What are some sustainable non-animal yarn options?
When I wrote the blog ” Knitting yarn: How can you be more sustainable? “ I didn’t include many vegetarian yarn options. I talked about cotton and bamboo, but there are 4 other yarns that are worth considering if you want to make more sustainable choices and you can’t, or don’t want to wear wool for ethical reasons. These are Tencel (R), Nettle, Linen/flax and Seaweed. To be truly vegetarian/vegan, the yarn needs to be made from cellulose plant fibres and processed in a way which doesn’t include any animal products. (for example, animal proteins are sometimes used in softening agents.)
Cellulose has a totally different cellular structure to that of animal fibres like sheep wool or alpaca hair. It is strong, with tough cell walls and so does not naturally lend itself to being a soft fibre to wear on the body. (Very much like a bamboo stalk.) Cellulose needs to be processed mechanically or chemically to break down the tough cell walls and make something soft and pliable enough to be spun into yarn. Traditionally, nettle fibre and linen would literally be bashed to soften the cells and fermented to break down the fibres before spinning, and the fibre would have been quite coarse and rough to wear. Now, plant fibres can be processed mechanically with a better result! Here’s a very interesting article which tells you how….
Cellulose fibres don’t really stretch very well, even when woven into a yarn, so can sometimes be blended with wool fibres to make them easier to knit and crochet with. Just be aware of this when you are considering which vegetarian plant yarn to buy.
Tencel (R) is the brand name of lyocell fibre. It is made from wood pulp from Eucalyptus or beech trees which are often grown on waste land that cannot be conventionally farmed. To find out more about the process, read here for the details. Tencel does not use toxic chemicals in production, and the chemicals are re-used over and over in a closed loop system. It takes industrial dyes well so less dyes are needed and it is white in its pure state so needs no bleaching elements in production.
As a yarn it is smooth and very soft and silky.
It isn’t as “splitty” as cotton can be and it has lots of drape so is ideal for garments like shawls and drape cardigans.
Tencel doesn’t hold stitch definition very well because it is so soft so is better suited to lacy patterns or simple stitches.
It doesn’t stretch so this should be considered when choosing yarn and pattern.
Like other cellulose fibres Linen needs to be broken down mechanically or chemically to obtain the fine fibres which are then used for textiles or yarn. This article might interest you… It can be very fibrous as a yarn, and is generally mixed with other fibres to make it more knitter-friendly.
Nettle fibre has been used for weaving clothing for hundreds of years with archaeological evidence of production from all over the world. Surprisingly, nettles can be hard to grow commercially on a large scale, and so in the 16th century as cotton production increased, nettle cloth production fell. From a sustainability point of view, nettles are better for the environment than cotton because they need much less water and few pesticides.
The fibre is produced in a similar way to linen, and is often blended with wool. 100% nettle fibre can be found, but it is hard to work with due to its fibrous texture.
The seaweed used is brown Knotted Wrack which grows in the fjords of Iceland and around the British isles. It is a sustainable, natural crop when sensitively harvested. The seaweed is processed with lyocell to produce “seacell” yarns. In fact the seaweed is an additive to the wood pulp which acts as a cellulose host fibre. The seaweed content in seacell yarns is usually about 5%. Thus seacell yarns are very similar to tencel.
Making a Choice
When considering a vegetarian yarn option, have a think about what you want to make with the yarn. Some yarns are more drapey and suited to garments, like Tencel and Seacell, while others are more “robust” and suited to accessories like bags, cushion covers and household items, for example bath scrubbies made from linen or nettle.
Check the label to be sure the fibre hasn’t been blended with any animal fibres. It should be clear what percentage the fibres are in the yarn. Ideally choose a yarn that is organic and ethically produced. Tencel fulfills this criteria with its environmentally sound production methods.
If you want to naturally dye your plant yarn, be aware that it takes a lot of scouring and preparing before the fibres will hold the dye colour. The dye colours are usually much paler and softer on plant yarns than animal fibres. Indigo is the exception to this rule and dyes cellulose fibres very well.