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This is the blog of a constant crafter - a 'showcase' for some of the things I make, some hints for crafting & recylcing - lots of photos and some words. I hope it will inspire.
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Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Environmental Footprint of Various Fibres used in Clothing - Part 1

I could be opening a can of worms with this post and setting the cat amongst the pigeons ... if you know something that I don't, or if I've left something out, please comment but - keep in mind that I do moderate the comments and if your comment is immoderate I'll simply delete it.

So why am I doing this?  because it is something I am passionate about and a subject that keeps coming up when I am teaching - I teach various crafts, 'make do & mend' and up-cycling classes.  And because it is so easy to get misled by all the mis-information, muddled information and advertising out there.  I am not being paid to do this.  My sources of income are rather various (such a modern woman am I! ) and in the interests of impartiality I should disclose that some of those classes I mentioned are for Morris & Sons who do have home-brand yarns ... but those yarns are of many different fibres processed in various countries.  I don't think I can be accused of bias towards any one particular fibre.  I do have personal opinions (don't we all? ) I'll try to make it clear when I'm airing a very personal viewpoint.

So what makes me think I know something about all this & have any right to do this?  Firstly, I've spent a great deal of time trying to find sensible, un-biased information about the fibres we wear.  It's not easy!  I use fibre a lot - I make a variety of mostly fibre & fabricy things and have done so for over 40 decades - and doesn't that make me feel old!  Perhaps I can put together a cradle-to-grave evaluation of most of the fibres used in our clothing and present something impartial, not too scientific and not too boring.

But before I start - 2 observations.

1.  When it comes to clothing - it isn't easy being green ...

2.  A great deal of the environmental impact of our clothing lies with the end user - that's you & me.  The person who buys, wears, washes, irons (?) mends, re-purposes, and ultimately decides when and how that garment is disposed of.  But all that belongs to another post ... perhaps I'll be brave enough to do that one too.

Listing is alphabetical and because it is going to be much longer than I initially hoped - it'll go over several posts
I will update it as I discover more information (this will be a learning curve for me)
I'm Australian
I knit a lot (so I'll look at fibres often made into yarns but perhaps not so often found in commercial clothing)
I've tried to cover all aspects 'from cradle to grave'.


Acetate (might be labeled Celanese, Avisco, Bemsilk) - Acetate / Cellulose Acetate used to be considered of form of Rayon but they are now listed separately.
What is it?
A semi-synthetic - it starts with plant material (usually wood pulp or cotton linters (waste from milling)) but is then processed with chemicals ...
Acetate has a long history dating back to 1865 and the uses for forms of cellulose acetate are amazingly various.  Some of these are historical, some are quite current: photographic film, filters in cigarettes, lacquer (aka dope) to stiffen the fabric of early aeroplanes, magnetic tape for computers, glasses frames, fibre tipped pens (textas etc),  high absorbency products (disposable baby nappies, feminine hygiene, surgical products),  playing cards, the original Lego bricks were made of it (till 1963), toys & model animals, award ribbons ... all those sashes for Miss World & Miss Universe & for all the other Best in Shows ...

Manufacturing - the Cradle
This will get a bit scientific and I'm not a scientist but I think that basically the plant material is deconstructed into a cellulose by using acetic acid (vinegar is 3-9% acetic acid), acetic anhydride and sulfiric acid.  That sulphate is removed with water then the cellulose gets dissolved in acetone (nail polish remover) to make a viscous resin which can be extruded into fine cellulose acetate fibres.
Dyeability
Acetate needs a disperse dye but it takes to colour well and should be quite colourfast.
What is it used for?  Where will we find it in our wardrobes?
Often used for lining garments - sold under the name Bemsilk in the fabric shops.  It has a nice shine so is often used for satins, taffetas etc in bridal and evening wear.  Is also used blended with other fibres.
How should we look after it?
Acetate is resistant to mold & mildew (a bonus in Sydney).  But Acetate doesn't take well to heat - so never tumble dry and take care when / if ironing.  It loses strength when wet and dry-cleaning is recommended.  It doesn't like abrasion so avoid rubbing.  May be damaged by some of the things in perfumes - is damaged by nail polish remover.  So if you get nail polish or super glue on acetate don't use nail polish remover as you might dissolve the fabric.  Best to embroider or appliqué something over the top!
Concerns & Bonuses
Made from renewable resource and/or cotton waste ... but let us hope that those trees are replanted.  In the past the chemicals used often went into the waste water system ... let's hope that no longer happens everywhere that Acetate is being produced.
Burning 
Acetate burns like paper ... it is processed cellulose.
What happens to it when it does go to land-fill? - the Grave
Acetate biodegrades well.

Acrylic 
What is it?
Synthetic / man made - a polymer / plastic.  Strange words here - acrylonitrile (aka vinyl cyanide) monomer, vinyl acetate or methyl acrylate comonomer.  DuPont made the first acrylic fibres in 1941.
Manufacturing - the Cradle
As with most plastics, there are environmental concerns in their manufacture  (google those strange words & see below)
What is it used for?  Where will we find it in our wardrobes?
Acrylic is used as an artificial wool - it is manufactured as a filament that is cut into short staple lengths (to imitate wool) and then spun into yarn for hand knitting / crochet and for commercial knit-wear.
On the positive: it is cheap, it survives careless washing (hot water and strong detergents) better than sheep's wool.
On the negative: those chopped lengths can pill badly, and personally - as a hand knitter I don't like using acrylic yarn - it feels like plastic.
Acrylic is also used in home furnishings, wigs and fake fur.
Acrylicus Fakus :-)
{aside: I've been yelled at by animal rights types when wearing (very obviously) fake fur and I have enjoyed yelling back that it is Acrylicus Fakus ... clubbed to death in the Antarctic ... those poor little baby Acryicus Fakuses ...}
How should we look after it?
Acrylic is quite robust in the wash though it often pills.  Avoid heat in drying - don't iron it.
Other Concerns
Fire - Acrylic burns like plastic (gives off nasty fumes and goes to hot melted stuff that'll stick to you).  There is Modacrylic - modified to be fire retardant but that process involves more forms of vinyl that are hazardous.
Cancer - acrylic fabrics may cause cancer!  Those strange words above sure look scary to me and vinyl cyanide is a carcinogen and mutagen.  Not good for people working where it is made and possibly not good to live with.
Pollution from washing - acrylic fabric releases lots of tiny synthetic particles when washed - our washing water often ends up in the oceans ... see "Concerns" towards the end of this wikipedia article
Recycling / Repurposing 
When your acrylic garment gets too shabby to wear even around the house, there are things you can do to keep it from land-fill and here are some ideas.  The better parts could be made into toys, or clothes for dolls.  Chop it into small bits and use as 'stuffing' (very useful for draught stoppers / door-snakes).  I wouldn't recommend using it as a polishing cloth as acrylic tends to scratch but it might make good cleaning cloths, or cut into strips and use to tie up unruly plants in the garden.
What happens to it when it does go to land-fill? - the Grave
It's plastic, not readily biodegradable.

Alpaca
What is it?

A natural fibre from the alpaca, a camelid from Sth America, scientific name Vicugna pacos, bred for thousands of years for their fibre and meat, there are no known wild alpacas.  There are 2 types - Huacaya and Suri, the Suri look like they have dreadlocks, or like Dougal from the Magic Roundabout only with long legs and a long neck ...
Suri Alpaca 


Dougal












Environmental footprint
What is the environmental impact of alpacas?  Well, they have padded feet rather than hard hooves, they require less food than most animals of their size, are said not to damage root systems ... so all that sounds better for the environment than sheep.  Fly strike is not an issue, so no mulesing (much better than sheep).  Interesting animals, they use a communal dung pile where they do not graze and this behaviour tends to limit the spread of internal parasites.  They have a 3-chambered stomach and chew cud ... so they get maximum nutrients from low quality food. Gestation on average is 11.5 months (wow!) with one baby (rarely twins), they can live to 20 yrs.  More info on Alpacas in Australia here
Shearing
Alpacas are shorn once a year, using the same electric shears as for sheep.  Alpacas can kick and spit so in Australia they are usually lain on their sides on the ground or on a table (better for the shearer's back!) with their legs tethered ... known spitters might get a sock over their noses.  All that sounds unpleasant but most animals go into a sort of trance while being shorn - the submission of a prey species?  or perhaps it tickles?
Processing
It seems that a lot of the alpaca produced in Australia is sold to hand spinners or as specialty yarn to crafts people for knitting and weaving.  There are a small number of mills that will process alpaca fleece.  Alpaca is not greasy like sheep's wool,  so it is easier and takes less water & detergent to clean.
Commercial mills have heavy machinery so energy use is a consideration - home spinners run on cups of tea and ginger-nut biscuits.
Alpaca can be dyed with the same dyestuffs as sheep's wool (protein dyes) but Alpacas came in some really gorgeous natural colours - from soft greys through lovely gingers to strong blacks.
Baby Alpaca - we often see this on yarn labels - it doesn't actually relate to the age of the animal.  It means that the alpaca fibre is 21 - 23 microns - fine and soft.
What is it used for?  Where will we find it in our wardrobes?
Mostly we find alpaca in the yarn store and it is lovely to knit with.  You might also find garments made of alpaca, mostly in craft-shops & speciality stores.  Not all that yarn or fabric will be from Australia alpacas - much of it comes from Sth America.
Notes for fellow crafters:  alpaca yarn behaves differently to sheep's wool, it has beautiful drape but doesn't have the same 'return' after stretching.  It is lovely for loose fitting garments and for shawls and scarves (where you can enjoy the soft handle) but alpaca is not so good when a snug fit is required.  Unless treated (label will say machine-wash) it will felt, full, shrink (all basically the same thing) but the scales are small so it takes longer than sheep's wool.
How should we look after it?
Knitwear should be stored folded - not hanging.  Gentle wash, preferably by hand, in luke warm water with very little soap (yellow laundry soap is best) do not rub, support garment when lifting it from the water.  Rinse well.  Pop into an old pillow-case and knot the top and spin dry.  Never tumble dry.  If you do not have a gentle spin dryer you can roll garment in dry towels and press out the excess water.  Dry laid flat on clean dry towels away from direct sunshine.  It shouldn't need ironing.
Burning
Like wool, alpaca burns slowly and will self extinguish if direct flame is removed.  There is little smoke but it smells like burnt hair (because that's what it is).
What happens to it when it does go to land-fill? - the Grave
It is natural and will break down.

Angora
What is it?

A natural fibre (fluff) from certain breeds of rabbit.  There are English, French and German or Giant - sounds like the beginning of a bad joke!
apparently there is a rabbit in there!
Environmental paw-print
If you've ever kept a pet rabbit you know that they are quite cheap to maintain.  Feral rabbits are a problem in Australia but I doubt a fluffy angora rabbit would last long in the wild here.
Processing 
OK - this is the concern ... in 2013 PETA released a video showing dreadful treatment of angoras in China.  At the time 90% of commercial angora fibre came from China.  Apparently the problem starts with the breed of Angora ... seems that it was a bad joke after all!   This blog article explains things rather well but I'll try to do a 'Readers' Digest version' here.
The English and French angora rabbits shed their coats and the fibre is harvested by gently combing out the old fluff as the new coat grows in.  "A time consuming process, best done over several days" ...  I think people in Australia usually keep these breeds as pets and to use the fluff for their own hand spinning.  The German or Giant angora doesn't shed and needs to be shorn - most commercial angora comes from this breed.  Now I'm not going to watch that PETA video but apparently it showed rabbits being plucked like chickens and claims they were kept in filthy cages.  Perhaps PETA found a rogue angora farmer because it doesn't really make sense to me - angora is expensive fibre, you would want to keep your rabbits (and their fluff) nice and clean.  This breed should be shorn every 3 months, they are productive animals, why would anyone terrorise, hurt or damage a good source of income.

A just shorn angora bunny
Angora rabbits can and should be shorn without hurting them ... however, it is impossible not to laugh at a freshly shorn angora.

What is it used for?  Where will we find it in our wardrobes?
Angora is a lovely luxury fibre; it is (and should be) expensive.  Angora is actually finer and softer than cashmere!  We find it in knitting yarn and occasionally in garments.  If you are concerned about those PETA claims it might be difficult to avoid Chinese angora in ready-made clothing (though price might be a guide).  There are Australian and humane suppliers of angora fluff for hand-spinning and angora yarn for knitting.
Note:  because angora has a short staple and because it is expensive, it is usually blended with other fibres.

Personally, I still have dreams of owning a few angora rabbits and using their fluff to spin enough yarn to knit myself a classic 1950s style twin set.
How should we look after it?
Angora is delicate - you don't want it to shed all the soft fluff.   In the past, people put their angora knitwear in the refrigerator.  Not sure I would do that - but I would store folded, not hanging.  Gentle hand wash, in luke warm water with very little soap (yellow laundry soap is best) never rub, support garment when lifting it from the water.  Rinse well.  Roll garment in dry towels and press out the excess water.  Dry laid flat on clean dry towels away from direct sunshine.  Don't iron.
What happens to it when it does go to land-fill? - the Grave
Angora is so expensive I'm not sure I want to think about this ... but it is natural and will break down.

Art Silk - artificial silk - an early name for Rayon and an example of clever marketing ... I'm not sure if the Art Silk of the 1920s was what we now call Acetate or another form of Rayon.


Well - I've only done the A's and this post is already really long ... so I'll leave it here and get started on the fibres that start with B for the next post.

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