Knitting with environmentally responsible yarns is quite the rage . . . it's the cover feature on the new issue of Vogue Knitting, and eco-knitting has been featured in most of the knitting magazines. Knitters have some choices now in organic wool and cotton, as well as other treats in the "sustainable" family like bamboo and recycled Tibetan or sari silk. (I always want to have an asterisk next to bamboo, since most of it doesn't really make the sustainability cut yet in my book -- the process of turning bamboo into soft fabric or yarn is very chemical- and water-intensive.)
A quick review: organic has a specific legal meaning in the United States. In broad strokes, it means that no toxic or synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers are used. Genetically modified crops, animal growth hormones, and antibiotics are prohibited. Livestock must be fed organic feed and have access to pasture. All of these practices must be verified by an independent third-party certifier. And responsible manufacturers don't just use organic fiber; they also use recommended dyeing and finishing practices to maintain the integrity of the organic product. Bamboo, considered a wood product, does not have organic standards; though it doesn't require a lot of pesticides to grow and is highly renewable, pesticides are sometimes used and the entire process has limited transparency, since most of the production takes place in China. And then there's the issue of the chemicals used to make this hard, brittle plant soft and fluffy.
That said . . . ahhhh. There are some really lovely organic yarns that are not prohibitively expensive. The natural shades are always beautiful and classic; for those of us who live for color, there's plenty of that too.
- I am besotted with the heathery, clean colors of O-Wool Balance, 50 percent organic merino wool and 50 percent organic cotton. It's in a worsted gauge and may be the perfect yarn. A few of the colors are below. PurlSoho sells this yarn for $8/skein.
- The Fibre Co. makes gorgeous artisan yarns. Organik is a blend of 70% organic wool with silk and baby alpaca in some amazing colors.
- Also by The Fibre Co., Savannah is hand-dyed 20 percent organic cotton blended with merino wool, soy fiber and linen.
- Blue Sky Alpacas has led the way with organic cotton knitting yarns, both undyed in naturally color-grown shades and dyed with low-impact dyes (below).
- Rowan is offering naturally dyed organic cotton yarn in eight shades.
- Tierra Wools is a cooperative in New Mexico making beautiful naturally dyed yarns for weavers and knitters using wool from organically raised sheep. This company has provided right livelihood for many people in this underserved region, allowing them to stay on the land and use time-honored artisan skills in their work. It's a fascinating and lovely place; most definitely worth a visit if you're driving through New Mexico flying your cowgirl flag high.
- Finally, many small wool producers are using very responsible and humane practices even if not certified organic; these are often sold to small independent spinners and dyers and handpainters. Supporting these cottage industries is a great idea.
- Buy from a local yarn store if you can; there are also excellent yarn retailers online. I like Purl Soho, Jimmy Bean's Wool, and Yarnmarket, and there are many more. NearSeaNaturals sells both organic and sustainably produced yarns and fabrics.