This is the first in a series of posts exploring the sometimes difficult relationship between cost and sustainability of the materials we use.
Later in the series, we hear from two small business owners about their innovative but very different initiatives that offer affordable, eco-friendly yarn and share our favourite budget-friendly, sustainable sources of yarn. But we begin in this post by discussing the case for, and the impact of low-cost synthetic yarn, and why we should consider alternatives.
It’s been a few months since we wrote about the negative environmental impact of Nylon and synthetic fibres and our decision to discontinue synthetics from our range. Nylon blends form a significant part of the yarn market, indie yarns included, so we weren’t sure how this information would be received, but we were thrilled that the response was overwhelmingly positive.
One commenter (I don’t recall which platform it was on, so apologies for being unable to give proper credit for raising this important topic) made the excellent point that many people buy synthetic yarns for price reasons, and it’s important that cheap acrylic is available to folks who might otherwise be priced-out of fibre crafts.
I’m going to stick with the term “cheap acrylic” throughout this post because it’s well understood, no snobbery intended. Acrylic is typically the cheapest of synthetic (plastic) fibres used in knitting yarn, but the topics raised apply to any synthetics chosen primarily on price. You can find out more about why these fibres are problematic for our environment in our earlier post We need to talk about Nylon. Unfortunately for acrylic, it is one of the most microfibre polluting prone materials, shedding to 1.5 times as many fibres per wash as pure polyester.
It’s both important and timely that the topic of financial accessibility of yarn is raised as part of wider discussions about diversity and inclusivity in our knitting and sewing communities. Additionally, in any conversation about sustainability, wider questions are normally raised around whether it is something that it’s a concern of only relatively well-off people. I am of the firm opinion that this is not. Firstly because the most sustainable choices are often the cheapest, and secondly because the poorest people in society often suffer the most from pollution and climate change. The wider relationship between sustainability and financial inequality is something we need to talk about, but in order to avoid digression, I have done that in the comments.
Before I go any further, I want to stress that there is no judgement here. If you’ve bought cheap acrylic for budgetary reasons, you made the best choice with the information available to you at the time. And if you are living on very limited means, the chances are that you make the best possible use of everything you have, and you have a low environmental impact because of your lifestyle. You are not to blame for the urgent problems we face as a planet, we are here because of over-consumption.
My initial reaction to point about cheap acrylic was “Yes, of course”. “If synthetic yarn makes knitting affordable, then it has a place.” But in the weeks and months that followed, I gave this considerable thought and I’ve changed my mind. I think that cheap synthetics are something we can and should live without.
There is absolutely a need for good value materials, and that’s not the same as rock-bottom cheap.
How cheap is ‘cheap acrylic’?
I had a quick look at the big online stores to see what I could find. Laughing Hens came up empty. At Wool Warehouse I found Hayfield Bonus DK and King Cole Big Value DK acrylic, both for £0.99 for a 50g ball. At LoveKnitting the cheapest option was Robin DK acrylic at £1.46/100g (RRP £2.25). Neither of these seemed that cheap and curiously, I also found yarn marketed as ‘premium acrylic’ for considerably more than this. Knowing that cheaper yarns existed, my next stop was Wilkinson (a budget homeware and hardware store). There I found 100g balls of Loren DK acrylic for £1. I have in the past seen mega 500g balls of budget yarn for sale in Wilkinson’s but at the time of writing, Loren DK was the cheapest, gram for gram. In the UK we don’t really have the kind of ‘big box stores’ that US readers will be familiar with, but this is probably the equivalent to the yarn you’d find there. Let’s stick with a nice round price of £1/100g for the cheapest acrylic.
I wear a UK size 14 (which happens to be the average here) and I normally use just under 450g of DK for a sweater, which would cost me £5 in Loren DK acrylic. Using the cheapest DK pure wool yarn my sweater would cost me just under £20. Larger sizes will obviously need more, and smaller a little less. A sweater for 1/4 the price! Sounds amazing!
The thing is, a readymade sweater from Primark costs £6 [Don’t let me get started on what I think about that]. The point I want to make is that in high-income countries like the UK, the materials we have available to us (even the very cheapest) cost roughly the same as an equivalent mass-market garment. Whether you knit for relaxation, as an outlet for your creativity, for custom-fitted clothing or even as an expression of anti-capitalism, if you get something out of it, it’s valid. But, it’s unlikely you’re knitting out of financial necessity; to clothe yourself and your family as cheaply as possible, as previous generations did. In the globalised economy that just doesn’t make sense and we need to be honest with ourselves about that. We are willing to invest dozens of hours of our valuable time in the things we make, we should consider the quality of the materials we use, not just the price.
Is acrylic good value?
What should I expect from my £5 acrylic sweater, how does it compare to a £20 wool hand-knit sweater? What makes one fibre better value than another is dependant on the specific project – value is about fitness for purpose, not just cost. There are many qualities that are desirable in yarn regardless of the project and these fall into three categories: how it feels and behaves to use, how it feels to wear, and its lifespan and care requirements.
Does acrylic wear well?
For a material to be good value, it should be made to last. We often think of acrylic as a material that’s easy to care for, that we can just chuck into the washing machine on a hot cycle and it will come out looking good. But is it? While natural fibres tend to age gracefully, even improving and gaining character with wear, acrylic and other synthetics rarely do. Wear takes many different forms: fading, shrinking, pilling, shedding, stretching/losing shape, shrinking, pulls/tears and being munched on by small creatures. While the pesky months have not yet developed a taste for acrylic, and it’s unlikely to shrink if it ends up in a hot wash, it is susceptible to all the others. This is especially true of cheap acrylic, which is likely to be loosely (cheaply) spun and less resistant to abrasion.
I used a macro lens to take a look at an acrylic hand-knit cardigan. I inherited this project as a WIP when an elderly relative passed away and I decided to finish it for my daughter. It has been worn and washed no more than ten times.
To understand how acrylic holds up to more extreme wear, crocheter Mikey of The Crochet Crowd conducted an outdoor experiment. The repeated wetting/drying, sun exposure and changes in temperature his piece was exposed to are no unlike an accelerated version of regular garment use, minus the abrasion. The results showed considerable fading and deterioration including taking on a waxy, brittle texture.
Even more convincing is an episode of The Drunk Knitter podcast (which is hilarious by the way, subscribe if you don’t already!), where Safiyyah tries on every sweater she’s ever knitted in order of making.
Like many of us, Safiyyah used cheap acrylic as a new knitter and talks about her journey of learning the merits of better quality yarn. It’s striking to see the time and effort she put into making beautiful sweaters that are no longer worn because the materials haven’t stood the test of time, and makes the case we as makers should value our work more.
Is acrylic nice to wear?
One thing that acrylic has got going for it is that it is hypoallergenic. For anyone allergic to animal fibres who wants a good approximation of the texture of wool, acrylic is probably your best bet as plant fibres have quite a different feel. Allergies aside (and of course this is a matter of personal taste) I don’t think acrylic compares to the feel of natural fibres at all.
Natural fibres are just so versatile – whether you want loft, drape, water resistance, absorbance, insulation, coolness, softness or resilience, you can find it. But acrylic yarn always feels kind of the same.
Whereas wool is warm yet breathable, acrylic is not especially warm to wear but feels sweaty. Wool has anti-odour and anti-bacterial properties but acrylic absorbs odour, requiring more frequent laundering than wool. Acrylic also generates static and can be quite flammable, which are not desirable characteristics for clothing.
It’s possible that your project isn’t one that gets worn at all, so this isn’t an issue.
Is acrylic nice to work with?
Acrylic is often described as “squeaky” (which is an odd thing to say if you haven’t experienced it because it doesn’t actually make a noise); it has the sensation of clinging to the needles, particularly if they’re made of plastic or painted metal.
Similar to garment feel, acrylic’s lack of versatility is where it falls short. It has a springy texture that’s good for things like cables, but it has very little drape. It hardly changes at all with blocking so don’t expect lace stitches to open up or uneven tension to improve.
I can’t say that I really enjoy the experience of knitting with acrylic the way I do with other fibres. I’m not a fast knitter, and if I am going to devote many hours on a project and be motivated to do so, I need to feel excited about it.
In conclusion, although there are circumstances in which cheap acrylic is a suitable choice for a project, in general, the way it wears, feels and behaves don’t typically make it a good value material.
Why do we buy cheap acrylic at all?
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably asking this question too, but there are lots of reasons why cheap acrylic winds up in our project bags. Here are three use cases, and what you can do if they apply to you.
Firstly, new knitters are often drawn to cheap yarn. Maybe you’re not yet confident in their skills and don’t want to waste expensive yarn on a project that might not go to plan? This is completely natural. If you don’t want to commit expensive materials to a project or technique you’re not confident about, why not re-use yarn from something that didn’t go so well? But, as I’ve mentioned before, when we use poor quality materials we’re devaluing our own time and skills, so go ahead and use that fancy yarn that inspires you! I discovered quite soon after I began knitting that I didn’t feel excited about finished items made in synthetic yarn. I also realised that I was most inspired to knit when by the beautiful colour effects of fancier yarn, which helped motivate me in those days when the stitches emerged very slowly.
Or maybe you’re following a pattern that calls for synthetic yarn, and don’t know where to start in choosing a natural fibre substitute? The excellent YarnSub can help! This fantastic website can find alternative yarns matching the same gauge an texture.
Crochet uses yarn more yarn than knitting inch for inch, and something like a blanket can eat yarn at an alarming rate. If you’re in this situation and you’d like to avoid synthetics without your costs spiralling out of control, then hold tight because help is on the way soon in the next posts in the series! There are other things you could consider too, for example slowing down your making by working with finer yarn at a smaller gauge or tackling a new technique that requires a little more concentration?
The last group is people who are long-time makers and consume cheap acrylic largely out of habit. Does this sound like you? You probably knit a lot and consider yourself a process knitter. Maybe when you started knitting, the environmental impact of plastic fibres had been considered and we didn’t have the marvellous array of natural fibre yarns that we do today. Maybe you knit mainly for other people (even people they don’t know, such as charities acquaintances’ children) and you don’t have visibility of the lifespan of those garments once you hand them over.
If this is you, the tips for both other scenarios can help you keep your monthly yarn bill down without buying new synthetics. But additionally, if you knit a lot then you can devote time to what is the most environmentally friendly way to augment your stash – destash yarn. Although it takes a bit more time and effort than buying off the shelf, there is so much yarn just waiting to be loved in charity shops, Ravelry stashes, eBay and even swaps at knitting groups.
But the change that will have the biggest impact is one of mindset. Before you embark on a new project, ask yourself a few questions (and really, all of us should do this for every project if we want to be sustainable makers):
Does the recipient want a synthetic garment?
Is the thing you are making suitable for their needs? Is it their style/taste?
Taking my baby cardigan as an example, it hardly gets worn because it feels wrong to put my daughter in anything synthetic – small children are basically radiators! Many parents choose not to dress young children in synthetics at all. I like the retro look and bright red of my baby cardigan, and it’s more practical than a sweater. Had it been a cabled sweater or pastel-coloured frilly thing I would not have bothered finishing it.
When we make something big, complex or challenging for someone we love as a gift we see it as a more substantial demonstration of our feelings, but the recipient may have a different perspective, appreciating most a carefully thought-out gift that suits their needs. To be sure of this you could involve the recipient in the choice of pattern and materials, and if it’s a garment, customise the fitting for them.
Would a smaller project be appreciated just as much?
Instead of the acrylic baby cardigan, what about an organic cotton hat? An amigurumi toy instead of an acrylic blanket? By making something smaller, it’s possible to swap cheap acrylic for natural fibres without increasing cost.
What will happen to this when it is no longer wanted?
How long is its lifespan? Will the recipient care for it to keep it looking good, lovingly shaving off those bobbles, or discard it at the first one? What will happen to it when it’s no longer wanted?
Am I actually knitting this just because I want to?
There is nothing wrong with doing something you enjoy, isn’t that what it’s all about? If no one (including you) is in the market for a new aran sweater, would that cable pattern you’ve fallen in love with work on a cushion?
How would you feel if it were never used? Would you still be enthusiastic about making it? For a surprise gift, this is a very real possibility, and an unsolicited donation may be worth less to the charity than what you paid for the materials. Would you be happy to unravel the project when finished if no one was enthusiastic about owning it? If the answer is no, then there is probably a better project out there for you to spend your time and skills on.
In other words, we can learn to be more like product knitters.
There are circumstances where acrylic is the right material for the job. Other times, under difficult financial constraints, it might seem like the only option. While cheap acrylic can be tempting it is rarely good value. For a yarn to represent value, it must also have the right qualities for the project to make it worthy of our time, skills and effort. This applies both to the finished product and the process of making.
There are other sources of affordable yarn and we’ll look at some of those next time. In Part 2 we speak to two innovative businesses offering environmentally friendly yarn in a financially accessible way.