Long before we started Conscious Shop Collective, I’d had sustainable yarn on the mind. In college I sold handmade crochet scarves + accessories on Etsy. I used mass-produced, acrylic yarn for most products, because they were affordable, came in tons of colors, and were the perfect weight for the type of chunky scarves I wanted to make. It was perfect timing since oversized infinity scarves really blew up, and I loved making them! I thought myself crochet, or rather, some amazing experts who uploaded videos to YouTube did, from my college dorm, and the rest was history. But soon I started to wonder about the story behind my yarn. How was it made? What exactly are synthetic materials? Why is hand-dyed, hand-spun, and organic yarn SO expensive?
I ordered my first hand-spun yarn in a gorgeous, soft pastel-y wool via Etsy. It was the cheapest I found but still about 3 or 4 times what a skein of acrylic yarn costs at Michael’s. Obviously, it was way more beautiful and unique. But I knew at the price point I was selling my scarves at (less than $30 for most), I’d never be able to make them from yarn like this. I mean, doing the math, I’d have to more than double my prices, and I was hardly making a profit already. Plus, I made them really thick and chunky, so I usually doubled up on yarn. I might even have to quadruple my prices! Honestly, my customers weren’t about to pay $100+ for a scarf.
Eventually I moved to Los Angeles and got A Real Job and wasn’t feeling the shop so much anymore, so I phased it out. But I still love to crochet and wanted to learn more about all the options us knitters, crocheters, and weavers have when it comes to the fibers available to us. Yarn prices range from less than $3 a ball for the average craft store brand, and $40+ for others. Plenty of handmade sellers are able to create with sustainable yarns and succeed in their businesses by finding a price point customers are willing to pay, knowing they get a higher quality product (keep in mind that some sellers will use the same cheap yarn and still have high-end price points; craft is not much different than designer clothing in that respect–you still have to do your research). The way my business was set up, I was selling to people like me–college students who wanted cute, affordable gifts for friends and family. Not to say it couldn’t shift, but it would take a lot of work.
Fast forward to today, where we’ve got Josephine Yarns in our collective, a family operated retailer of natural, sustainable yarn. They founded their company after seeing what I saw: they couldn’t go to the store and find quality yarn that isn’t hard on people or the planet. Now they sell sustainably made yarn brands like Vegan Yarn’s Pakucho Original Organic Cotton Yarn shown above.
They also stock Washable Wool Organic Merino Wool Yarn. If I were still making the designs I did years ago, this would be my go-to. It’s merino so it’s super soft, and the brand makes all their yarns with low-impact dyes. But for that to be a selling point, you have to know why so many dyes aren’t low-impact, and why organic is more sustainable than not. I didn’t quite understand these concepts, so I asked Ana of Josephine Yarns to give us an overview. Here’s what she said:
Organic cotton. Unlike conventional cotton, organic cotton doesn’t use any pesticides or synthetic fertilizers in its production, and it is not grown from genetically modified seeds, making it better for both the environment and our own health. Because no harsh chemicals are used in its production, organic cotton is also much softer to the touch compared to conventional cotton. It also grows in several different beautiful shades that don’t require any dyeing.
Organic wool. Organic wool comes from sheep that have been treated well and doesn’t involve the use of any toxic substances that could harm the sheep, the planet or the people raising them. Wool is a great insulator that has the ability to keep us warm in the winter and cool in the summer. In addition, wools like merino and alpaca do not have the same “itchiness” problem as other wools.
Hemp and linen yarn. Hemp and linen yarns are produced from the stalks of the hemp and flax plants, respectively, and they require quite a bit of labour. That being said, both are quick-growing plants that rarely require the use of pesticides as they have very few pest problems. The resulting yarns are very strong and durable, and get softer with every wash. Naturally, choosing organic options ensures that the process of producing these fibers is even better for both planet and people.
3 Not so sustainable yarns
Synthetic yarns (acrylic, nylon, polyester). Most synthetic yarns are petroleum-based, which poses problems in the production phase considering the damage that the oil industry is inflicting on our planet, and from the fact that they are not biodegradable, adding to their environmental burden.
Conventional/non-organic cotton. Conventional cotton cultures require almost ¼ of the total pesticide use of all cultures in the world, but also large amounts of water, both of which cause problems for both the environment and the growers who develop serious health problems. Things don’t get better in the processing stage of the fiber either, as it makes use of large amounts of chemicals and energy.
Non-organic wool. Sheep grown in large-scale farms are often more susceptible to disease so, as a prevention method, farmers often dip them into pesticides to protect them from parasites, which has been linked to health problems for both the sheep and the workers handling the wool, as well as soil and water contamination.
Upcoming fibers to watch
Wood pulp fiber (also called Tencel or Lyocell) and Bamboo fiber. Though the making of these fibers involves chemicals and solvents, they are often closed-loop processes in which the substances are recycled to almost 100%. There are many other kinds of yarns coming to the market, including banana silk, made from the aged bark of banana trees, milk protein yarn, and stinging nettle yarn (without the sting!).
Synthetic vs natural dyes
Synthetic dyes contain chemicals and heavy metals that not only pollute rivers and waterways, but also affect the health of the people relying on these water sources. Natural dyes are generally made from the roots and leaves of plants, certain minerals, and even insects. Though the color selection of natural dyes is not quite as varied or intense as the one from synthetic dyes, they produce yarns with more intricate variations of color.
After reading through this mega-guide (thank you SO much, Ana!) I am starting to see why there is SUCH a range of quality and price in the yarns we crafters have to chose from. If you’re like me and looking to be able to crochet or knit on a budget, be sure to check out Josephine Yarns. The merino wool is definitely my fave, and is a lot more affordable than many of the other merinos out there.