We need to talk about Nylon

Suzie Blackman
Friday, 15 February 2019

5 comments

Occasionally (actually quite rarely these days) we’re asked why we don’t offer a Nylon blend sock yarn.

Sustainability is always in our minds and we try to use only recycled and reusable plastics within the business. Nylon is a plastic fibre, made from petrochemicals. It is not renewable and does not decompose. Mixed fibres like wool/synthetic blends are especially problematic because when they reach the end of their useful life, the component fibres cannot be recovered for their separate recycling processes with current technology, and are sent to landfill. Naturally, this is something we want to avoid.

But the choice to use 100% natural fibres for our stock yarn lines was also down to my personal yarn preference. Over the years I’ve made a few pairs of socks from Nylon blends and I don’t like how they feel to wear. I don’t care for its appearance either – Nylon has a matte texture and Nylon blends look a bit lacklustre to me, which has a noticeable dulling effect on our hand dyed colours. I would never stock a yarn I considered to be mediocre, so after extensive testing (making and wearing a lot of lovely wool socks) I chose a 100% wool yarn for our sock-weight line that I just LOVE, and didn’t give it much more thought.

How did plastic end up in our yarn?

Nylon was invented in the 1930s by DuPont in the US. It’s main application was women’s stockings (which it rapidly became synonymous with), replacing expensive imported silk in post-depression America. ‘Nylons’ proved so popular that a black market for the emerged when WWII forced production for Nylon to shift to military equipment. When stocking manufacturing resumed a few days after the Japanese surrender in 1945, riots broke out as demand outstripped supply.

In the 1950s, Acrylic and Polyester appeared on the mass market, the former being marketed specifically as a cheap wool-replacement that could be cleaned in the automatic washing machines that were becoming common in homes. These plastic fibres became hugely popular in knitting yarn throughout the 60s and 70s before gradually declining in popularity due to their synthetic feel, lack of ‘spring’ and flammability.

Nylon is relatively difficult to produce and more expensive than polyester and acrylic, but is stronger and more elastic. Though it does eventually become brittle with laundering, it is more hard-wearing than wool. Given its useful properties and its roots in the hosiery industry, it’s no wonder it has made its way into sock yarn, and where other synthetics may have fallen out of favour with the discerning knitter, Nylon shows no decrease in popularity, even in the hand-dyed market.

It’s easy to forget that synthetic textiles are plastics because that’s not the way that they’re marketed (Polyester is in fact the same PET plastic that’s used for water bottles) and marketing likely responsible for the widely-held belief that sock yarns need Nylon.

Phasing out plastic fibres

If you make your own clothes and you follow our blog then the chances are you’re the kind of person that’s already mindful of your plastic consumption. I’d wager that you’ve rid your life of single-use plastic bags, eliminated microbeads from your household and carry a re-usable water bottle. There are a whole lot of other plastics we don’t think about (well, I certainly didn’t), invisible plastics like the ones hidden in our clothes, and we are only just starting to understand the impact of these.

Last year I rekindled my love of sewing, and as a result, paying more attention to the materials in my wardrobe and realising how much plastic was lurking there – in zips, thread, trimmings and the fabric itself. Around the same time I learned about microfibre pollution and I realised that it was important for us to phase out Nylon blends altogether. We have stopped buying Nylon blends, and because we believe in helping our customers understand their environmental impact and make informed choices, we’ve added a notice to those that we have remaining:

Please be aware that Nylon is a plastic fibre. Plastic fibres contribute to microfibre pollution, which is now known to have entered our food chain through aquatic life.

We also published flyers with this information that you may have seen at Yarnporium or received in your yarn order.

This decision to call time on Nylon has impacted our ability to offer mini-skeins. We buy these already made up because we don’t have the equipment to make them ourselves, but have struggled to find them in 100% wool. We have closed our monthly Sock Minis Club until we can source 100% wool mini-skeins to match our Favourite Sock yarn.

What the heck is microfibre pollution?

With every wash, our clothes release tiny strands called microfibres, in fact one piece of clothing can release 700,000 fibres per wash. These microscopic fibres cannot be effectively filtered-out of waste water. While natural fibres like wool break down, synthetic fibres make their way into our fibres and oceans intact.

The problem has only recently been reported in the mainstream media, because unlike the problem of larger plastic objects in the ocean which is hard to ignore, it’s not visible to the naked eye. Micro-plastics are now thought to make up 15-31% of the plastic in our oceans.

This invisible pollution has been found in fish stocks worldwide and is confirmed to be in our food chain. We’re only beginning to understand microfibre pollution and its impact on our health and that of the planet, but the scale of it is pretty terrifying.

What can I do?

Don’t throw away your Nylon blend socks and sock yarn! That would be to waste the energy and materials that have already gone into producing them. Read some tips about what you can do to stop microfibre pollution at home.

One of the things I’m saddest to give up is those beautiful glittery art batts I love to spin (although it might be that because the Stellina and Angelina fibres that add the sparkle are larger in diameter, they are more likely to be caught by filters). I probably won’t buy any more of these but I will use up the little stash that I have.

What about my socks?

We absolutely recognise there is an environmental trade-off, with Nylon-free yarns having lower durability, and garments made from them ultimately needing to be replaced sooner, but we believe the negatives far outweigh the positives for synthetic blends long term.

If you’re concerned about the durability of pure wool socks then we have some tips for you! Stay tuned for our next post, all about making wool socks that last.

The author

Suzie Blackman

The dyer, designer, photographer, creative technologist and maker-of-things behind It's a Stitch Up. She lives in East London in a home filled with colour, fluff and house plants.

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5 comments

  1. Anne says:

    I think you should put this up on instagram as a reminder for all of us yan obsessed people

  2. Viv says:

    Excellent article!!
    My mother had silk stockings and it was a commen sight to see her darning them if they wot at the toe or had a snag with very fine silk thread.

    I detest nylon/polyester clothes they don’t allow the skin to breathe.

    Sadly I can’t wear most wool against my skin but socks are fine. If they wear a hole then it’s darning time for me

    The 60s n 70s created a throw away society… it’s time to get back to “make, do, and mend”.

    • suzie says:

      I have really sensitive skin too, but I find wool socks so comfy. I have learned to embrace mending them. I used to mend them invisibly but not I use a contrast colour just so it stands out :)

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