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 creating new knitters

Pattern: Wheat by TinCanKnits

Of the many different types of knitters within the knitting community, I have to admit that I have a soft spot for the new knitter. There’s something about watching someone experience their first knit stitch and watching the gears in their heads turn as the motion begins to make sense. The first purl stitch. The first time the two stitches are put together. It’s a beautiful experience and a reminder of how far I’ve come.

I don’t want to discredit the experienced knitter and their importance to the community. Without the experienced knitter the new knitter would have no one to lean on. No one to ask questions. I’m not sure when I transitioned to what I would call an experienced knitter, maybe it was after my 4th pair of socks, maybe it was after my millionth stitch, maybe it was when I started modifying patterns. Regardless of the moment, it was around that time I created a set of rules for myself when someone comes to me hoping to be transformed into a new knitter. The rules are as follows:

  1. They must decide when they’re ready to learn

I often offer to teach people who watch me knit all the time and comment on how amazing the concept of knitting is. This often includes friends, family members, significant others, coworkers and individuals in the community. The invitation is an open and honest one, a when you’re ready I’ll happily get you set up. You cannot force anyone to be a knitter and starting the process before they are actually ready will result in frustration for both learner and teacher.

2. They must pick their first project, with guidance of course

One of the great debates in the knitting community is the argument around whether or not you should knit for the process or the product. No matter what side of the argument you’re on, focus on what the new knitter needs: instant gratification. They need to reach the end of a project in a reasonable amount of time (think big needles and worsted/bulky yarn) and they need to be invested in the end project (don’t have someone who never wears a scarf knit a scarf for the first time… actually don’t ever suggest a scarf as a first project — they’re the marathon of knitting and take a lot of mental patience). Seriously though, open up ravelry, filter by very easy/worsted/bulky and let them pick something. If they’re excited about the end project they might keep going when the going gets hard.

3. They must pick their yarn, with guidance of course

Repeat after me: it does not matter if the new knitter knits in neon yellow acrylic bulky yarn if that is what they find happiness in. Yes it kills me when the new knitter reaches for synthetic yarns, but they’re cheap and easy to get their hands on. Just make sure the yarn will work ok with the project that they’ve picked out. I often offer leftover yarn from my stash, since I work mostly with fingering/DK weight yarns it’s easy for me to part with heavier yarns. Guide the new knitter away from expensive cashmere, their first project isn’t going to be perfect. Guide the new knitter to yarn that is inexpensive and accessible. The new knitter should not feel as though they need to spend a lot of money to get started, they should feel as though they can put the project down and never pick it up again.

4. They must decide when they are ready to start…

5. … and they must decide that they want to continue

The common themes of these rules are that the new knitter needs to be interested, invested and comfortable enough to keep going or to stop. Everyone has the potential to be a knitter, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is destined to be. Some will just be people who knit occasionally, and that’s ok.

6. Be honest with the new knitter

Their first project might be (probably will be) riddled with mistakes. There will be entire rows that they will look back on and laugh because they figured it out on the following rows. Casting on the first time is hard. The first row is often too tight, so tight that I often offer to do it for them. The second project might also be riddled with mistakes. And the third. I’ve knit over 200 things and not a single one of them is perfect. Handmade items don’t have mistakes, they have design elements. Design elements are awesome. Remind them that they are the only ones who can see their mistakes, and that knitters that can won’t point them out. Knitters that can see mistakes appreciate that you’re entering our community. Knitters that can see mistakes don’t want you to point out theirs.

The final thought I’ll leave you with is some advice for the new knitter. There are so many places to learn: youtube, blueprint (formerly craftsy), blogs, beginner patterns, classes at local yarn shops, people in your community. It’s ok if the first place you try isn’t a good fit. It’s ok if the second place you pick isn’t good. If knitting some something you want to learn, take your time learning and enjoy the learning process.

When I teach new knitters, I rely a lot on video tutorials and stopping them while I breakdown something they’ve shown with my own hands. I show them how to cast on a couple stitches, physically aid them in casting on a couple more and then watch them cast on a couple more. Then I sit and wait while they cast on the remainder. I congratulate them. Remind them that what they’re doing is hard but that they can get it.

Then, I complete the first row for them after letting them try a stitch or two. The new knitter often casts on too tight, which means the first row, where you’re already learning something new, is made more difficult. By completing the first row I’m giving the learner the chance to watch me knit at a slower pace than I normally do and I set them up for a less frustrating experience.

Finally, I hang around the new knitter. Answering their questions, encouraging them and fixing their mistakes when they feel like things have gone wrong. We talk about why mistakes happen and I break down what I’m doing to fix the mistake. I remind the new knitter that no matter how long you knit it’s still a process (remember that debate under rule 2?). I remind them that knitting should not hurt their hands, so if it does try holding the yarn differently. I remind them that knitting is personal and that they don’t have to knit the same way I do. That there is no wrong way to hold your needles. There is no wrong way to hold your yarn. There is your way and mine, but neither is wrong.

Happy knitting. Happy learning. Keep trying new things.