Why choose natural fibres?

If you’ve been knitting or crocheting for a while, it’s highly likely that you’ll have noticed the different blends which are available for you to use. Yarns can be made from a huge variety of materials such as bamboo, cotton, wool, nylon, acrylic, silk, banana fibre and rose fibre (to name but a few). It’s also likely that you have a favourite to work with, but have you stopped to think about other factors which may influence your choice?

Yarn for the Soul will always choose natural fibres over synthetics.

The vast majority of commercial yarn available is synthetic, acrylic yarn. Acrylic yarns are made using a type of plastic, or poly compound, called acryonile. In order to produce acryonile the industry requires massive amounts of fossil fuels and is also responsible for releasing massive amounts of toxic fumes into the air and atmosphere. Did you know that every time acrylic yarn is washed (even at home in a standard washing machine) somewhere in the region of 730,000 microplastics are released into the water? 730,000 is a large amount and yes, they are absolutely microscopic. However, they add up fast. Studies have concluded that up to 85% of the man-made waste on shorelines around the world is made up of microplastics! It has also been proven that, when items made with acrylic yarns are disposed of, they can take up to 200 years to fully biodegrade. Because of this, synthetic yarns contribute to the world-wide plastic pollution crisis. 

‘A team at Plymouth University in the UK spent 12 months analysing what happened when a number of synthetic materials were washed at different temperatures in domestic washing machines, using different combinations of detergents, to quantify the microfibres shed. They found that acrylic was responsible for releasing nearly 730,000 tiny synthetic particles (microplastics) per wash, five times more than polyester-cotton blend fabric, and nearly 1.5 times as many as pure polyester. Research by ecologist Mark Browne showed synthetic fibre waste over coastlines at a global scale, with the greatest concentration near sewage outflows. Of the man-made material found on the shoreline, 85% were microfibers and matched the types of material (such as nylon and acrylic) used in clothing’. (The Guardian 2017)

Acrylic yarn is produced in America, India and China, with China being the world leaders.

So now we know that acrylic yarns do some damage to our natural environment, how can we continue to do the crafts and hobbies we love without contributing to pollution and environmental harm? The best solution is to use natural yarns instead!

The term natural yarn refers to type of yarn which derive from fibres occurring naturally in the environment. These include wool, cotton, silk, bamboo fibre, and banana fibre. Seeing as these yarns contain no synthetic materials, manufacturing them has no negative impact on the environment. They are spun from their natural base fibres with no factories or fuels needed.

Once discarded, most natural yarns biodegrade as quickly as 5 months. The exception to this is wool, which can take up to 50 years to biodegrade due to its density.

Owing to the fact that natural yarns contain no plastic, natural yarns are more resistant to heat which makes them better for making potholders and other items that will be used near fire or ovens. Acrylic fibres will just melt and can cause significant injury if melting onto skin.

Wool is naturally flame resistant and offers a greater level of fire safety than other fibres. In addition, wool does not melt, drip or stick to the skin when it burns.

‘Wool’s inherent fire resistance comes from its naturally high nitrogen and water content, requiring higher levels of oxygen in the surrounding environment in order to burn. Wool may be ignited if subjected to a significantly powerful heat source, but does not normally support flame, and will instead smoulder, usually only for a short time. In addition, wool’s cross-linked cell membrane structure will swell when heated to the point of combustion, forming an insulating layer that prevents the spread of flame. This also means that wool produces less smoke and toxic gas than synthetic fibres.

Wool’s flame-resistant properties make it an ideal fibre for interiors such as carpets, curtains, upholstery and bedding, helping to reduce the risk of fire spreading within a house or other building. Wool textiles are also used widely in personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect firemen, military personnel and anyone else exposed to fire or explosives. Wool’s characteristic of only smouldering and not melting or dripping onto skin, can itself be a lifesaver.’ (IWTO, 2021)

There is also evidence to support the idea that natural yarns are actually better for human health than acrylic yarns are. Many acrylic yarns actually contain carcinogens that can be absorbed through the skin when the yarns are worn. Natural yarns contain no such harmful chemicals. (Although in some cases, wool and cotton yarns do cause adverse skin reactions due to personal allergies, Blue Faced Leicester is a well known irritant along with mohair).

‘The key ingredient of acrylic fibre is acrylonitrile, (also called vinyl cyanide). It is a carcinogen (brain, lung and bowel cancers) and a mutagen, targeting the central nervous system.’

Why do sheep need shearing?

Shearing is crucial to sheep’s health.

‘I can’t imagine a veterinarian suggesting that wool be left to grow on a domestic sheep, because that would put the animal at risk for overheating, discomfort and disease. The animal would also be at increased risk for skin disease and parasites. Over time, unshorn wool could eventually impede movement.” Dr Jen Burton.

Sheep can overheat and die in the summer months if they aren’t shorn. If shearing does not happen they become the target for parasitic species such as ticks, lice, mites, and the maggots that cause fly strike, a gruesome and even deadly condition. Shearing provides both prevention and treatment of any of these infestations.  It is vital to their health and wellbeing.

Even when there is no market for wool, or the market value is too low to justify bothering to sell it, sheep farmers still pay to shear their sheep. You just have to look at the surplus of wool we have seen in the news over the past few years.

Without shearing, overgrown wool can even develop into “wool blindness” which is a condition that impairs sight —and because sheep are prey animals, their sight is necessary for survival. If shearing is neglected, sheep become so heavy with wool that they have trouble walking or running, their ability to graze becomes compromised.  Shearing is also critical to the survival of lambs, particularly in breeds with longer wool, whose lambs need to quickly find their mother’s teats to nurse — sadly, lambs can die of starvation when there is too much wool in the way.

So, what happened to sheep before people sheared them?

Great question! Before electric shearing machines there were hand shears, which some people still use today.

‘Before the invention of hand shears, ancient people would pull the wool that naturally came off the sheep, or “roux” the wool from the sheep. This process is reported to be traditionally done by women, who cradled and sang to the sheep as they peeled their coat off. And before sheep were domesticated (about 11,000-13,000 years ago), wool shed naturally and pulled off when it got caught on branches or rocks. (Mary Hoff 2019)

How is a sheep sheared?

It is really important to understand that sheep NEED to be sheared and that for a sheep, being sheared is not like a human going to the hairdressers. Sheep are heavy animals and have very hard hooves (and sometimes horns). Shearing is standard healthcare for sheep and other fibre animals, such as alpacas, some goats.

Shearing sheep can be a dangerous activity for both the shearer and the sheep: if a sheep gets spooked and starts to kick, it puts the shearer at risk of injury as well as the sheep. This is why there are such places as Shearing Schools which teach the proper ways to hold sheep in order to keep them calm and safe, in addition to being able to shear efficiently so the sheep does not spend more time in the shearing process than necessary. It is not a case of ‘oh, today I think I will have a go at shearing a sheep!’ – there’s a lot more to it than that.  

Proper, safe and effective shearing is a choreographed practice with which the shearer is rehearsed and confident.

‘Many people do not grow up around sheep, unlike say dogs or cats. There are expectations and etiquette surrounding the way people treat sheep, just the same as there are for dogs and cats, but for sheep, the practices can be slightly different. Sheep do not ordinarily respond to whistles like a dog, nor do they tend to enjoy pats on the top of their head like dogs or cats do. When people are familiar with sheep, they know to scratch it under its chin (if it’s a reasonably docile sheep) rather than to pat it on the head. The reason for this etiquette is that sheep have a bucking instinct, which patting on the top of the head can trigger. One way to tell whether someone is familiar with handling and approaching sheep is if they go to scratch the chin instead of pat the head.’ (Mary Hoff, 2019)

‘Flipping’ sheep, or turning them over so they are sitting on their rear, is also widely accepted and standard practice, though it can be surprising or alarming to people who haven’t spent much time with sheep. But again – sheep are not cats or dogs and this is a difference we have to accept.

 Stephany Wilkes, a sheep shearer, and author of Raw Material: Working Wool in the West, shares that she frequently talks about what she is doing, while she is doing it when teaching or around people new to shearing: “I am going to flip the sheep over so I can shear its belly and crotch area, very important for sheep health. This looks rougher than it actually is. I lightly hold the sheep’s jaw and turn its head toward its shoulder. This naturally leads the sheep to try to sit down. When it begins to do that, I basically help the sheep down to the floor by pulling its hip toward me. Once it’s safely supported by the floor, I finish turning the sheep over. You may see me make some adjustments: if the sheep is overweight or pregnant, I may lean it back further to distribute weight more evenly, and push less against the diaphragm.”

She says that ‘Once flipped, sheep will tend to lean on one hip or the other, which makes sense because too much direct weight on the tailbone can be harmful. Standard practice is to keep animals from sitting directly on their tailbone. When you watch a sheep being shorn, the shearer is always making sure that the sheep’s tailbone is stacked in an S-curve, so their weight is not on the tailbone.’

The mark of an experienced shearer is that the sheep are calm; sheep are calm if they are held comfortably, with weight off their tailbone, spine organized in spiral or S-curve positioning, and a firm squeeze to hold their shoulders in place (Mary Hoff, 2019)

Each shearer will set up their sheep facing a particular direction in relation to the shearing machine. Each position the shearer and sheep take are specific and repeated in exactly the same way as precisely as possible every time. There are several different patterns that shearers use in their dance with the sheep, but the one most commonly used in California is Bowen Technique, developed by Godfrey and Ivan Bowen in New Zealand.

‘The first move is to shear the sheep’s chest, starting on the right. The shearer then works down the abdomen and belly, along the outside of the right hind leg, then traces along the inside of the right hind leg, across the crotch, and along the inside of the left hind leg. These movements are all done while holding the sheep in the stacked, upright, S-curved spine position. Once finished, the underside of the sheep is shorn and clean, however it’s rare that this wool is useful for clothing because it is short and muddy or full of grass seeds and hay. The “belly wool” or “tags” are often discarded or used for mulch or erosion control material, and it is important to keep the belly wool separate from what will go into clothing, otherwise the mud and grass from the belly wool could get mixed into the clean wool and become so difficult to remove later that the usable wool is ruined.

The shearer continues to shear around the hind legs, moving with the sheep and supporting its back and shoulders as they go.

Shearing the neck can be delicate and requires an amount of muscle memory and practice in order to feel where the sheep’s neck is without being able to see it for all the wool. The shearer holds the sheep’s jaw and nose to direct the smooth movement of the shearing blade along the neck and up under its chin safely.

After the neck, the shearer does a critical move that may seem unremarkable to the average viewer: they take a tiny step back with their right foot, swinging the sheep’s hips around with them as they go and switching the direction of the spinal S-curve. This movement is key to lying the sheep down on the ground in a comfortable, low stress, smooth and efficient way. It is subtle and elegant. From here, the shearer can easily shear the shoulder, armpit, flank and back of the sheep, while keeping their own feet and legs entangled with the sheep’s feet and legs in a manner that lets them keep the sheep comfortable and stable, while avoiding being kicked by sharp hooves. Avoiding being kicked in the shins is important to shearer health and endurance.

When the shearer gets to the very last shearing motion on the back, they step their right foot over the sheep, to support its lower back and to be able to reach all the way up the back, along the neck, and to the ear. Next, in what seems like a magic trick to new shearers, as they work their way up the back of the neck and head, and then slowly down the other side of the neck, shoulder, and flank, the sheep rolls right back up into its sitting, stacked up, S-curved spine position. Experienced shearers do this movement effortlessly, though it seems to defy the laws of gravity given the weight of the animal. 

From there, the shearer works their way back down the side and back of the sheep, with the sheep’s head comfortably resting between the shearer’s legs. Of all the positions, this one seems to be the most calming to the sheep. When the shearing is done, the sheep is lying on its side, head between the shearer’s feet.  Sometimes the sheep stay there and rest for a minute, sometimes they scramble up immediately and scamper between the shearer’s legs. They go immediately out the barn door or down the chute, to the pen where the other shorn sheep are waiting to sniff them and remember who they are now that their wool coat is off.’ (Mary Hoff 2019)

Shearing a sheep is done with exact precision, by experienced shearers. It’s about finding a delicate  balance between sheep, person, and tool, with very precise positions for all three. A professional shearer can shear a sheep in 1 to 4 minutes and leave the fleece perfectly intact for skirting and spinning. An intact fleece stays in exactly the same form as it was on the sheep, forming a blanket that can be laid out by the shoulder, the legs, the back, and the neck.

During the time the wool handler has picked up the fleece, the shearer is busy getting another sheep to shear. Professional shearers shear 100 sheep per day. 

Shearing, whether using the more modern motorized unit and Bowen Technique or the more old-fashioned hand clippers , is more than simply standard healthcare for sheep, and more than harvesting wool for clothing and bedding. It is an extremely well-choreographed procedure which respects the welfare of the animals individually. 

Nothing will ever be ethically neutral – but for now I am quite happy selling and using cruelty free natural fibres.