Environmental Impacts of Different Fiber Types

We all have a favorite fiber to work with, but what is actually involved in getting that fiber from its original source to our local yarn store? This inquisitive knitter is here to investigate! I will be discussing sheep wool, alpaca wool, bamboo yarn, cotton yarn, and acrylic yarn production.

Sheep wool is essentially the perfect renewable resource and is biodegradable. The hair is grown by the animal over the course of their lifetime, can be sheared annually, and sheep can live happily on a variety of naturally occurring vegetation. The environmental impacts of sheep wool come from the use of pesticides and insecticides to protect the sheep from harmful insect life or in mass wool production. Sheep require a large amount of land in comparison to the growth of other fiber types and sheep in large numbers can produce a harmful amount of methane, contributing to climate change. Purchasing organic wool means that you avoid any use of insecticides on the animal and sourcing wool from small, locally-owned farms avoids the impacts of mass production.

Alpaca wool is similar to sheep wool in its renewability and biodegradability. Alpaca are also very hardy animals that can survive in a variety of harsh conditions and they can be sheared annually. Pesticides are very seldom necessary for the production of alpaca wool and their soft hooves mean that they contribute very little to erosion. When it comes to fiber quality, alpaca wool is hypoallergenic (lacking the lanolin present in sheep’s wool), water repellent, stronger than merino wool, and lacks any prickly feel that is commonly noted with sheep’s wool. Basically, alpaca wool is awesome.

Bamboo yarn is the rising star when it comes to plant-based fibers. Bamboo is absolutely beautiful to work with, creates a lustrous sheen, and is relatively affordable in comparison to other luxury fibers such as cashmere and silk. Bamboo as a plant is extremely beneficial to the environment. It grows quickly and can survive in a range of different climates, making it an exceptional option for a renewable fiber source. Trimming the plant is also beneficial to its growth, so the harvesting process actually helps the plant continue to thrive. Bamboo is able to grow in very dense patches, easing the need for large expanses of land and eliminates CO2 from the environment while producing 35% more oxygen than trees of equivalent size. Bamboo is also biodegradable and can be grown without the need for pesticides and fertilizers. At this point bamboo is sounding too good to be true! Unfortunately, that is partially accurate. Bamboo in its plant form is extremely beneficial to the environment, but the process of turning that plant into the fiber we know and love is where the problem lies. Bamboo is processed in one of two ways: mechanically or chemically. Mechanical production involves crushing the plant until the natural fibers can be spun out. This method is rarely used, however, due to the fact that it is less time and cost effective. Chemical production involves treating the fiber with sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide. In large quantities, both of these compounds can be harmful to the environment.

Cotton yarn production is, unfortunately, quite harmful for the environment. Cotton plants require significant pesticide use, making up 16% of all insecticide and almost 7% of all herbicide use worldwide. The production of the fertilizers necessary to grow cotton causes a major output of carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change. These harmful agents also cause contamination of local water supplies. Cotton growth can require huge amounts of water (20,000 liters of water are necessary to grow 1 kilogram of cotton: enough to make 1 pair of jeans and 1 t-shirt) and will change the composition of soil over time, decreasing soil fertility. In order to keep the soil fertile, large amounts of nitrates are added to the land which breaks down and releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming 300 times more significantly than carbon dioxide. Despite all of these negatives, cotton is biodegradable and there are options for purchasing organic cotton. You don’t have to stop shopping for cotton, you just have to smart shop for cotton.

And finally, let’s talk about acrylic fibers. The one aspect of acrylic fiber that will always be attractive is its low cost. The concept that you can knit a jumper for less than $20 is pretty appealing, especially when that cost would jump to about $150-200 using merino wool. However, acrylic is extremely harmful to the environment. Despite all of the negatives that surround some of the natural fibers listed above, one positive they all share is the fact that they are biodegradable. Acrylic yarn is plastic which means that it will take decades to completely break down. The production of acrylonitrile (the main compound used in acrylic yarns) uses significant amounts of fossil fuels, majorly contributing to climate change and global warming. Once the fiber is actually produced, it also continues to have negative effects on human health as acrylonitrile is identified as being a potentially cancerous agent by absorption through the skin. Acrylic fabrics continue to be harmful to the environment throughout their lifetime, releasing microplastics into the water supply every time they are washed. Microplastics contribute to 85% of human-made debris along shorelines worldwide, including both fresh and salt water sources.
This is only a brief insight into a few fiber types. There are lots of other options like mohair, linen, angora, yak, camel, hemp, silk, cashmere, etc. If you are concerned about the environmental impacts of your crafting, do some research! There is a wealth of information online about how each fiber is made. Most importantly, shop with small businesses wherever you can! The major environmental impact of most of these fibers is only a problem because of mass production. If you buy from small, local businesses that use sustainable practices, the environmental impacts will be significantly less detrimental. Also consider the lifetime of handmade clothing. Handmade garments typically have an extremely long lifespan, so even if you really need to purchase some inexpensive acrylic yarn because money is a bit tight, hold on to that knitwear for years to come and you eliminate any environmental impacts that go along with updating your wardrobe every few months.

In conclusion, do your research and be an informed fiber artist!
Much love,
Morgan

3 comments

  • Thank you soooo much for this article! I am simply amazed by all the information you have given.

    Bridgette
  • You’re very right – thank you for the link! This barely scratches the surface of all of the factors to take into account when choosing a fibre type. I suppose at the end of the day, the best we can do is support local, small businesses as much as possible.

    Morgan xx

    Morgan
  • Sheep also produces emissions of harmful greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide – see www.google.co.uk/amp/s/theconversation.com/amp/to-reduce-greenhouse-gases-from-cows-and-sheep-we-need-to-look-at-the-big-picture-56509. And for most wool yarns available, it’s hard to find out where the wool comes from and if the animals were treated ethically.

    Vix

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