The eco bath puff collection

Anyone who has been following this blog for a while will know about my search for a green bath puff and the various trials I have conducted with patterns and yarns. It’s not been easy and I have finally had to accept that it is impossible, using natural materials, to recreate the qualities of nylon exhibited by the standard bath puffs you can buy in supermarkets and chemists (drug stores) for a few  pounds (dollars). For example, none of the fibres I have tested produce the amount of lather that you get from a nylon puff* and all of them are much more absorbent, being more like a spherical flannel (wash cloth) in some cases.

However, if you wish to tread more lightly on the planet, sometimes you have to adapt… and I now have a range of bath puffs that have different characteristics and suit different people. All of the puffs I have made use recycled, upcycled, waste or organically produced fibres and are I make them by hand, so certainly have less impact on the earth than the commercial nylon versions. They are all crocheted by me… a skill I have learned specifically because of this project, but which I’m now using to make all sorts of other things. So, what sort of puffs have I made? The following is a list of fibres used, their source and characteristics.

Acrylic: all the acrylic yarn that I use is either reclaimed from previous projects (e.g. unravelled jumpers) or is left over from completed or abandoned projects (usually not mine!). Acrylic bath puffs are the least absorbent of any that I make, although they still hold a lot more water than a nylon puff and so take longer to dry. They have a slight abrasiveness that increases with use. They produce some lather, but this depends on the soap/shower gel you use and how hard or soft your water is. This is the sort of puff I take with me when I am travelling.

Organic cotton: So far, this has had to be purchased new, and is relatively expensive. However, it does make up into a lovely soft and gentle puff – ideal for delicate skin. You don’t get much lather and it is very absorbent so takes quite a long time to dry: you need to think of this version as a type of wash cloth. I have used two different yarns for these puffs so far: Debbie Bliss Ecoaran (in shocking pink) and Twilley’s Sincere Organic Cotton (in a pinky-beige).

Recycled cotton and acrylic: This yarn (Sirdar’s Simply Recycled Cotton- Rich), made of 51% recycled cotton and 49% acrylic, combines qualities of the two yarns described above: the softness of cotton and the reduced absorbency of acrylic. I like the principle of using a recycled fibre (from t-shirt manufacturing), but sadly the acrylic doesn’t seem to be recycled. I’ve made these in a terracotta colour and  in green (how appropriate!).

Upcycled wool: Whilst not to everyone’s taste, this is the fibre I prefer my bath puff to be made of.  The sort of wool has an effect on how abrasive these puffs are, but all wool tends to be a little bit ‘scratchy’. I use wool collected from unravelled jumpers or left-overs, so it’s rare that I know the brand or type of wool. They tend to shed some fine fibres to begin with, but this soon stops. After a couple of months of use, the wool starts to felt, but this makes them even nicer to use. I’ve made these in green and purple so far… my bath puff here at home is a purple one made from wool from an old cardigan.

So, these are my basic fibres, but I have experimented with adding a thread of hemp fibre to one of the organic cotton puffs to make it a little more abrasive, as exfoliation seems to be a requirement for some folks. And here they are:

A bowl of bath puffs!

A bowl of bath puffs!

So, if you’d like one, contact me (thesnailofhappiness@talktalk.net) – for UK customers, they are £10 each including delivery, if you’re further afield, I’ll have to check the postage.

-oOo-

* Although using GreenPeople shower gel helps a lot!

Green bath puff 3… I can’t believe there’s another sequel

A woolly washball (Jacob wool, awaiting decoration) and a woolly bath puff

A woolly washball (Jacob wool, awaiting decoration) and a woolly bath puff

When I started this business with the bath puffs, I had no idea that it would come to occupy so much of my time and my blog… but that’s life isn’t it: you take a small step and it leads you down a very long path! ‘The road goes ever on and on’ as JRR Tolkien wrote.

Early on in my quest for the green bath puff I dismissed  sheep’s wool as a fibre because of its propensity to felt. However, over the months I have learned more about wool, its properties and the way it is processed. I’ve also come round to the idea that felt might be a desirable material to wash with for some people (yes – I know some people can’t stand it on their skin, but they do seem to be in the minority). Anyway, in terms of the ethics of knitting/crochet yarns, unless you want to avoid animal products, there is a great deal to recommend wool, especially for those of us who live in the UK where few plant fibres for yarn are produced, but where we have lots of sheep.

When you buy wool yarns or garments, the label often says that they are machine-washable: this means that they shouldn’t felt when agitated in a washing machine at a warm temperature. Sometimes the label says ‘Superwash’ but this just means they have been through a patented process; there are other techniques to facilitate machine-washability. On investigation, I have found that the process required to stop wool felting and, thus, make it machine-washable,  is to either remove the scales on the wool by stripping them off with acid, or coating the wool with a polymer. Neither of these approaches sound particularly environmentally friendly to me, but the acid can’t be too strong otherwise it would completely dissolve the wool and I’m not sure about the use of a polymer. The Natural Fibre Company have an interesting little piece about Superwash wool that suggests that the fibres from some sheep breeds (and other species) are difficult to felt anyway, so can be washed without the need for pre-treatment. I feel that these might be worth investigating in the future.  Again, however, I return to the idea of upcycled yarn because I have some I can experiment with…

Inspired by the woolly wash balls (I’ve just made one from Jacob sheep wool that’s lovely) I decided to make a wool bath puff. Using some wool that used to be a cardigan* and that I know was sold as being machine-washable, I produced yet another prototype, which I tried out this morning. It was nice to use and produced some lather (although I was using Green People Aloe shower gel, which is very concentrated)… it’s hanging up in the bathroom now to see how long it takes to dry – it can’t be as long as 100% cotton! I suspect that it will felt after a while, but perhaps that doesn’t matter.

And, finally, for the time being on bath puffs, I notice the large number of searches arriving here on my site from people who want a pattern for a knitted bath puff (as I did originally). I am guessing that, unlike me, many people are not prepared to put aside their prejudice against knitting and learn to crochet. So, over the next week or two, I’m going to design a knitting pattern… watch this space!

-oOo-

* You might also recognise it in the snails at the top of the page.

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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