I wonder how many people remember when their purchasing decisions were as simple as visiting the one butcher, one baker and one hardware store in town? The world is far more complex now and if we’re paying attention, our consumption involves ethical, as well as monetary decisions.
I’m probably not far different than most people because the truth is I’m not usually paying attention. I try to support the small businesses in my downtown, but it’s easy to be seduced into shopping the big box stores. I’m pretty sure $29 jeans are made under conditions I’d abhor, but the real reason I don’t buy them has more to do with fashion than ethics. And until now, I’ve given little thought to where my yarn comes from.
Over the years I’ve cobbled together my own oddball set of rules for what I eat. I’ve been a “vegetarian” of sorts though I ate seafood and bacon which I consider more of a condiment than a meat. I eat meat now, but my preference is to eat happy meat that’s been raised with as much care, respect and attention to the animal’s health as I try to give myself. I imagine I’ll approach this notion of ethical knitting in much the same way and cobble together my own oddball standards for yarn. I’ll figure it out as I go along, but that’s okay, because at least now, I’m paying attention.
Since a casual mention of the toxic chemicals used in the superwash process was the catalyst for all this, it seems appropriate to start there. There’s no arguing the beauty and convenience of today’s superwash yarns, but is there a cost to that convenience?
We knitters know that wool, if tossed in the washing machine will shrink and probably felt. This is caused when the scales naturally present on wool fibers hold together during agitation. If however, the scales are removed, smoothed out or flatten in some way to prevent them from holding together, shrinking won’t occur. Here’s a brief overview of the process involved in taking wool from sheep to yarn. (You’ll note a mention of the superwash process at the end of the section on cleaning and scouring fleece. That doesn’t apply to all yarns. The remainder of the article, with some exceptions, applies to how most wool is handled.)
Most of the information I’ve been able to find on the superwash process is either highly technical or ridiculously vague. In a nutshell, the wool is treated with caustic chlorine-based chemicals either before or during the application of a synthetic polymer resin. The chlorine acts as a stripping agent while the resin essentially glues the scales to the fiber rendering the wool machine-washable. For those of you who got an “A” in chemistry you might be interested in this article. For the rest of us, I found this from the Dye Blog of Paula E. Burch, Ph.D.
The textile and yarn industries use massive quantities of water and much of the pollution associated with these industries is a result of chemicals discharged as waste water.
Patagonia claims to use a chlorine-free process for its washable wool fabrics which is a move in the right direction though it’s worth noting that the vast majority (over 90%) of all wool treated with the superwash process involves the use of chlorine. (The Patagonia article mentions that no US plant uses the superwash process, but as of this month it’s being done at a wool combing facility in Jamestown, SC. For more, go here.)
After reading what I could find on the subject, I have a few concerns.
I’m not wild about the idea of toxic chemicals ending up in the water supply, no matter whose water supply it is.
I have to wonder if it’s really possible to alter the structure of wool fiber so dramatically without altering some of the properties of wool that we love, like its warmth, resilience and durability?
And while I’m not a crazy hand-washer, I do have paranoid thoughts and I’m willing to admit they may be just that, paranoid. But have you ever walk into a giant sneaker store at an outlet mall? The smell of volatile chemicals being out-gassed from all that synthetic material is overpowering, yet I guarantee no one is going to tell you that shopping for running shoes is bad for your health. I’m not suggesting that chemicals are out-gassing from superwash wool, but is anyone paying close enough attention to know if chemicals are persistent in the wool once the process is complete? And if so, in what concentrations and what might be the effect of wearing them next to our skin?
If there are answers to my lingering questions I don’t know where to find them. I’ll also freely admit that I’m not knitting (and washing) baby sweaters or tons of hand knit socks. If I was, I may have a completely different opinion, but for now, I think I’m going to stick to hand-washing. Soak, anyone?