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.