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Since I had cancer last year, I have spent time examining how I live and what possible environmental effects could have had an influence on getting this disease. I have had to change many things in my life and to examine what foods I eat, the types of fabrics and clothes that I wear, the yarns, fibres and dyes that I use in my work. In addition to the air pollution around us from cars and factories, working as a weaver/spinner, we know that fibre creates dust and small airborne particles that we breathe. Those particles get into our lungs, our food, and everything we touch and can be absorbed by our skin.
As we know, in recent months there has been growing concern about the use of microplastics, that pollute our rivers, streams, oceans and invade the delicate balance of our world. The concern is not just plastic bags, plastic water bottles but also the bits of plastic particles that are in most of our clothing and fabrics.
So the gentle hobby of knitting that we enjoy also has an impact on our world. What yarns we choose to knit with and to wear can make a difference. Since it is November and the days are cold, I have been knitting some socks and mittens. There are many yarns and fibres to choose from – wools, mohair, silks, cottons,yak, alpaca, cashmere. A random Google search led me to a huge selection of sock yarns. When I looked at the fibre content of the yarn blends, most of them contain 10% to 25% nylon/polyamide. That might not seem like a lot, but it all adds up.
I begin to wonder, is nylon really necessary to add to the sock to give it strength? When you add up all the wools and other yarns that contain nylon, that adds up to a lot of microplastics.
When I knit socks that contain nylon, I find that they do wear out rather quickly at the heels and the bottom of the foot. I look at the yarn and how it has worn, and I see that the wool has broken and the nylon remains. I wonder if the nylon could be abrasive and causes the wool to wear?
I thought back to the days when my mother used to knit hats, mittens, socks, sweaters for our family. My Dad, my brothers, sister, nieces and nephews each got a sock, hat and mitten set every Christmas. She only used pure wool for her knitting. The socks were hard-wearing and almost never wore out. Our sock drawers were full of hand knit socks, made many years ago, though we did get a new pair to add to the collection every year. When the socks did get a bit worn, she would darn them with other bits of leftover wool. Make do and mend, and those socks would again be warm and durable.
I found some of my mother’s old double point sock knitting needles. I remember that she would use different sizes of needles for the socks – for the body of the sock she used a slightly thicker size of needle and a thinner one for the heel and foot of the socks. I measured her old knitting needles – and the fine ones were 2.0.
For socks that I knit, I have been using the recommended 2.5 mm to 3.0 mm for most of my knitting and the socks do wear out quickly. Perhaps the socks also need to be knit with a tighter tension to give the sock more strength. I will test this and knit with my mother’s fine needles on my next pair of socks.
As a hand spinner I am aware that the type of wool fibre that you use can make a difference to the durability and softness of the sock. And also how the yarn is spun – with a tight twist or a loosely spun one.
Wool spun for socks should be made from a sheep breed that has a long staple length and is worsted spun with a tight twist. Soft wools such as merino are not really suitable as the fibre is very fine, the staple length is short and I find that merino tends to break off and pill when it is worn. Merino is better suited for knitting lace shawls, hats or wool sweaters that don’t demand a lot of hard use.
I have some wool sensitivites and I find that many wools make me itch and can give me a rash. A sheep breed such as Blue Faced Leicester is my favourite yarn for knitting. Romney is also another favourite of mine, though it is difficult to find in the UK.
It is difficult to find a sock yarn that doesn’t contain some amount of nylon. Perhaps if we as consumers become more demanding and ask yarn companies to produce yarns that are nylon free, non-superwash, and use eco-friendly dyes and methods, this will change. For now, I dye my own yarns with natural plant dyes. Both for personal use and for sale. You can find some of my Indie dyed yarns in my Paivatar Yarn Etsy Shop. Please also support other Indie dyers and crafters who work with natural materials.
Comments from Readers
After publishing this post, I received this comment from a long time friend and All Fiber Arts community member.
I never did like the idea of nylon in our wool socks. I did not believe that it make the socks last longer; I just could never understand how it could. What I knew was that the wool would disappear and the nylon would remain behind — and we THOUGHT that made the socks stronger. It didn’t.
I remember many years ago, I had purchased a pair of socks, machine made, that looked sort of home-made. They were in a natural sort of uneven grey colour, and appeared to be warm. They weren’t. They were not even wool, but mostly a loosely spun acrylic! [I didn’t read labels very carefully back then!] They wore out very fast…. I perhaps only wore them twice, and they seemed to wash away! I had holes in the bottom of the heel and ball of foot.
So I darned them. I decided to do duplicate stitch. After all, I could see the stitches (in nylon) and the rest of the sock had vanished. So it seemed so easy to just stitch over the stitches as they were already there, and it would all be good! Famous last words.
It seemed to take so long to do! I used my own hand-spun yarn, and covered the hole with neatly made stitches just as they were. For a darning mushroom, I used a light bulb (remember those?). I stitched a little beyond the hole so it would blend in. The heel was done with short rows, and I followed the pattern, and discovered how they were made. I stitched under the ball of the foot, and then the toe, and any thin area. I never knew where to stop! I mean, should I go only up to this stitch, or should I include the one next to it as well? I really felt that I could have knit the socks from scratch with my own yarn faster than it took to darn them! But it was a very good learning experience.
[I do remember where I was living at the time. I was sitting in my kitchen, with the oven door open — it was very cold then in winter, and I had little heat. I was listening to the federal finance minister presenting his budget at that time as well. I remember very well thinking whether he ever has sat and darned his own socks! If he did, THEN he could talk to me about restraint and higher taxes!]
When I did a lot of weaving, I do remember reading somewhere that you should NOT use nylon as a warp when weaving rugs because it would cut through your wool weft. That was a revelation to me…. and I always remembered that. So putting nylon in socks seems to be counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t the nylon cut through the wool? Of course it did! But that only meant you would have to buy more socks sooner! [there is some sense behind their madness!]
I could never understand how the addition of the nylon, whether blended with the wool, or added while knitting, could make the wool last longer. All I could see is that the wool could disappear, but the stitch would still hold together… there could still be some fabric there…. and it would “last longer”.
I thank you for bringing this to our attention. I don’t like the prevalence of all these synthetics in our lives. I can’t believe they are doing us any good. I am so distressed when those ignorant knitters on the forum write that they HAVE to use acrylics for their grandkids because their children are too busy to be able to hand-wash any baby clothes. But they prefer to give them toxic clothes instead? Have any of you ever seen a baby burned by melting acrylics?? As you know, wool does not burn without a flame on it. Only one conclusion in my mind.
We need to be reminded of these things from time to time. We soon get caught in the ways of the world, and we forget. Until it is too late.
Plastics and Pollution
I was very happy to see in The Guardian newspaper today a beginning of awareness that the clothing we wear has an impact on the world around us.
The Christmas Jumper, so loved by everyone in the holiday season, is causing harm to our planet.
Christmas Jumpers Add to Plastic Pollution
“95% of the jumpers were made wholly or partly of plastic materials. The charity said the garment had become one of the worst examples of fast fashion, now recognised as hugely damaging to the environment.”
The contribution of washing processes of synthetic clothes to microplastic pollution
Recent estimations have assessed that synthetic clothes contributes by about 35% to the global release of primary microplastics to the world oceans, thus becoming the main source of microplastics.
Sock Knitting Books
Jorid Linvik’s Big Book of Knitted Socks: 45 Distinctive Scandinavian Patterns