The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
February 3, 2010

When is Wool Yarn not 100% Wool?

When it’s coated with plastic. Like the kind I have to hide from Arya because things like this happen…

Arya kitty chews yarn

Two years ago, in my post about plastic-free kitting, I mentioned I was knitting slippers out of Superwash wool from Lorna’s Laces. I assumed that Superwash meant the yarn had already been washed and wouldn’t shrink anymore.  I guess I was thinking of cotton.  Anyway, an astute Fake Plastic Fish reader Rebecca left a comment on that post just a few weeks ago letting me know that Superwash wool is actually coated with a polymer to prevent the wool from shrinking. (It’s nice to know my posts hold up over time.)

Turns out, there are two methods used to create this stuff. According to About.com’s article on Superwash wool,

It can be made using an acid bath that removes the “scales” from the fiber, or it can be made by coating the fiber with a polymer [read: plastic] that basically keeps the scales from being able to join together and cause shrinkage.

So I emailed Lorna’s Laces to find out how their Superwash wool is made. Here’s the response I got back from Beth Casey:

Lorna’s Laces is not a mill so we don’t do the superwash processing, but I can tell you what I know.

The acid used is generally chlorine based and the polymer is polyamide or nylon. Our yarns use a two step process that incorporates both.

Oh my. Not only do they use plastic on the yarn, but also chlorine-based acid which is terrible environmentally. Guess I won’t be choosing that wool anymore. And maybe in the future, I’ll knit my slippers out of regular organic wool and felt them.

Do you have suggestions? What is the most eco-friendly yarn that also is able to be washed without shrinking? Things like slipper socks can get awfully dirty.  (Or will I have to just soak them in cold water?)

41 comments
ghildeb
ghildeb

I have to agree with some of what sprockets said, polymerized should not be read as coated with plastic.  A polymer does not equate to plastic, there are natural and synthetic polymers.  All a polymer is is a chemical compound or mixture consisting of repeating structural units.  Examples would be DNA, suger, wool, latex, petrolium based plastics.  Also, polyamide should not be read as plastic either.  Polyamide is both a naturally occuring and synthetic polymer.  Naturally occuring polyamides are proteins such as wool and silk, and synthetic ones would be nylons and aramids.

Katie M
Katie M

Have you ever heard of Qiviut wool? It's the wool of the musk ox. Its truly an amazing substance. It's softer than sheep's wool, warmer, stronger, and doesn't shrink in any temperature! As far as I know they are never "farmed", The wool is shredded naturally and collected by locals. Because of this, though, it's VERY expensive. If you want a really high quality piece of clothing though, its the way to go!

grndmas babes
grndmas babes

H E L P ! ! ! ! I have purchased a  few customed made ?Merino Woolie diaper covers? They Do NOT feel like the german made covers  so known about! they are Hard after lanolin washing,,,Oh b.t.w....they are double knited. I was told different wools & knitting styles make a difference. Ias there a way to tell if I was Hoodwinked & had something other then Wool put Over My Eyes? LOL ! I have become obsecced over Wool ! My new Found Love for my Gr'babies! Help a Granny trying to make a difference in My lil one lives as well as Mine!

 

Sincere Thanks~ Doreen

grndmas babes
grndmas babes

H E L P ! ! ! ! I have purchased a  few customed made ?Merino Woolie diaper covers? They Do NOT feel like the german made covers  so known about! they are Hard after lanolin washing,,,Oh b.t.w....they are double knited. I was told different wools & knitting styles make a difference. Ias there a way to tell if I was Hoodwinked & had something other then Wool put Over My Eyes? LOL ! I have become obsecced over Wool ! My new Found Love for my Gr'babies! Help a Granny trying to make a difference in My lil one lives as well as Mine!

 

Sincere Thanks~ Doreen

sprockets
sprockets

No need for hysteria here. "Polymerized" does not mean "coated with plastic." Some of the facilities that create the superwash wool are in Germany, and Europe has much stricter environmental regulations than the U.S. I care deeply about the environment, but we can drive ourselves crazy without really trying on these issues. Is it better to use a handspun organic wool that has been trucked from the other side of the country? if we are responsible do we only knit with locally-grown, locally-spun and -dyed wools, even if we don't like the way they work up? I think we need to be conscious of the issues and make reasonable, balanced choices. So often, I see what looks like people trying to "out-organic" each other, as if this is a contest someone is going to win. It's a process, and i hope we can just relax and have some fun.

Meg
Meg

Animal cruelty issues aside (and trust me, there are plenty here) ... I don't see how it could be better for the environment to buy wool rather than use petroleum-based fibers (or plant-based fibers). Animal agriculture is incredibly bad for the environment and I wager a lot more petroleum goes into it than would take to just make yarn out of the stuff directly.

Natural pleasures « Plastic Manners
Natural pleasures « Plastic Manners

[...] yarn.  I put a pot on an old pot holder, and the damn thing melted to the table.  Now having read Fake Plastic Fish’s warnings on yarn, I should have known better, but nonetheless I was disappointed that plastic was hiding there too. I [...]

Frugal Kiwi
Frugal Kiwi

You could always take up spinning your own wool. I'm a felter and don't knit before I felt, but I'd love to learn to spin. If I spun my own wool, I think I'd be more excited about knitting it. .-= Frugal Kiwi´s last blog ..Would you survive as a pioneer? =-.

Jennifer
Jennifer

Oops! My post should have read, "a H+ ion makes it an acid." Sorry for any confusion!

Jennifer
Jennifer

Chlorine by itself is neither an acid nor a base. An OH- ion makes a compound a base, and a H+ ion makes it a base. Chlorine bleach is a base, but hydrochloric acid, which also has chlorine, is a very strong acid. I'd suggest changing your text - it discredits the information here that probably is factual when you're also presenting wrong information as fact.

Carmen
Carmen

I had no idea! I've been using Superwash wool thinking the same thing as you. Back to the drawing board! Thanks for the post.

anonymous
anonymous

Chlorine may be a base, but you can make an acid out of it, by, say, adding hydrogen to make hydrochloric acid (HCl). Maybe that's what she meant by a "chlorine-based acid".

Liz
Liz

here is some more chemistry for the folks interested in Rayon and Bamboo rayons- Rayon is any fiber made from pulped cellulose/plant material. This makes it possible to use plants that are not normally fiber plants (think cotton, linen etc). Rayon is made by pulping, bleaching and then dissolving the plant materials in a solution of ammonia, copper sulfate and caustic soda (lye/sodium hydroxide). The solution is then put through a spinneret, kind of like a shower head with really really tiny wholes, and this produces the fibers that are then washed with an acid bath and then spun into yarns. The chemical used to dissolve the cellulose can cause neruological/nervous system damage if safety measures are not fallowed properly during manufacture, this is a big problem in countries with little safety regulation. The run off from the solvent is also and environmental issue. Bamboo fabric and fibers are still just rayon, the nice thing about bamboo is how fast is grows back and how little care it needs compared to other raw cellulose supply plants. Modal is a rayon made from just birch trees. The single source of cellulose does effect the overall performance of some rayons because there are fewer irregularities then in rayons made from a mix of different plants. But it is still rayon. The exception to rayon type fibers is Lyocell mainly known as the brand name Tencel. This is a process that takes raw plants and makes rayon with a solvent that can be totally recaptured at the end of the manufacturing process and used again, so it is a closed loop system with little waste and is therefore much more environmentally friendly. The best rayon would be something like a Bamboo Tencel, a quickly replenishing cellulose supply with a closed loop manufacturing process. But I think at the moment this is a bit of a White Unicorn fiber. .-= Liz´s last blog ..Herbert and the Hooties =-.

Hillary
Hillary

Ugh, yet another insidious plastic invasion! I don't knit with wool because I'm allergic, and have had mixed results knitting with cotton (it's not as flexible as wool), but YMMV. There are some nice organic cotton yarns out there. To the person upstream who wondered about bamboo fiber as an eco-alternative -- I believe the processing of bamboo into fiber has a pretty bad enivronmental impact in terms of the chemicals used. A lot of greenwashing goes on with bamboo fabric.

Liz
Liz

I just have to correct the chemistry of your post, as a textile science degree holder misinformation in the field drives me a bit nuts. They do not use acid but a base, chlorine is a strong base. Acids do not dissolve protein fibers effectively but bases do. But I agree, plastic coated wool is just yucky. .-= Liz´s last blog ..Herbert and the Hooties =-.

Susanna a.k.a. Cheap Like Me
Susanna a.k.a. Cheap Like Me

This made me so mad, too! I was really annoyed when I saw your mention on Facebook about it. But I don't want to shoot the messenger. :) I would second the recommendation to use wool and either felt them or wash regular knitted items in cold water. I think vinegar works well with wool because it is acidic, and if wool is not somewhat acidic (at least on the sheep/in the fleece stage), it can degrade somewhat/wear out quicker. But just a gentle soap, well rinsed, works fine too, with COLD water. The things that make wool felt are heat, soap, agitation. Rapid temperature changes will enhance felting. So if you wash in cold, you're in good shape, because heat is mandatory. I've even washed some wool items in slightly warm and they come out fine, living dangerously as one commenter noted. The other advantage to knitting & felting is you can use huge yarn and needles, so patterns go extremely quickly. If you want packaging free yarn, I would strongly suggest going to a local sheep & wool or alpaca or other fiber festival -- odds are good you will be able to purchase yarn directly from its producer (maybe even handspun) -- it will be beautiful, unique, plastic-free, and you'll have the opportunity to ask any questions you like of the seller, as well as support a local cottage industry. .-= Susanna a.k.a. Cheap Like Me´s last blog ..How do you toss your BIG trash? =-.

susanna eve
susanna eve

Just wanted to ad that any yarn that is superwash does say on the ball band that it is 75% or 80% wool and 25/20% nylon or something else. There are indeed as people have mentioned lots of smaller companies and farms and so on that do sell 100% wool but it will shrink or felt in cold water. Check out what is near to you or what is for sale at your local farmer's market. You can wash them in cold water and then air dry, gets a lot of dirt out:)

Rebeca
Rebeca

Oh, I forgot to mention. One possible solution would be to use recycled yarn. You can find some on ebay. Just remember to ask them to forgo plastic in the packaging :-)

Rebeca
Rebeca

Thanks for picking up on that comment, Terry, and doing the research. I'm sorry to have been the bearer (or inciter) of bad news for all of the commenters, but happy to see how one little comment, released to the world through your wonderfully informative and inspiring blog can have an effect. Thank you for the work you do! As for DK's comments about bamboo... You might want to read this thorough article (and the comments that follow it) which really breaks down the ways in which bamboo is eco-friendly and the ways in which it is not. It actually has a step-by-step of the process used to turn bamboo cellulose into a rayon-like fabric. The article focuses on bamboo fabrics, not yarn, but I imagine that the processing is the same to produce fibers and that the differentiation would occur when the fibers are either spun into yarn to be used as such or to be woven into fabric. The article does not mention plastic and it does say this: "Bamboo clothing (both mechanically and chemically manufactured) is 100% biodegradable and can be completely decomposed in the soil by micro-organisms and sunlight without decomposing into any pollutants such as methane gas which is commonly produced as a by-product of decomposition in landfills and dumps." Can we gather from this that it is plastic free? I hope so.

Andrea
Andrea

Geez, that makes me mad! I (like you) never thought much about what "superwash" meant. I have, however, been wondering what "permanently moth-proofed" means. I use soapnut soak and a tiny dab of lanolin (in a plastic tube but leftover from years of breastfeeding) to hand wash woolens. Also, if you have a frontloader you can probably throw them in there (on cold, delicate) and be fine--I knitted a bowl that I tried to felt by washing it several times on hot (with tennis balls, sneakers, a load of diapers, etc.) and it would just not felt...I had to give it to a friend with a toploader (and lots of wood-heated hot water) to get it to felt. You could also sew leather bottoms on your slippers to keep them cleaner, but making leather is a whole 'nother mess, environmentally-speaking. .-= Andrea´s last blog ..One Small Change, Month Two =-.

Melissa
Melissa

I knit with Lamb's Pride. 100% natural. Even sort of smells like it's fresh from the sheep. I'd imagine if the label assures you it's wool that won't shrink, it's been coated or treated because ALL genuine wool will shrink when washed in hot water. .-= Melissa´s last blog ..good things =-.

Tracey
Tracey

My mother scumbles (garbage picks) and buys old sweaters from buck-a-pound second hand stores, then she unravels them into balls and re-knits them into socks, stockings etc. A lot of accidentally felted stuff gets thrown out, and this is ideal for seweing into slippers. Generally second hand woolens are pre-shrunk!. To wash, use cold water. To deodorize, hand in the sun and wind. .-= Tracey´s last blog ..Join the Anarres Natural Health Community, on Kiva =-.

Aly R.
Aly R.

Wow. This is the second post that blew me away -- plastics where you would have least suspected them (the first one being about the gum). I know most people probably don't even associate acrylic yarns with being plastic, nevertheless would we ever suspect wool yarns of being coated in plastic! Now I am wondering... what else has plastic incorporated into it that we don't realize? The "gum" post has changed a small part of my life, btw. I no longer EVER even think about buying gum at the checkout counter. When someone handed me a piece of gum the other day, I had to turn them down... and then explain why! A couple of years ago in school a couple of friends got turned off of gum because of the BHT preservative in it-- little did they know there was more than one crappy ingredient in there. I guess I am still a bit mad at gum anyways because of the Wrigley ads from a few years ago where they tried to promote gum "as an alternative to food" for people trying to stick to a diet. That theme didn't go over to well with me. (I actually submitted an ad to NEDA's media watchdog because I thought it was so offensive to anyone who has ever suffered with an eating disorder.)

Erika
Erika

Huh! I fancy I know a lot about yarn, but I didn't know about the polymer coating of superwash yarn! I hate the stuff, hate the feel of it, and avoid it whenever possible. Just use an eco-friendly regular wool yarn, hand wash it, and add a big splash of vinegar to the water when you do so. What I'm getting from your original post is that you were concerned about germs. Vinegar will kill those, and it won't harm the wool (wool is hair just like on our heads, and I use vinegar on my hair all the time with no ill effects). For eco-friendly/sustainable yarn, I recommend Beaverslide. They raise and shear their own sheep, then take their yarn to a nearby family-owned mill which minimally processes the yarn and spins it up using a semi-ancient technique that's better for the yarn and the environment. And they're really nice people! http://www.beaverslide.com/ .-= Erika´s last blog ..Hardly Worth Blogging About =-.

Karen Sharkey
Karen Sharkey

Thanks for this information about the wool yarn. I have worked very hard to eliminate plastics from my world to improve my health. Recently I got tested for plastics to see if I had less of a burden since I started this. It was actually higher! I couldn't figure it out, what was I missing...I have learned loom knitting recently and gee guess what ype of yarn I have been using. I bet this is a big contributing factor to having a higher test result. I spend time handling the yarn knitting, whatever touches our skin we take into our bodies. Arrrgghh! I don't know about you but I don't want plastic in my body! I just can't believe plastic is in so many things.

Amber
Amber

I hand-wash my woolens, which is actually getting easier the more I do it. Wool doesn't get dirty in the same way as cotton, since it sort of naturally repels debris and is also naturally antimicrobial, so you can usually go a little longer between washes than if you were using another fiber. Otherwise, felted slippers are lovely. :) .-= Amber´s last blog ..Big Boy Bed =-.

Maria
Maria

Thanks for writing about this! I also recently switched to natural wool for my knit socks, and it's awesome: my plastic-free socks are warmer and actually more durable. Maybe because the little wool scales are intact and can grip each other, for a denser fabric? So far I really like the Imperial Stock Ranch sock yarn, Elsa Wool Company worsted-spun, and O-Wool. I handwash my knits with Eucalan and just lay flat to dry.

Chelsea
Chelsea

I get my yarn at my local place Fiber Gallery which specializes in more eco friendly yarns--they even have recycled yarns which I think is neat. I don't know what would be best for not shrinking but I bet they would and they are supper friendly and have an online store. http://www.fibergallery.com/

DK
DK

I had no idea that's how superwash yarn was made. I crochet because I can't yet coordinate both my hands to knit something that's actually usable for more than an art object and I have gotten most all of my hooks in metal because I absolutely hate how the plastic ones feel to work with. I've been wanting to get into making my own socks for a while and superwash wool seemed like the way to go. Now I'm thinking bamboo is probably best. Unless there's some sinister plastic-y goings on in making bamboo yarn of which I am unawares. Patty, Unfortunately (or fortunately depending upon your perspective) wool doesn't shrink like plant-based fibers (cotton, hemp, etc). Plant-based fibers tend to shrink along the length of the fiber and so you basically end up with a shorter, sometimes thinner, sometimes thicker, thread or yarn. Wool fibers actually have tiny scales sticking out that, when agitated, heated or moistened (all 3 of which generally happen simultaneously in a normal person's washing machine), latch onto each other to form a matted fabric that is impossible to separate. So if you wad up or wash folded up wool fibers of any form be it yarn, knotted/crocheted project, sweaters, and even sometimes other wool clothing like slacks or skirts, you can end up with a shrunken, mis-shaped, matted up mess.

Allie
Allie

I wash wool all the time! You just need to use a wool safe wash like euclan or ecover delicate wash either handwashing or in the gentle cycle in the washer if you want to live dangerously. You cannot put it in the dryer, and you have to make sure it says wool safe on the wash. Of course I suppose most of them would come in plastic bottles, but there's got to be a detergent you can use or make.

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

Jenn, thanks for letting me know about yarn that is shipped with less plastic. We sometimes forget about packaging we as consumers don't see. Tameson, thanks for the tip. I didn't know there were animals whose wool was less likely to felt, which I assume means less likely to shrink much. I'll either look into the kinds of yarn Tameson is talking about or start making felted slippers instead. I liked that the other slippers were stretchy because I offer to them to guests when I ask them to take their shoes off. Stretchy means they'll fit more people. Felted slippers aren't going to be very stretchy. Patty, it's a clever idea but it won't work because wool does more than shrink like cotton, it actually turns into felt. If you want to make felt, you have to do the knitting first and then shrink it down. Don't know if that makes sense. Anyway, it's not like cotton. .-= Beth Terry´s last blog ..Chewing on Plastic? Yum! =-.

Patty
Patty

I don't knit, but if you were to buy a regular (plastic free) ball of yarn would you be able to shrink it yourself before knitting? That way you would not have to worry about shrinkage.

Emily
Emily

Wow - that really bugs me. They should disclose at least the plastic coating on the label! You are not just buying wool but plastic and wool - could you even compost that?

Tameson O'Brien
Tameson O'Brien

Beth, try to get some wool from hampshire sheep - they don't felt well and make excellent socks. In fact many of the breeds developed for meat have hard to felt fleeces. Alpaca also does not felt easily.

Andrea
Andrea

Geez. I only buy wooden needles and I try to only knit with natural fibers. And THAT apparently is not enough. It would never in a million years occur to me that my yarn might be coated in plastic. sigh. Thanks for the usual enlightenment, I will now do research into my yarns and try to improve. It might be easier if they had to list ingredients like with food.... .-= Andrea´s last blog ..Watercolor Flowers =-.

Jenn
Jenn

Vermont Organic Fiber Co. has some great yarns produced with the environment in mind. As a yarn store employee that sees just how many plastic bags all the yarns come packaged in (10 skeins of one color per bag, typically), I was really excited when our shipment of O-wool arrived without all the plastic packaging. One large garbage bag was used to line the box, but the hanks of each color were tied together with yarn remnants. Only two bags instead of 60! The color cards did not come in a plastic binder, but a paper folder. As for the yarn itself, it knits up and wears wonderfully. The wool isn't superwash, but they also offer a cotton/wool blend. A good company to keep in mind for yarn!

Carrie
Carrie

I suggest knitting/crocheting big wool slippers & felting them. They can then be washed & I don't worry much about shrinking them further because I use cold water. There are lots of great patterns on Ravelry, but my favorite slippers are the Fiber Trend Felted Clogs.

The Raven
The Raven

Sigh. I always find it amazing how much of my knitting/spinning hobby that seems on the surface to be so sustainable winds up actually being a problem... .-= The Raven´s last blog ..Beating Hearts: The Humanist Symposium =-.

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

HI Sprockets. Actually, "polymerized" does mean coated with plastic, as nylon is a type of plastic. Whether or not this type of wool is okay to use is a matter of personal choice. But I just want to make sure we have our facts straight. The E.U., by the way, allows almost 900 different chemicals to be used in making plastics, one of which is bisphenol a. So while it's true that Europe has stricter standards than the U.S., we can't say that if Europe allows a chemical to be used, it must be safe.

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

Liz, thanks for the correction. I wonder why both About.com and Lorna's Laces referred to the substance as an acid. I'll add a comment to the blog post.

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  1. […] yarn.  I put a pot on an old pot holder, and the damn thing melted to the table.  Now having read Fake Plastic Fish’s warnings on yarn, I should have known better, but nonetheless I was disappointed that plastic was hiding there too. I […]