One of my retirement ambitions was to learn more of the needle arts. From my teen years I'd sewn garments and dabbled in crewel and needlepoint, and I even hooked a rug (which I'll NEVER do again). Knitting and crochet had thus far eluded me, and I wanted to try them. My sister was happy to get me started knitting this winter. Then in a sewing class I met some circular loom knitters, and it looked like fun. Before long, I was loom-knitting warm winter hats for my entire family. They just loved them, and I was delighted to have found a relaxing and productive handcraft that allows for a little artistic invention to boot. What a deal!
Then I got to thinking about a hand-loomed cap to which I could affix my Green Seniors pin (badge, button). This led me to consider the environmental aspect of yarn manufacture and fiber origination. I went to the yarn shop, on my bicycle as usual, and started to read all the labels. The most common fiber was acrylic, or acrylic blended with some wool or polyester. There was all-wool and all-cotton yarn in lesser variety. Finally, there were the new varieties: organic cotton, bamboo, soy and corn blends.
Yarns in this store were manufactured in the United States, Canada, Italy, China, Turkey, and a few other places I can't recall. The diversity of final manufacture startled me because of the enormous prevalence of Chinese-made goods for most other commodities in the American marketplace. If the craft store were converted into a map of the world according to the source of the merchandise, it would nearly all be China with a handful of other nations squeezed into the yarn aisle.
Next I checked the Web to see what I could learn about acrylic, the most prevalent yarn, and about the ecological footprint of all kinds of yarn. Acrylic is a man-made fiber, of course. I found out it was first used in athletic socks and has since become common in most types of apparel and other uses of fiber. On the plus side, acrylic is soft and comfortable, wicks moisture away from the skin, resists bacteria and mold, and is extremely durable. It is essentially a plastic, and therein lies its downside. When acrylic apparel finally wears out, does it last forever in a landfill? I suspect that is the case.
The best statement I found about the environmental impact of yarns was that it was hard to tease out the true ecological footprint. There appears to be no one solution to "greening" one's yarn, as it is with a great many of the goods we consider a normal part of life. It's going to take some time and some digging to come up with green options.
Corn and soy? I'm from the corn belt, where ethanol and biodiesel are all the rage. Using byproducts is one thing, but burning food in vehicles or making it into clothing? Food that requires fertilizer, pesticides, gasoline-burning farm implements, and often, coal-powered manufacturing plants? No way.
Bamboo? It has promise, but the unknowns involved in tropical areas far removed from environmental understanding are troubling. What do we know about how it is harvested and processed?
Organic cotton? I'm sure it is preferable to regular cotton, but what I've seen of cotton fields in this country are irrigated from aquifers. Cotton fabric wears out fairly soon and stays wet a long time after washing--often longer than the sun shines on the clothes hung on the line.
Wool? I read that vegans may object to wool, but I have survived many winters grateful for its comfort. However, wool can be tricky to care for.
I intend to enjoy my hobby using any of the yarns that suit the project, except cotton. We use all kinds of things manufactured from petroleum, but that's surely better than burning it for fuel. I'm not ready to snub acrylic yarn or durable plastics. In time, the footprint of yarns will become clearer, and another decision can then be made. Meanwhile, you CAN green up your knitting hobby by paying attention to these peripheral, but potentially significant, aspects:
GreenGranny's tips for knitting "green"
1. Don't drive alone in your vehicle just to visit the craft store.
2. Use your knit things for more than style. A soft knit hat that you've made to fit comfortably is great to wear to bed on cold nights! I plan to wear mine under my bicycle helmet.
3. Don't stuff every closet and drawer with your hand-knitted garments (or your other clothing for that matter). Own fewer clothes. See that the ones you don't need go to a good use. Just because you are making hats with your own hands doesn't mean it is therefore "green" to have 10 or 20 of them. Those of you making knit toys and other novelties, this applies to you too. Your grandkids can only use so many of these items.
4. Hand or machine wash and air-dry your knitting and avoid dry cleaning.
5. Consider reusing yarn from projects you no longer need. That afgan that's been in a closet for the last 15 years, the one with dated colors, might have yarn that could be used in more current color combinations for a handbag or in making felted wool projects.
6. Thift shops are a good place to find the handmade knitted or crocheted things of a generation ago. Perhaps if they were to age another 100 years, someone would collect them. Instead, things once considered lovely languish there. You might be able to put them to some use.
The Best "Green"
As I made a knit hat for each granddaughter, I thought about what would look nice on her, what would suit her taste. When I sent the box off, I included a hand-written note telling each girl why I chose the color and style for her hat, and why it was uniquely hers.
The following week I was talking to Lily, age 8, on the phone.
"Did you like the hat I sent?" I asked.
"Yes, Grandma, and I liked the note you sent even better."
Then she added, "and I happen to be wearing the hat right now."
"Are you outside?" I asked. (It was a warm winter hat.)
"No" she said. "I'm inside, but I just wanted to be wearing it."
I smiled to myself. Something told me that the love that went into that hat was doing its work well. It was a blue hat, but I think it was the "greenest" hat of all--one that will be worn and enjoyed as a bond between us for a long time to come.