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
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.
Next, 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!
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.
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!