For the most part, I’m an online yarn shopper. I love it when I’m able to go to an LYS, but those trips are few and far between, so I rely upon clicks of the mouse for my doses of fiber. A recent trend caused me great excitement followed by even greater dread. Several wonderful online yarn shops started offering the filter (tag / label / category) of “vegan”. I thought, wahoo, even more wonderful yarns to dive into!
Upon further investigation, I realized that they were taking a very strict and non-historical definition of the word “vegan.” In my opinion, instead of vegan shop here; it was a case of vegan beware! In the narrow definition “vegan” is “animal-free”. Traditionally “vegan” evokes sensibilities tied to health, wellness, and extreme animal cruelty-free to the point of being no to all animal and all animal bi-products. For example, strict vegans won’t even purchase apples at the grocery store as they are coated in beeswax and that is considered an animal bi-product. In the knitting industry, up until recently, the “vegan” label meant plant-based fibers as opposed to animal fibers.
Result after result featured synthetic yarns – mainly acrylic. Working on the narrow definition of “animal-free” any synthetic – 100% man-made (or yarns that blend synthetics with plants) – fits the “vegan” filter. “O Ecotextiles.com” calls this the “green-washing” of products as more “environmental consciousness” arises.
But why is synthetic so bad? Let’s look at the science behind acrylic yarn as that was the most popular “vegan yarn” result:
Acrylic yarn is a plastic in which at least 85% of the compounds are acrylonitrile (thespruce.com). According to the National Center for Biotechnological Information, acrylonitrile is C3H3N, “a highly poisonous compound used widely in the manufacture of plastics, adhesives, and synthetic rubber.” It’s “a colorless, volatile liquid with a pungent, onion-like odor. (which is) reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen and may be associated with an increased risk of developing lung and prostate cancer (and the) EPA has classified (it) as a probable human carcinogen (Group B1).” According to the CDC, this compound isn’t just an air borne risk, it can also be absorbed through “skin absorption… skin and/or eye contact.” This fact in particular is why knitters should beware!
Looking at it holistically, it isn’t just your own health that may be impacted by skin contact with this dangerous chemical. Downstream, it’s the end wearer of your lovely hand knit. For me this is particularly distressing as acrylic is a knitter’s standard “go to” for baby items due to concerns over allergies to wool or plant fibers. Looking upstream, consider the health of the workers who create the synthetics and what they are exposed to in the process. This article, posted by O Ecotextiles, explains what workers in the acrylic yarn industry deal with: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2010/09/16/breast-cancer-and-acrylic-fibers/
So information in hand, next time you see a “vegan” filter, pop in and see just what kind of yarns appear. If you come across “green-washing” write the company and explain to them the falsity they are spreading by re-interpreting the traditional use of the word “vegan” to the narrow use.
If you are searching for acrylic alternatives consider the drape of fabric you are wanting and purpose. If you’re looking for a garment, acrylic has a very stiff drape, which again linen mimics as does GOTS wool. For texture, organic cotton will be soft like acrylic, but behaves very differently on the needles and body. For babies, consider organic cotton, GOTS wool (if not a vegan), or even linen. Yes, linen – it softens the more you use it so if you give that FO several good workouts it will be baby ready in no time ?. Of course, you never want to pick a fiber that is a known allergen, but I hope you see that the concept of “playing it safe by going with acrylic” isn’t safe at all.