear out in the other rooms. Sometimes I wish I was a bit more frivolous.

I guess that it could have been worse, though – they could have selected a vibrant paisley pattern!

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.

-oOo-

* Amongst my favourites are: http://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/ and http://www.ecouterre.com/

** 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.

A clew of worms

Finally planted into the ground on 7 July… so late!

In a period of sunshine over the weekend (few and far between this summer) I got outside to transplant some crops into final positions in the garden. Some of my tomatoes and curcurbits had remained in pots (albeit quite large ones) in the greenhouse until now as the weather has been so bad, but finally I decided to bite the bullet and plant them out as space is limited in the greenhouse and other plants are expanding. I may get no harvest from them, but an Indian summer is possible and I can always eat the squashes before they ripen. The picture shows maize (corn), summer and winter squash and tomatoes, but I also planted leeks, spring onions and salsify (sounds like a verb not a vegetable) elsewhere.

Chickens, finally happy in each other’s company

The chickens – old and new now an integrated flock – have been on the beds that were not planted up, keeping the weeds under control, cultivating, applying fertiliser and scrumming slugs. Trouble is that they scrum worms too. We have been quite worried that our worm population may have been severely reduced as a result of chicken predation, but I’m pleased to report that, even with the high water table bringing the worms nearer to the surface and thus more accessible to chickens, there was still a good population once I dug down just a few centimetres, including some nice big fat individuals. I guess they are thriving on the added organic matter (both compost and chicken droppings) and so it looks like we have a healthy thriving soil ecosystem. HURRAH!

Of course, the rain returned all too soon and I was back indoors, where my thoughts turned to my other worms… the knitted variety. I am using amigurumi worms to test out the new yarns that have arrived. So far I have knitted worms of: acrylic, pure wool, a wool and silk mix, cotton, bamboo and soya. As I mentioned in a previous post, the latter two superficially appear to be natural fibres, but in fact are a type of rayon, so are chemically processed.

A clew of worms

And the results? Well, as you can see from the picture, they have come out rather different sizes. All the yarns I selected were supposed to be the same gauge (double knitting wool) but I had to use different sized needles to account for the amazing variation. All of the yarns have produced acceptable worms. I think that the yellow cotton yarn (Peruvian with the proceeds helping to fund children’s education in the communities who produce it) made too big a worm, but I think that it would make a lovely sweater. The soya (blue) and bamboo (pale pink on the left) yarns are quite similar and both are silky, although the bamboo has more of a sheen to it. They produced nice firm worms (I used quite small needles: 3mm) but the lack of stretch in the yarn made picking up stitches quite difficult and in the end I had to resort to using a crochet hook to do this for the bamboo. This is a bit of an issue with amigurumi, but probably wouldn’t matter if you were knitting a lovely twinset or a pair of socks. Actually I really enjoyed knitting both of them. The acrylic is cheap and cheerful – it hardly seems worthwhile putting all the effort into knitting a big garment out of it because of the quality, but it actually lends itself very well to knitting critters although it is a little floppy and would have been better on slightly smaller needles. And finally the two woolly yarns – the greenish worm is pure British wool (an oddment that I had left over from an ancient project) and was a joy to knit – just the right amount of give in the yarn so that picking up stitches was easy. The lilac silk and wool yarn (on the right) was very similar, but a little softer (I have some lovely bed socks made out of it).

So my conclusion? Well, I’m still a fan of sheep’s wool. For my vegan customers I will keep experimenting with plant fibres (I have some hemp/cotton yarn ordered), but for me and those who don’t mind animal fibres, I will be sticking with wool.

Oh, and the next experiment is knitting a ‘bath puff’ with the hemp/cotton…. seems better than the nylon options available in the shops.

And, yes, clew really is the collective noun for worms!

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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