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What Impact Does Your Yarn Have on the Environment? Acrylic Yarn vs Natural Wool Yarn

Updated: Jun 25


Sheep and two lambs in a green field.


Have you been pulling the wool over your eyes when it comes to how your yarn impacts the environment? Do not panic! We’ll guide you through how natural and synthetic yarns differ, and why wool yarn is always the best choice. 

 

When choosing yarn, what are your tick boxes? Colour? Thickness? Feel? Fibre? Where on this list does sustainability sit? It’s worth bearing in mind, as many of us commit to making small, more environmentally friendly decisions. 


Thankfully there are a few fantastic suppliers dedicated to ethically producing and dying natural yarn here in the UK, and we stock a large selection of gorgeous wool yarns at Stitches & Cream. 

 




What is the Difference Between Natural Wool and Acrylic Yarn?


The difference between wool and acrylic yarn boils down to natural versus manmade, protein vs plastic.

 

Natural wool yarn is collected from sheep whose warm coat is sheared for their welfare. Wool yarn is made from the shorter fibres of the sheep’s fleece before blending with wool fibres from other bales to ensure a uniform batch. It’s then washed and carbonised to remove all the bits you’d rather not have in your wool (dirt, salts, wax, seeds). Finally, the wool yarn is spun and dyed. 


Many wool dyers are using natural dyes, to ensure their whole process is sustainable. This all sounds wholesome and natural right? Well it is! And worlds away from how acrylic yarn is made…

 

Acrylic yarn is derived from fossil fuels, which are reacted with certain chemicals to create a type of plastic called acrylonitrile. This synthetic material was first developed in the 1940s by DuPont, who also developed Teflon, nylon, lycra and neoprene, to name a few. It’s not a legacy I’d be proud of!

 

Not only do the origins of natural wool yarn and acrylic yarn differ, but their properties are also worlds apart too. Read on to see about the incredible powers of the natural fibre – here’s just one to tease you with – it’s antibacterial!

 



 

What Kind of Impact Does Your Yarn Have on the Environment?

From flock to shop to biodegrading in the earth, hopefully with a lovely stint via your knitting needles, wool yarn has a natural and almost cyclical journey. Its impact on the environment is wonderfully small, with many regenerative farmers making that cycle even smaller, reducing the use of water and other inputs. Ultimately the impact of wool yarn on the environment is minimal, as sheep’s wool is a renewable resource.


The impact of acrylic yarn is not so pleasant, and far more powerful than we could imagine. The manufacturing process itself uses fossil fuels, which are a finite (and now very limited) resource. The chemical reactions undertaken to create the acrylic fibre release toxic fumes, adding to the nasty plumes contributing to climate change.




 

Wool

Where the fibres come from

Wool is a natural material from a protein fibre formed in the skin of sheep. Wool fibres are gathered from shorn sheep, and it tends to be that one fleece will provide enough wool for one jumper.  


Other natural yarns from animals include mohair and cashmere from goats, and even alpacas have their soft fleeces turned into yarn. The animals are shorn regularly to keep them cool in warmer months and lower the risk of infection.




 

Characteristics of Natural Fibre

Wool is a natural insulator, absorbing and releasing water vapour and generating heat during the absorption to keep you warm. Not too warm though – wool is fantastically breathable. Wool fibres are naturally crimped, which means even though they are tightly woven, they form millions of pockets of air.

 

The fibres are also hugely elastic (naturally) so wool garments stretch comfortably with the wearer and then return to their natural shape.

 

These brilliant natural fibres also have a waxy coating (not noticeable to us) which provides a protective layer against stains and picks up less dust.


Wool is also antibacterial, as the fibres wick sweat and moisture away from the body, keeping your skin dry and comfortable. The lanolin found in sheep’s wool helps protect the skin from infection. 

 

With a high water and nitrogen composition, wool is naturally flame retardant and has a far higher ignition threshold than many other fibres, so will not melt and stick to the skin causing burns.


Durability

If well cared for, a wool garment will last a lifetime. The strong elastic fibres can bend 20,000 times before they break. Compare this to cotton which breaks seven times faster, you can see how durable wool is, and that it’s well worth investing in.


Environmental Impact of Natural Fibre

The environmental impact of wool is minimal compared to all other yarns. Since it’s 100% natural, wool is biodegradable and will decompose when returned to the soil. Wool is renewable, sheep will produce a new fleece every year as long as they have grass to graze on. 


Things to consider are how your wool has been dyed, whether natural dyes have been used or toxic chemical dyes? Also consider where your wool has come from, and the airmiles used in transporting it.

 

We stock beautiful wool yarn that is produced here in the UK, in a small and transparent supply chain.







Allergies

Wool allergies are extremely rare, but they do exist. This would be a reaction to any naturally occurring chemical in the wool. Generally though, wool is great for your skin due to how breathable it is, and how it wicks away moisture. 


If the wool is particularly coarse this may trigger itchiness with sensitive skin, and it’s probably best to wear a lightweight layer between your skin and the knitwear, minimising direct contact. 

 

Cost

Wool can be considered expensive, but this is largely because it can’t compete with the production of synthetics, which cuts corners when it comes to labour and quality. When you buy British wool, remember that you’re supporting British farmers and helping heritage production processes stay alive. You’ll also be rewarded with long-lasting, high-quality knitwear!


Care

Wool is stain and odour-resistant so airing knits is the best way to lose the sweaty waft of a busy day. If dirty, spot clean the stain, or hand wash in lukewarm or cold water using a mild detergent. Squeeze out excess water and lay horizontally on an airer to dry. If you’re afraid of your favourite knits being food for moths, fold and store in air-tight containers with non-poisonous cedar chips to repel them. If your knitwear starts to pill, a pilling comb or a blunt razor works wonders. Darning is a great way to mend any holes, and you can get creative with this, too.

 

Acrylic


Where Do Acrylic Fibres Come From?

Acrylic fibres are made from acrylonitrile, a colourless, flammable liquid derived from polypropylene plastic. It’s combined with various other chemicals to create varying synthetic fibres, depending on the desired look and feel.



science lab


Characteristics of the Synthetic Fibre

Acrylic is colourfast, doesn’t wrinkle, and is resistant to sunlight and fading. It also has a soft feel, and dries quickly. All sounds good? When you remember that all of these qualities come from its plastic-ness and aren’t at all natural, these characteristics are like a bad smell that endlessly lingers. Speaking of bad smells, in time, synthetic clothing tends to have an odour. This is due to the fibres repelling water and holding onto body oils.

 

Be really careful around naked flames, as acrylic is the most flammable of all of the synthetic fibres.


Pink acrylic yarn

Durability

Acrylic clothing will last a very long time, due to the abnormally strong fibres. However, they can quickly look tired, and be cast to the back of the wardrobe.


Environmental Impact

Acrylic yarn is incredibly bad for the environment at the beginning, middle, and end of its life. 


At the beginning, the production process requires fossil fuels and releases toxic fumes, contributing to the climate crisis and poor health of workers. 


When the garment is with you, you’ll be washing it often due to how quickly they pick up sweat and dirt. Acrylic is full of microplastics which are released into the water when you wash them. Each time acrylic yarn is washed, approximately 730,000 microplastics are released! 


Then, at the end of its life, acrylic will take a long time to biodegrade, meaning it lingers in landfill and continues to pollute the ground with microplastics, or is incinerated releasing more fumes.



landfill heaps of clothes


Allergies

The main symptoms for allergies to acrylic (and other synthetics) are contact dermatitis, which consists of redness, scaling and itching, and possibly burning eyes and a tight chest. This can be a reaction to the chemicals in the fibre.


Cost

Because acrylic yarn is artificial, it is cheaper than wool yarn. The price paid by the environment, however, is sky high. 


Care

Popping your synthetic clothing into guppy bags before going in the washing machine is a great way to reduce the amount of microplastics released. Most acrylic clothing is very sensitive to heat, so wash with cold or lukewarm water.


The Pitfalls of Acrylic

So, you might have guessed we’re not the biggest fans of acrylic yarn here? That said, we do completely understand that everyone has different preferences when it comes to knitting, and their own reasons for buying acrylic yarn.


We just hope to provide a bit of background as to why choosing wool yarn over acrylic yarn is better for the environment, and if this is important to you, then we’d love to chat to you more about gorgeous wool yarns you love. 


Explore our Natural Yarns:







The Environmental Costs of Fast Fashion

‘Fast fashion’ describes the culture of fashion today where companies make huge profits undercutting as many costs as possible, with clothes often made abroad by workers who are exploited. A relentless trend turnover means customers feel they need newness, and readily discard items worn only a handful of times, if that! 

 

The environmental and societal costs of the industry are huge. With an emphasis on cheap production, garments are often synthetic and the washing and dying process pollutes the surrounding landscape and waters, affecting the health of workers often paid illegal wages in the first place. 


When it comes to discarding our clothing, 330,000 tonnes of clothing enter landfill from the UK each year. These figures spiral as fast fashion becomes even more profitable and customers have no attachment to their clothing which was bought cheaply and impulsively.





Slow Fashion Movement: Make it Yourself

Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom (hurrah!), as the slow fashion movement is gaining pace. Lots of people are beginning to understand that shopping less often, making clothes yourself, and purchasing preloved, is the antidote to fast fashion.

 

Making clothes yourself has so many benefits – firstly you have creative control and can make yourself a perfect fit and style. The time invested in making clothes means you’ll form an attachment to them, mending them and washing them carefully, to make them last longer. You’ll cultivate your own style, instead of following trends, which is so liberating! And you’ll always look fantastic…


We are constantly inspired by our lovely knitting community who visit us in the Falmouth shop, and keep us company online. This slow fashion hub of makers who put love and care into their clothing, and choose gorgeous natural wool yarns, are making us proud everyday with their sustainably-minded making. 





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