Animal-Friendly Yarns: Overview of Types of Fibers and Where They Come From

Knitters and crocheters are generally kind people who love to give to others and do what is right for the world around them. There are times though, that following your conscience about animal rights and being a caring consumer can be challenging. The best tool for making these decisions is knowledge. Being well-informed will let you easily decide what types of yarns to buy based on your own values.

When it comes to yarns and other fibers for knitting and crochet, there are basically two categories: natural and man-made. Natural yarns can be further divided into two categories: those produced by plants and those produced by animals.

Natural fibers from plants include cotton, linen and hemp. Cotton is by far the most popular of the three. It is grown on the cotton plant, which produces puffs of the cotton fibers in its seed pods. Linen comes from the plant called flax and the fibers that are used to make fabric are the strong connecting tissues in the leaves. Hemp is associated with marijuana, but most of the fiber producing crops are a different variety, having low levels of THC. The fibers in hemp useful for making yarn and fabric are found in the stems and have remarkable tensile strength.

Natural fibers from plants appear at first thought to be environmentally and animal friendly. This can be deceiving though. Most fiber is not grown organically and needs to be marked as organic for the consumer to be sure that no pesticides or other chemicals were used on the farms from which it came. The manufacture of these fibers into yarn can produce the same pollutions any factory produces, thermal pollution from treatment waters and chemical pollutions from dyes and processing. Farmlands also infringe on natural habitats for animals. It is recommended to that you research the laws and regulations of the country in which the yarn was produced in order to know if you agree with techniques used.

Natural fibers from animals include silk, wool from sheep, alpaca and llama wool, angora fur from rabbits and cashmere fiber from cashmere goats. There is also yarn available that is made from the hides of animals such as beavers, minks, and other pelt animals.

Silk is produced by silk worms when they spin their cocoons to become silk moths. The worms spin silk in a continuous thread and the cocoons are usually heated to destroy the worm inside before it can chew its way out of the cocoon and break the fiber. Silk is also available in recycled forms, such as yarns spun from the remnants of the sari industry.

Wool, alpaca, llama, angora and cashmere fibers are all similar in that the fur is shaved or plucked off the animal to harvest it and the animals are generally not harmed by this process. Some animal rights groups such as PETA object to this because they believe that animals should not be subjugated for human profit and also because large commercial farms can sometimes be bad environments for animals purely because they are products and not creatures and so do not get the best care. Farmers and animal fiber supporters answer that the welfare of the animals is directly related to the welfare of the farm and will of course be of utmost importance. Most ideally, the consumer of wool fiber will be able to know the farms from which it came or purchase from local farmers who will allow them to see the animals and their living conditions.

The yarns made of hides are objected to on the same basis that wearing furs and pelts is. Killing an animal for its fur and wearing that fur is seen by many people and inhumane and needlessly cruel. The fur industry in Canada though is vital to the economic welfare of many people and the trapping is mainly of nuisance animals that can become overpopulated and carry rabies.

Man-made fibers are usually petroleum based and were developed largely in the 1940’s and 50’s, though many are still being developed and perfected today. Rayon is the exception in that it is classified as man-made, but is not chemical based. It is produced from wood pulp and is therefore cellulose based.

Acrylics and other man-made yarns are mainly plastics that are made from petrochemicals that are treated in different ways to produce different effects. Nylon is pulled out in long fine strands to mimic silk and acrylic is made in short puffy fibers and then spun together to mimic wool. These man-made fibers are what are recommended by PETA and other extreme animal rights groups, but aside from various aesthetic objections, these may not be the environmentally sound choice. This is because they are made of chemicals that will effectively never rot or break down, contributing to a problem of overfull landfills. They also are produced in factories that can cause the same environmental problems listed previously that any industrial manufacture can cause.

Though these issues are difficult ones, the knowledge of where fibers come from paired with your own individual values can help you make the decision of what yarns to buy while still being as environmentally and animal friendly as you feel is important. Choosing recycled yarn and researching the yarns you are interested in are easy ways that anyone can make responsible choices and put their values into action.

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