Why Wool?

Proto-Beasties? H Crawford/CrawCrafts Beasties
A few months ago, I had a bit of a woolly wobble. My local yarn store has stopped stocking the merino wool yarn I use to make my original Beasties, and although I still have a healthy stockpile of most of the colours, the boxes holding my favourite shades are starting to look a little on the empty side. Wanting to keep ahead of the game, I started to scout around for some new yarny options.

Unfortunately, my exacting specifications for Beastie yarns were working against me. Many of the natural fibre yarns I looked at were too lightweight (I suppose the real demand is for the finer yarns used to make shawls and socks), too arty (a painted yarn, however lovely, makes for one sickly-looking Beastie) or were prohibitively expensive. Ever helpful, my yarn supplier suggested I take a look at a new line she had recently started carrying – mostly wool, but with a little acrylic mixed in. So little, she said, that she didn’t notice it was there when she test-knitted a sample. And she hates working with synthetics! It was the right weight, a good price, and they had some super colours. So, why was I hesitating? I mean, surely most people won’t care one way or the other, right?

Well, here’s the thing – I would know. And I care. And today, I thought I’d explain why. Especially since concerns about plastics and synthetic fibres have been playing on my mind more than usual this past week, after I saw this:

It’s a photo that I wish didn’t exist but now that it does I want everyone to see it. What started as an opportunity to photograph a cute little sea horse turned into one of frustration and sadness as the incoming tide brought with it countless pieces of trash and sewage. This sea horse drifts long with the trash day in and day out as it rides the currents that flow along the Indonesian archipelago. This photo serves as an allegory for the current and future state of our oceans. What sort of future are we creating? How can your actions shape our planet?
thanks to @eyosexpeditions for getting me there and to @nhm_wpy and @sea_legacy for getting this photo in front of as many eyes as possible. Go to @sea_legacy to see how you can make a difference. . #plastic #seahorse #wpy53 #wildlifephotography #conservation @nhm_wpy @noaadebris #switchthestick

A post shared by Justin Hofman (@justinhofman) on

What’s the connection between a discarded cotton bud and synthetic fibres, you ask? Well, this picture shows the impact of the plastic waste that we can see going into the ocean – there’s something really unsettling about this image, isn’t there? But recent research indicates that plastics are finding their way into the seas, and their food chains, through a less obvious route… as tiny fibres that are shed any time synthetic materials are laundered. Weestorybook wrote about the problems associated with synthetic yarns back in the summer, and her post links to several other articles on the subject which are really worth checking out. I’d especially recommend the Guardian’s feature about Mark Browne, an ecologist who is currently trying to raise awareness about these issues, and encourage research into viable, low-impact alternatives.

So, score one point for wool – any sheddings from this natural fibre are totally biodegradable! That should keep Mermaid Beastie and her underwater friends happy.
Mermaid Beastie Makes her Escape - CrawCrafts BeastiesNext, how about we take a look at where these fibres come from? Now, I know that farming is hardly a squeaky-clean, environmentally-friendly enterprise. I realise that sheep are prone to all manner of parasites and diseases, and that the chemicals required to prevent against these nasties taking hold are probably pretty nasty themselves. But let’s not forget that synthetic fibres are extracted from crude oil, and held up against the oil extraction and processing industry, even the most intensive sheep farming comes out looking pretty angelic.

From a more personal perspective, Ireland doesn’t have any natural oil reserves – but we can (and do) farm sheep here! This country has a long tradition of cultivating, processing and using wool, so by making use of this resource, rather than one which will always have to be brought in from somewhere else, I like to feel that I’m helping to keep that industry alive. That’s why I started using Irish wool to make Barróg Beasties, like these guys here!

Leabhar Beastie and Aran Beastie

Add to that the fact that world oil supplies are running low, and renewable wool starts looking pretty good!

And leading on from that… Wow, wool has so much history! It’s estimated that we’ve been cultivating sheep and wearing wool for the last 10,000 years – that’s not the kind of relationship you can just turn your back on! You can find a handy potted history of our involvement with this wonderful fibre here. I also recently stumbled across this video, which really brought home to me how essential wool has been to humans for such a long time, and the respect our ancestors had for the production of their woollen garments. This is a million miles from the disposable fast fashion we’ve become so used to!

There’s something fascinating to me about continuing to use such an ancient material in much the same way as it’s been worked for centuries, and at the same time creating something that’s truly my own!

And finally… well, I just like it! For me, it’s the most pleasant fibre to work with. I enjoy the springy feel of the yarn as I knit, and the texture of the fabric I make from it. I like that it doesn’t squeak against my favourite metal knitting needles. I love it when I come across pieces of grass or straw tangled in among the spun fibres, reminding me that this stuff came from an animal, rather than a barrel. And I like to think that the Beasties carry a little bit of this joy with them when they head off into the world.
Paddy Admires the View - H Crawford/CrawCrafts Beasties
How about you? What’s the story behind your favourite fibres? Let us all know in the comments!

Aaaaand we’ll be back next week, with a new Paddy and Plunkett adventure… See you then!

29 thoughts on “Why Wool?

  1. What a lovely meditation on wool. I am a big believer in 100% and use SW sparingly–mostly socks, as I am not a fan of hand laundering and if I give them as gifts, there is a small chance they will survive their first “accidental” wash . . . But, I will admit to feeling a bit torn every time I pull out a SW skein for that making. There are some wonderful down breeds, I’ve heard that need not be super wash to be laundered, so there is a direction to go! Wool is such an excellent resource and I couldn’t agree more with the point that the knitter/maker may appreciate the difference and if it matters to them, it really does matter!

    1. Thanks Melissa! I’m probably preaching to the choir a little bit here, since I reckon most of the people who read my blog on a regular basis are already firmly in the 100% camp! And fortunately, laundering isn’t really as much of an issue for Beasties as it is for socks, so it opens up a world of yarny possibilities without having to worry about shrinkage or pilling! 😀 Cheers for your comment!

  2. What a great post – thoughtful, educational and personal! If you have time to read an excellent book on the incredibly important issue of plastics and synthetics in our ecosystem, I can recommend “Moby Duck.”

    1. Brilliant! Thanks, Maggie… I think I might have just glimpsed the tip of the iceberg of this issue, and it’s definitely something I’d like to delve into further! Cheers for stopping by! 😀

  3. Yay for 100% wool. Was your merino produced in Ireland? I’ve become rather aware of ‘wool miles’ since I discovered that UK merino comes from the Falkland Islands… so, not exactly local. Thanks to my lovely local yarn shop I am discovering all sorts of wonderful British wool – Cambrian Mountains, Woolly Knits and West Yorkshire Spinners to name a few. The more we support our local wool producers, the more diversity we will have. Like ‘knitting the stash’ I tend to use 100% wool except when making socks, plus I’m using up some yarn from my collection that isn’t pure, but the plan in the future is to avoid buying anything containing synthetic fibres for any projects that aren’t socks.

    1. Yay indeed! Unfortunately my merino did have a few miles under its belt… If memory serves, the yarn was produced in Turkey for a British company (I’m away from home at the minute, and don’t have my knitting notebook with me to check), but of course it’s possible the fleece was sourced from somewhere else first. Something I really want to look into in the future is getting all of my yarn more locally… You’re right, it’s so important to support these local producers! I’m still on the lookout for that Goldilocks combination of soft, chunky, colourful Irish yarn though, hopefully I’ll find something before my stash runs out! 😀

  4. As someone who neither knits or works with textiles, I found your post very informative. I have never had to think deeply about the environmental factors of choosing wool over synthetic blends. That seahorse photo is really disturbing, isn’t it? It’s like those images of turtles whose shells have been warped by them becoming entangled in plastic trash. I hope you can find a reliable source of wool soon.

    1. Thanks Laura, me too! I’ve been working with natural fibres ever since I got back into knitting and discovered that yes, there is a difference between those and the acrylics I started out with! I did wonder if I was being a little precious about insisting on continuing with them, but writing this post really strengthened my resolve in this department. Plus I’m glad that even non-knitters got something out of it! Cheers for stopping by!

    1. Thank you! And cheers for stopping by to check out my work, too! Since you’re also a knitter, which fibres do you like to work with?

    1. Cheers Tricia! I’m glad you liked the film – I thought it was fascinating to see the amount of time and work that went into producing one single garment! Thanks as always for stopping by, hope you and the pups are well 😀

  5. Oh, no! This makes me want to throw out every artificial fiber I find in my house. Until now I liked a mix of natural fibers and a bit lets say acrylic. Mainly because taking care of the product is much easier and a lot of times I find that a 100 % wool yarn is not as pleasant to wear. It’s a bit scratchy and it makes my nose itch.

    Now I really have to re-think my choices.

    On the ‘wool mileage” part I have to say that we have a lovely yarn store in the area that carries mostly yarn from local farms. Here in VA we have lot of (angora) bunnies and sheep but even more alpaca. I guess it’s a trend but I also heard that alpaca are less harsh on the environment and that the fiber needs less chemical treatment. So my favorite next to cashmere and silk blends which are too pricey for everyday items is alpaca fiber.

    1. Hey Ivonne! Yes, for all my love of wool, I find it quite difficult to wear next to my skin sometimes… Especially around my neck! That’s when I start looking to those other fancy-pants fibres like alpaca and cashmere. And I heard the same thing about alpaca… Apparently it shares a lot of the desirable characteristics of cashmere (it’s soft, lightweight and very warm) but the animals’ big soft feet and less intensive grazing habits mean that they don’t wreck their pasture in the same way cashmere goats can. How great that you have so many yarny farms nearby, and a yarn store that stocks local produce, too! Cheers for stopping in 😀

  6. Wonderful post, Helen. Wool is a marvelous and magical material! I share your sentiment that it puts us in touch with enduring and super-ancient knowledge (and the countless people who developed + shared that knowledge!) in this really amazing way. Your post makes me very happy to count myself as one of the earth’s knitters! Thanks for the beautiful reflections. I wasn’t aware of the ways synthetic shedding gets into water systems through laundering and contribute to the gyres of garbage forming in the world’s water. ICK! Now I know! (though, I remember seeing a comparison of the biodegradability of various fibres, and synthetics are the fibre-equivalent of plastic bags!) Thanks for this informative post. 🙂

    1. Thanks Shirley! Knitters of the world unite! 😀 I had heard some rumblings a year or two ago about the problem of microplastic bits shedding from clothes (you know, when those little white “threads” start appearing on old stretchy clothing, like t-shirts and leggings) but it took this article to drive home how it could be a lot bigger than we think. It’s actually quite frightening, isn’t it? All the more reason to stand up for good ol’ wool! Thanks for your comment!

    1. Thanks Nina! Do you have a ready supply of local wool where you are, or does it mostly end up being imported? I really must make more Mermaid Beasties, I had so much fun with that one… Especially her hair! 😀

  7. Beasties are going to save the world!! I had the same debate with myself when I started painting with acrylics again. On the one hand, I’m exposing myself to fewer chemicals than i would with oils, but on the other hand, well, acrylic. I did try to pick a paint that is produced in an eco-friendly manner and try to be careful about disposal, but those pesky molecules are still getting into the ecosystem (which is why I limit my painting and prefer drawing). I’m amazed that you would have trouble finding all varieties of pure wool yarn in Ireland. All that greenery and wool does seem like a resource not being put to proper use if it’s being blended with acrylic. You have two solutions…1) keep some sheep on the roof of Beastie Towers 2) pilfer wool in the middle of the night from unsuspecting sheep. Or, well, I suppose you could keep up with the dogged research.

    1. Hmmmm, I am kind of drawn to the idea of roof sheep though… 🤔 The DREAM would be roof sheep and alpacas, to create a chunky brightly-coloured mix that would be nice and soft… But I think I’d definitely have to be raising and spinning and dyeing myself to make that happen! I reckon I’m going to need an army of clones at my disposal, too. And your own experiences with trying to choose materials flag up the same problems – it’s so hard to avoid plastics and synthetics, especially when they can have some real advantages over their less plastic-y alternatives. Gaaaaah!

      1. I think a sweat shop full of elves and fairies is the answer to the work overload. Yes, plastic is evil and almost unavoidable, but there is at least research into non-petroleum based plastics (although right now, those are more energy-intensive and wasteful to produce than regular plastic so you’re still back to the non-eco-friendly thing). Still, science is trying. In the meantime, you gotta put in the research to buy better products.

        1. Elves and fairies… Now, why didn’t I think of that? Hey, I wonder if they’re any good at researching eco-friendly alternatives to plastic, too? 🤔 It is frustrating that, in more than a few cases, the “better” alternative is often just one that’s bad in a different way…

        2. It does seem to be the way of things. As for the elves and fairies…if you expect them to do research, that’s skilled labor and you’re probably not going to be able to use the sweat shop elves and fairies due to Magical Creature Union laws.

        3. Ohhhhhh maaaaaan! Every time I try and move forward, the MCU is there wagging its finger and telling me I can’t do it… 😂😂😂

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