The Call of the Wild

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I take a moment to celebrate my 80th blog post by veering away from the fine and performance arts to share a few thoughts about fiber arts, in which I am also heavily involved. I have been knitting for about as long as I have been reading, and I take great joy in the ongoing learning that is required for excellence in any true craft. The past few years have seen new forays into natural dyeing, weaving and spinning, and the achievement of a long-time dream of opening an Etsy shop to sell my wares.

Enjoying knitting and understanding its full process, from animal to garment, are not quite the same things. In the past two decades knitting has exploded in popularity, filling the internet with podcasts and indie dyers; there are retreats, conventions and fiber festivals everywhere. At the same time, the craft has also moved farther and farther away from the slow process of transforming animal and plant-based fibers into warm items that allow us to live in comfort, towards something more highly processed and commodified. Like everyone, I love visiting yarn stores and attending fiber events, wallowing in the now glorious choices of yarns and colors from all over the world. I remember well when our only choices were worsted weight Germantown wool or acrylic Red Heart; how wonderful that now we can find alpaca and cashmere and lambswool and qiviut and buffalo and silk and ramie and linen and cotton and soy and corn and hemp and many other fibers, in every color of the rainbow. With this extraordinary plenty has also come industrial application meant to make these fibers “easy care,” and it is hard now to find wool yarn, especially sock yarn, that has not been treated with the superwash process. At least in North America, this yarn is ubiquitous, and I am alarmed that all the talented independent hand dyers and small yarn makers are using this yarn base almost exclusively. There are very few yarn companies now who are making lines of non-superwash (that is, normal) sock wool, and they are mainly in Europe.  Some have developed a superwash process that purports to be more eco-friendly.

What is the problem with superwash wool? Anna of the Dünkelgrun podcast, a knitter and chemist living in Switzerland, has outlined it very clearly in one of her podcasts. (You can find links to her podcasts and other fiber science information at https://dunkelgrun.com/). The process uses chlorine and a great deal of water, leaching toxic chemicals into the environment. Sometimes polymers are also applied to the yarn – I can attest to this, having tried the burn test on some superwash yarns. Light a piece of wool with a match; it should smell like burning hair, but if some of it melts like acrylic, then there is plastic in there somewhere. All of this processing is to strip the wool fibers of their natural scales, which causes wool to felt and shrink – in other words, to make it behave not like wool, and allow people to throw their knitted items into the washing machine.

When did we get so lazy or so busy that we cannot hand wash a sweater? Actually, with proper care, woolen socks and some garments, not superwash, can be washed in front loading machines on the wool cycle, and air dried. I have done this myself with my hand knit socks, and over a period of twenty years none have ever shrunk or felted. To be sure, some sock yarn contains a small amount of nylon to strengthen it, but even this is being tested now for better environmental choices, such as adding silk, alpaca or ramie to the sock wool instead. To my view, the superwash process is just not necessary. Some other knitters, spinners and podcasters have been voicing concerns about these issues, and championing natural alternatives. I salute Melissa of Knitting the Stash (https://knittingthestash.wordpress.com/), Am of Oysters and Purls (https://www.oystersandpurls.com/) and Sarah of Fiber Trek (http://fiber-trek.squarespace.com/) for their work in helping us remember where the wool comes from, and that sustainability is vital.

Some time ago I knitted an alpaca, wool and silk scarf for an outdoorsy friend. The second that scarf came into her household her dog Molly, a labrador and retriever mix, had it in her mouth. To this day, years and many washes later, my friend cannot leave the scarf unattended because Molly’s interest is intense. To us it is a warm and pretty knitted scarf; to Molly it smells of the alpaca it came from….her sense of smell perceives, as we cannot, how very close that fiber is to its animal source.

To be sure, I am an urban knitter and stand on no strong platform that we should all be out there shearing sheep and skirting fleece. For one thing I am allergic to nearly every animal on the planet; I feel quite lucky that I can knit without sneezing. But it behooves we who make to nurture respect for, and a connection to, the slow process of animal-to-garment. Part of the delight and value of hand crafting is that we carry on techniques that have evolved in our species over thousands of years, have allowed us to survive and flourish, and have created comfort and beauty in our world. Industrial practices such as the superwash process create more problems than they solve, and stand firmly between us and those traditional crafts, the generous animals who share their bounty with us and the planet we share. I appeal to the indie dyers, spinners and yarn makers out there to help us move away from this practice of chemical intervention; let’s find other bases and solutions to carry on our wonderful craft, and create harmony without harm.

©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2018. Reuse with permission. https://www.etsy.com/shop/MelodyOwensKnits

 

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