Non-Wool Yarn Recommendations, Part I

As many of you know, we have a lot of allergies here at Chez KnotMagick. Two in particular can make it quite hard for me to find knitting yarn: Wool and lanolin.

I don’t want to go into a lot of detail on it, but suffice to say it cuts a lot of commercial yarns out of my stash. So what does one knit with when wool or other animal fibers aren’t an option?

In this two-part series, I’ll break down some basics for you. This week, we’ll cover the basic types of fibers you can work with and what’s available, and their pros and cons. Next week, we’ll look at specific yarns and what they work best for.

Cotton Bolls | faungg's photos | FlickrNatural Fibers

Pro: bio degradable, soft, absorbs moisture, good for hot climates, cheap, relatively easy to find.
Con: uses a lot of natural resources to grow (large amounts of water, strips nutrients from the soil, crops must be rotated frequently), and a large amount of pesticides. It is heavy and will stretch out over time. Thinner cotton yarns are usually mercerized, which means the yarn will feel dense and hard to the touch. Thicker yarns that don’t use this process will pill easily and lack strength. There is no elasticity in this fiber.

Linen (flax)/Hemp
Pro: bio degradable, softens after use, absorbs moisture, good for hot climates, uses less water than cotton and bamboo and enriches the soil more than bamboo.
Con: More expensive and a bit harder to find than cotton, this fiber starts out rough and stiff–so much that you might be doubting your choice to work with it. Hard on hands, it will soften after knitting/crochet, and moreso with each wash and wear until it is light and drapey. Does not have elasticity, will stretch over time but usually less than cotton.

Hybrid fibers

Rayon, Viscose, Bamboo
Pro: cellulose based, may be biodegradable. Some varieties are quite lightweight and breathable, making them good for hot climates. Bamboo is a fast-growing renewable crop (the plants can grow up to 36″ in a single day!) that produces higher yield than linen and hemp. It also enriches the soil (though not as much as linen) and uses less water than cotton. It is very soft and holds it’s shape better than cotton or linen.
Con: Unlike flax, hemp, and cotton,  bamboo cannot be formed directly into thread or yarn. It has to go through a chemical process, so this fiber frequently straddles the line between natural and man made, and depending on the process used, can be very bad for the environment. These processes impact the elasticity of the fiber, how well it biodegrades, and how it breathes. Must be dyed with chemical/acid dyes.

Milk Fiber/Milk Protein
Pro: Highly renewable resource (made from milk!), soft, acts similar to wool (I find it is most similar to tussah silk, but that’s my experience), has more elasticity than any of the fibers mentioned above, good for moderate to cooler climates, but not bad in the summer, either. Can be dyed with natural dyes, just like wool.
Con: Milk fiber is made by treating casein to a chemical process similar to what is used to may rayon, so there are chemicals in use that are not great for the environment. It’s not in common use in clothing today, and is hard to find in yarn and knitting materials. It is usually priced at or just above a similar weight of silk.

While milk fiber has been around since the 1930s/40s (it was first developed as a ration-friendly replacement for wool, then fell out of favor after the war), I haven’t been able to find much information on the manufacturing process, so I can’t tell you specifics about the environmental impacts, just my own experience as a spinner and knitter in working with this fiber.

Synthetic Fibers

Polyester, Nylon, Acrylic, etc
Pro: cheap, readily available, comes in every color and texture under the sun, hard-wearing, usually soft, easy to clean, doesn’t usually stain, has more elasticity than plant fibers. When mixed with natural fibers (plant or animal) they increase the strength of the yarn and can also make it easier to work with (for example, adding elasticity to cotton yarns or softness to linen yarns).
Con: No matter how you slice it, all of these fibers are made of plastic. They don’t biodegrade, must be be dyed with chemicals (usually before they even think about becoming yarn), and they usually don’t breathe. And a little known fact: Acrylic yarn will break down over time, especially if that afghan you just put on the back of the couch is in direct sunlight. As the plastics degrade, they can “off-gas”, which basically means releasing chemicals into the air. At this time, I don’t believe there are any studies available on what chemicals specifically are released by knitting yarns, in what quantities, and if they are harmful to people or animals.

This is a very, VERY basic breakdown of how some fibers behave; there are others I’ve missed, or that you may think I’ve unfairly lumped together, but this is just a primer in the various fibers available to people with allergies, sensitive skin, or who may be vegan or vegetarian, and things they might want to consider when picking their next project.

I myself am trying to reduce the amount of synthetic yarns in my stash for a variety of reasons, but I’m not cutting them out completely as I find cotton/acrylic and wool/nylon blends are the best for me to work with in terms of my own allergies and knitting preferences, though I try to keep the synthetic component as low as possible, usually 25% or less.

Is there a fiber you think I missed? Do you have questions on my pros and cons list? Leave a comment below!

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