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Spinning an Eco-Friendly Yarn: Knitting Goes Green

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This sock yarn is made from a blend of fibers derived from wool, soy, cotton, and shrimp and crab shells. The manufacturer, South West Trading Co., is one of a growing number of companies marketing ecologically friendly knitting products. (Courtesy of SWTC Inc.)

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A group of workers at Thirteen Mile Farm shear wool from organically raised sheep. The process of making wool into yarn is conducted with as little impact on the environment as possible. (Courtesy of Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Co.)

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A flock of organically reared sheep await shearing at Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Co. in Bozeman, Mont. Their wool is processed into yarn using methods that have minimal impact on the environment. (Courtesy of Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Co.)

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Yarn from Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Co. gets its earthy colors from vegetable-based dyes. Plant-based dyes are more environmentally friendly than chemical versions, but they produce a limited spectrum of shades. (Courtesy of Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Co.)

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Jonelle Raffino found herself suddenly out of work. So did her husband, mother and father, who, like Raffino, had all been consultants in the telecommunications industry. When the market plunged after the attacks, their jobs simply disappeared.

Desperate for a way to turn around their bad luck, Raffino and her mother, Jonette Beck, devised a solution.

“We turned to an old family friend,” Raffino says, “knitting.”

Raffino and Beck had learned that yarn can be created from soy fiber, a by-product of tofu manufacturing. So mother and daughter launched South West Trading Co., one of the first companies to produce yarn from nontraditional renewable resources. Today, the family-run endeavor ships yarns made from soy, corn, bamboo, milk, and even recycled shrimp and crab shells to yarn stores around the world. Since the company’s inception, sales have exceeded $20 million.

South West Trading may have helped pioneer the “green yarn” movement, but it is now just one of a growing number of vendors reaping the benefits of an eco-knitting boom. With an increasing number of environmentally friendly fibers on the market, including naturally processed wool sheared from organically raised sheep, knitters looking for greener alternatives to conventional yarns have more choices than ever.

And they’re snapping them up. Environmental friendliness is a selling point, says Rita Bobre, owner of Downtown Yarns in New York City. “My prediction is that we’re going to be seeing a lot more of it.”

Demand for green products has opened up new markets in the textile industry, but it has also introduced a new set of problems for consumers. With so many different types of yarn, each with its own specific manufacturing process, it’s difficult to determine which are the friendliest to the earth.

Zem Joaquin, a specialist in green living and founder of Ecofabulous.com, says a good general rule is to steer clear of yarns made from chemicals and inorganic fibers.

“Try to avoid the acrylics, a lot of the synthetics,” Joaquin says, “and avoid cotton that’s traditionally grown.”

That type of cotton is one of the most environmentally toxic crops because it’s heavily treated with pesticides and herbicides, Joaquin says. According to the Organic Trade Association, cotton production uses approximately 25 percent of the world’s insecticides.

Knitters who are allergic to real wool often choose cotton or synthetic fibers like rayon and nylon. But synthetic fibers are made from petrochemicals, which are nonrenewable and environmentally destructive. Most eco-friendly yarns replace the fossil fuels during manufacturing. Kollage Yarn’s Cornucopia fiber, for example, is made entirely from corn.

For those who aren’t allergic to it, conventional wool can be ecologically friendly--if the sheep are raised in a truly organic environment.

“You need to look at who raised the animal,” says Clara Parkes, author of “The Knitter’s Book of Yarn” and proprietor of KnittersReview.com. “Does it come from a massive, thousand-acre farm in Australia where they spray things by helicopter? Or does it come from Farmer John over the next ridge,” she says, who raises a small number of sheep and “sings them bedtime songs at night?”

Becky Weed, co-owner of Thirteen Mile Lamb & Wool Co. in Bozeman, Mont., may not sing bedtime songs to her sheep, but she certainly aims for the Farmer John model. Thirteen Mile’s flock of several hundred grass-fed, organically raised sheep roam freely through multiple pastures before being shorn. The wool is then cleaned and minimally processed using hot water and a citrus-based scouring agent.

“Our final yarn product is extremely different from what you get from the large name brands,” Weed says. “Because of the minimal processing, it retains the natural elasticity of wool--it’s more akin to what hand-spun yarn feels like.”

The larger name-brand companies also offer a broader spectrum of color choices. But those colors can wreak environmental havoc--the dyeing process for mass-produced yarn creates potent pollutants.

“The dyes tend to be really toxic, and they pollute the rivers and make the bottom of the food chain really sick,” Joaquin says. “They change the pH level of the water.”

For knitters willing to sacrifice brighter shades, companies like Thirteen Mile offer yarns in earth tones made with natural, vegetable-based dyes. But even those who use a natural dyeing process haven’t yet found a way to replace the final and most toxic step of the coloration process.

“You do have to use a mordant,” Weed says, referring to any number of harsh chemicals that must be combined with the dye to make it insoluble. “We’re using the most benign mordant that we can find.”

While many eco-products, including yarn, are more geared toward gaining a marketing advantage for their producer than toward helping the environment, even the best-intentioned efforts can fall short. While some plant-based alternative yarns may be biodegradable and made from renewable resources, for instance, they may be harming the environment if their components aren’t grown in a truly organic manner.

In her book, Clara Parkes addresses some of the reasons why an “eco-friendly” label on a skein of yarn may not tell consumers the whole story.

“What if the corn used to create your yarn comes from a genetically modified crop, or a genetically modified crop that’s been sprayed with pesticides?” Parkes wrote in an e-mail. “Or you’re using an organic cotton that required barrel upon barrel of fossil fuel to transport to this country?”

South West Trading, for example, manufactures the majority of its renewable fibers in China. A great deal of organically produced wool is imported to the United States from Peru and Australia.

“I can’t say that anything is perfect,” says Raffino of South West Trading. “But all of these things are a step in the right direction.”

Until perfection arrives, consumers in search of eco-friendly yarn should look for organically grown products made from renewable resources with minimal processing. The proximity of the manufacturing site matters too. Buying locally is almost always a greener option.

“There are subtle degrees of it, and there are some compromises,” Parkes says. “You really want to be really environmentally friendly? You raise your own sheep. You spin it, and you knit your own wool.”

E-mail: ald27@columbia.edu