On habitats: Part 2 — Synthetic Plant Fibers

Last week I started the “On habitats” series to take a moment and reflect on where the fiber in our yarn comes from. Part One of this series looked at Natural Plant Fibers, which brings us to part two: Synthetic Plant Fibers. These include tencel, bamboo, corn, soy, rayon, and modal. In the interest of keeping these posts readable, I’m going to focus on tencel, bamboo, and corn this week.


Tencel (Lyocell): Tencel is derived from the cellulose of hardwood trees. The trees are logged and trucked to a mill where they are cut, debarked and fed to a chipper. The hardwood chips are then turned into a pulp through the assistance of chemical digesters, which is then washed (and sometimes bleached). After the pulp is washed, it’s layed out in a large sheet and left to dry. Once dry, the sheets are rolled onto a large spool.

Next, spools are unrolled and broken into one-inch squares so that they can be loaded into a heated pressurized vessel filled with amine oxide. After a short time in this solvent, the cellulose dissolves into a clear solution and is pumped through a filter to ensure that all of the chips have been dissolved. From here, fibers are pumped through a spinneret, which leads to the creation of long strands of fiber. These strands of fiber are then immersed in a diluted solution of amine oxide (this sets the strands) and washed in demineralized water. Fibers are then lubricated (detangled), allowed to dry, run through a crimper and then carded. Once carded, they are ready to be spun.

The amine oxide solvent is non-toxic and is almost completely recycled during manufacturing, so it is not released into the environment. Additionally, the principal ingredient in this yarn is obtained by managed tree farms (no deforestation), the process uses less water and energy when compared to other manmade fibers and tencel (lyocell) is naturally biodegradable.


Bamboo: There are two methods that can be used to get bamboo fiber: mechanical and chemical. The mechanical method involves crushing the plants into a mush and using natural enzymes to break it down before spinning it into yarn. This method is labor-intensive (expensive) and the fiber produced is not very soft.

The chemical method, a “chemical cocktail”,  contains primarily sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide — both are known to be bad for human health and are harmful to aquatic life when released into the water supply — which produces a very soft fiber (ie the fiber used to make bamboo underwear). While companies claim this a minute part of the process, a factory producing a lot of bamboo fiber/fabric will expose their workers and the environment.

Although Bamboo itself is a sustainable resource, there is a lack of transparency and true sustainability — the soil association has not certified bamboo at this time. In addition to the process of turning bamboo into a fiber, there are concerns around it becoming a mono-crop grown only in China. This is leading to a decrease in biodiversity and an increase in pests (more pesticide needs to be used).


Corn: Corn is grown worldwide and used for food and fuel, leaving behind the husks as farm waste. These husks contain a fiber called lignocellulose which is soft and strong. Lignocellulose is separated from the husk via a patented biochemical process. This biochemical process contains common non-toxic chemicals (acetic acid, sodium chloride, sodium hydroxide, surfactants, and softeners) and is combined with water in a rotator for about a half-hour. The clumps of coarse fibers are then washed (with water) and dried before another biochemical treatment is applied to reduce the diameter of the fiber strands. Finally, the fibers are bleached, dyed and spun into yarn.

The downside? A lot of corn is genetically modified, which unfortunately means that something in the pollen is interfering with the monarch butterfly’s breeding cycle. Interesting. Essentially, while the corn fiber itself is not terrible for the environment, there are a lot of aspects (mono crop, etc) of the farming process that is.

Main Takeaways: I poked around and there isn’t a lot of corn yarn on the market yet, it looks like this could be a growing trend if the demand for the fiber increases. In terms of tencel; I don’t mind it in blends, but have not worked with a pure tencel fiber before. That being said, it’s nice to know that even though the fiber is manmade from a tree (which is a little mind-blowing) the process is both sustainable and eco-friendly. As for bamboo… I think I’m going to have to pay attention to what happens in the industry and abstain from using bamboo yarns for a little while. While I enjoy the way bamboo takes dye, I find it hard to support an industry that doesn’t have a problem exposing their employees to harsh conditions.

Stay tuned for synthetic plant fibers part two (soy, rayon, modal, and ramie), coming next week!

On habitats: Part 1 – Natural Plant Fibers

A little while ago, my partner and I grabbed ice cream from a place in town. As someone who’s very intolerant (allergic? I have gotten hives before) to Dairy, we always ask what their Dairy-free options are. This particular outing, we were met with an enthusiastic description of how they always make two flavors completely vegan (a term I am both excited and hesitant about). My partner then asked the ice cream scooper if there was Palm Oil in the ice cream as a milk substitute and he reluctantly replied: “I’m not sure”.

Why the reluctant answer? Palm oil has a bad reputation because it has been and continues to be a major driver in the deforestation of rainforests. According to the WWF, Palm oil can be produced sustainably and the Round Table of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has taken steps to create guidelines and regulations. Essentially, the ice cream scooper new that while the vegetable oil has some health benefits, it also comes with a lot of ethical concerns.

As we left the ice cream shop, my partner and I discussed what it means to be vegan and want to protect the environment if most of your alternatives are just as bad for it. As we finished our ice creams, I began thinking about Vegan knitters and their desire to work with non-animal fibers. Thus this multi-part series was born. We’ll start with plant fibers, move towards animal fibers and end with synthetic fibers. Important note: I am not vegan; the goal of this project is to take a look at what is environmentally sustainable and what isn’t so that we can all make informed decisions. 

Part One: Natural Plant-Based Fibers 

The most common plants used to create plant-based fibers include: abaca, bamboo, coir, cotton, flax, hemp, jute, kapok, ramie and sisal. In knitting, the list of plant-based fibers used to create yarn typically focuses on bamboo, hemp, linen, cotton, rayon, corn and soy. In other words, you can create fabric from a lot of different plants.

This week, we’re going to specifically focus on naturally occurring plant-based fibers: Linen, Hemp, and Cotton.


Linen: Linen fiber is taken from just behind the bark of the flax plant and retrieved when the woody stem and the inner pith (or pectin) is rotted away. This process can be completed one of two ways: the stems are submerged in stagnant pools/running streams and the workers must wait for the rotting (about 2 weeks) or the stems are placed in a solution of either alkali or oxalic acid before being pressurized and boiled. Once the fibers are removed from the stems, the fibers are passed through machines which combine them into roving and then spun.

The greatest concern of creating linen yarn comes from the chemicals used in the rotting or retting process. Before chemicals can be released into water supplies, they must be neutralized. The plant remains themselves are typically ok unless they become impregnated with a lot of chemical during the retting process.


Hemp: Much like Linen, Hemp must be retted from four to six weeks in order to loosen the fibers. During this process, the stalks typically lay in the field, allowing nutrients to return to the soil as the leaves decompress. The fiber is then cleaned and carded before being spun.

Unlike Linen, Hemp is not being retted using chemical baths. Additionally, the harvested hemp is not burned. This means that each part of the plant is used, saved or recycled, making Hemp sustainable.


Cotton: Cotton is the most flexible of plant fibers and is ready to be spun once washed, carded and combed. As long as your cotton is coming from an organic farm, it is sustainable.

Main Take-aways: As noted previously, I am not vegan and therefore not technically limited to any specific fibers. In other words, I admit that I do not typically work with 100% cotton, linen or hemp yarns. That being said, armed with the knowledge that I know now, I may reach for hemp instead of linen now that I know linen is often retted in a bath of chemicals. My relationship with cotton feels very much the same — it hurts my hands so I don’t rush to work with it.

On the inclusivity of the knitting community

There has been a lot of discussion within the knitting community around inclusivity, as in is the community inclusive enough? The easy argument is no because knitting is an expensive hobby and you need to have time to commit to it. To this, I would like to point out that when working seven days a week and struggling to make ends meet I was able to maintain my identity as a knitter. Though difficult, I maintained my identity by utilizing the library when I didn’t have internet at home or printer paper to print out my patterns. I waited patiently for yarn to go on sale and then stuck to a strict budget when it did. I reached out to yarn companies to see if I could knit samples for them in exchange for yarn. I even considered buying old sweaters from goodwill so that I could repurpose them, but could never find something I was willing to rip out. The thing about knitting is that if you want to do it the resources are there for you, you just have to let go of your desires to knit with high-end yarn.

With the easy argument out of the way, it’s time to take a moment to look at the harder ones. Are we being supportive of all of our designers? Are garments being photographed for patterns using all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, etc? Are we welcoming to different viewpoints within our forms or our knit nights? These questions are harder to answer. Am I less likely to buy a pattern based on the pattern’s name? No. Am I less likely to buy a pattern based on the designer’s name? No. Am I less likely to buy a pattern being shown on a male model? No. A plus-size model? No. A model that is a different race than me? No. Does this mean that the community as a whole as the same mentality as I do? No.

This last question is one that I really struggle with. I, as an individual, respect differences in others and am willing to take the time to learn and understand how I can be better. Having worked in alternative school settings where my students come from various backgrounds, I know that I’m not perfect. The best I can do is strive to be better, strive to be more patient and strive to understand. People are different and we must move beyond tolerance towards respect.

These conversations started several months ago, one of the reasons I didn’t join in right away is a lack of platform. At the time, I wasn’t trying to actively write a blog and I didn’t feel like my main social media platform (Instagram) was the right place to do it. One of the reasons is that I didn’t know what to say and how to say it. I was torn between my optimism that the community was inclusive and the experiences that were being shared around me.

The main reason, unfortunately, was pointed out to me at a conference last week: People often say we don’t do something when they mean they don’t do something. And there is was, the shameful truth staring me in the face. I had assumed that everyone within the community was trying to be better because I was. I didn’t feel the need to speak up because I assumed that everyone wanted to be more inclusive, because I do. And in my wrongness, I will do better. And in my wrongness, I will speak out. And in my wrongness, my assumptions, my optimism I will remember how it feels to be invited and welcomed to the table; not because you weren’t allowed to be there in the first place but because you are a valued member of the community.

I value the knitting community for its potential to be inclusive. For its potential to be a safe and welcoming space. But I also value its potential to challenge me to do better, both in my craft and in my person. In addition to being a safe space, the knitting community needs to be a safe space to feel uncomfortable. A place to hear different viewpoints so that we can communicate and better everyone at the table. And as I listen to the news reports on yet another mass shooting, I am reminded of the importance of community. The importance of being connected to those around you even if you are not connected by blood.

Over the last few years, I’ve been reading the Witchland Series by Susan Dennard. Dennard does a wonderful job creating and immersing her readers into a land that she has created. Her characters are diverse, multifaceted, and complex — and she has a lot of them. Each has their own story, their own personality, and their own perspective. Dennard has woven in “isms” that we see in our everyday lives to show us how they affect the people within her stories. She has spun tales of conflict and emotion so powerful I find myself on the edge of my seat waiting for the next book.

I bring up this book series not because it is good, although it is, but because the main theme of the book is the idea of threads. Everyone has threads. They react to stimuli around them, changing color with various emotions. They connect people, creating thread families and heart threads. But most importantly, they are all woven together into the same tapestry of life. As knitters, crocheters, weavers, spinners, etc, etc, we should resonate with this. As crafters, we of all people should understand that people are beautiful because of their “mistakes”, isn’t that why we call them design elements? As crafters, we of all people should resonate with the idea that everyone is connected by threads that are woven into a larger project, after all even the most complicated sweaters are created one stitch at a time.

And as I listen to the news cover yet another mass shooting, another family struggling to make ends meet, another person seeking their thread family, and everyone seeking healing, all I can think of is my optimism for what my knitting community could be. What I want it to be. What I hope we will continue to work towards.