As a whole, I like to think that the Western world is becoming more self-aware, of both themselves, their neighbors, and their environment. I’m not sure where it began. Did the seed get planted one sunny day in the 1970s when a public school teacher first taught a group of 5-year-olds about Earth Day? Maybe, like all fads, it’s simply a reflection of the “cool” reusable grocery bags we’ve started carting around. Whatever the cause, phrases like ‘fair trade” and “carbon footprint” are the latest, greatest buzzwords in a culture that is attempting to shed the pronoun “disposable.”
The yarn industry has jumped wholeheartedly into this natural movement; an understandable leap, since knitting and crocheting are all about making your own products, after all. There are those who specialize only in vegan- and vegetarian-friendly yarns, companies touting that they sell “wildcrafted” silk (in other words, they don’t boil the silkworms alive), and fair trade companies promoting the hand dyed yarns of “disadvantaged artisans” from around the world.
At the helm of the fair trade movement there is Manos del Uruguay Yarns, whose 40-some years of fair trade practices to human, animal and environment alike have led to being admitted to the WFTO (World Fair Trade Organization) as a full member. Then there is the Mirasol Yarns, whose Mirasol Project has revolutionized the lives of the shepherds’ children in the Puno region of Peru. And of course there is Peace Fleece, who reaches out to impoverished farmers in wartorn countries like Russia and Palestine, brokering a sort of “peace” through the sharing of products.
Once we enter into the realm of any type of “friendly” yarns the issue gets a little shakier, though. What, after all, is a vegan-friendly yarn? Is it yarn that, like vegans’ food habits, doesn’t come from an animal? Or is it simply yarn that hasn’t required an animal being killed to get to the wool? What if the animal is killed for food after they use its fleece? And what if you want the yarn to be friendly to the environment, too? Should you only buy yarn that hasn’t been processed with toxic chemicals? And how do you know what chemicals it may or may not have touched? Then there are the “buy local” slogans on the rise. Should you buy only local yarns in an effort to keep from the expected harm that may come from shipping a box of yarn across the pond? I’m not even going to touch the dubious claims of the antibacterial and ultra-violet protective qualities of some yarns, even though they are manufactured synthetically.
So your head is spinning right now, I know. So let’s get back to to the point. What’s this all got to do with the sheep, anyways? Well, I thought that with all of the misinformation and random facts out there floating around it might be nice to have a good guide to ethical yarn companies, co-ops and farms that focus on animal welfare. Keep this list on hand when making your next yarn and fiber purchases.
First off, let me start by saying that a couple of great places where you can always find great yarns and fibers are local farmers’ markets and sheep and wool festivals. Small farms are more likely to provide great care for their animals, and they will sell locally, both at these venues and in their farm store. You can browse and talk to the farmer and judge for yourself. Don’t know where to look for these local places? Start with the website Local Harvest, which provides an awesome array of search options for organic living. I typed in the word yarn and my zip code and almost had a joyous heart attack from the local listings that popped up.
Want something a little more specific? Animal Welfare Approved says they have “the most rigorous standards for farm animal welfare currently in use by any United States organization.” Use this link to find farms near you that have been approved by them.
Seeking to branch out to areas outside your hometown? Knitter’s Review has a great yearly calendar that keeps track of all of the yarn events all over the world, from fiber festivals to yarn conventions. Look there for some sheep and wool festivals in your state, or in the next one over! You may be surprised by what you find.
Green Mountain Spinnery
Uses only fibers raised in the United States, purchased directly from individual growers, and their team oversees each step in the process from beginning to end to help sustain regional sheep farming and to develop environmentally sound ways to process natural fibers. Wool Works is one of their partners in this process.
Manos del Uruguay
With 40-plus years of fair trade experience under their belts, this group of co-ops promises that no animals, workers, or socio-economic disadvantages were exploited in the processes that led to the creation of their yarns. They were recently made full members of the World Fair Trade Organization.
The New Lanark Organic Wool Spinners
This mill is Soil Association accredited and their specialist wool spinning production unit was the first in Scotland to achieve the Association’s organic certification in 2006. The Soil Association symbol is a guarantee to the consumer that textiles are produced to the highest standards of animal welfare and environmental protection, and all funds go to support the upkeep of their historic village.
Specializes in undyed, unbleached wool spun from the fleeces of Bedfordshire’s conservation grazing flocks. Proceeds from Nude Ewe sales are returned to the flock owners and the conservation grasslands, which need to be maintained to keep the environment healthy.
Snow Leopard Trust
The Snow Leopard Trust works to further the coexistence of Mongolian herding people with the endangered snow leopard. To this end, they set up cottage industries (including yarn) which allow the people to sell their crafts in exchange for peaceful coexistence with the leopards. More info here.
This small indie dyer makes organic and Sustainable fibers her goal, from natural and hand dyed wools to exotic silks, hand-combed batts and handspuns.
This German indie dyer uses only natural and mainly organic yarns and natural dyes. She uses plant dyes that she’s collected herself and other dyes that are organically grown and traded under fair trade conditions.
Luna Portenia Designs
Sells handspun hand dyed yarns and handwoven clothing and accessories, all 100% organic and dyed with vegetables, leaves and roots.
Hand dyed organic wool yarns and roving from humanely raised sheep. This one-time indie dyer also makes handknit baby clothes and is branching out into wholesale ordering.
From Iceland comes is fabulous indie dyer that not only dyes her own yarns using natural products like mushrooms, but buys from neighbors who raise organic Finnsheep and sorts through the fiber herself before sending it to a local mill.
Organic and Natural Farms
The Critter Ranch
Specializes in locally produced, humanely raised, hand processed fibers & hand spun yarns, including exotic llamas raised right on their farm.
Camelot Dyeworks (previously Tomorrow Farm)
This farm sells both fiber and hand-dyed yarns made out of the fleece of their alpacas, which are raised using earth friendly, natural and sustainable methods. Yarns and roving are dyed with environmentally friendly dyes.
Dream Come True Farm
This organic farm raises Olde English “Babydoll” Southdown sheep, as well as a few alpaca and llama to create natural handspun yarns and goatsmilk soap.
This little farm sells all of its alpaca yarn and fiber undyed and strives to do everything in an environmentally safe and sustainable way, including having their fiber spun at a local mill that is part of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. This means using environmentally friendly, low impact, and organic detergents for scouring, organic processing oils, water soluble grease and oil to lubricate the machines, and using appropriate treatment of waste water.
The Sheep and I from Green Acre Farm
A cute organic farm that sells organic, hand dyed fiber and handspun. The dyer says it best, “My animals are family. They are not a commodity. They only know kindness and love and they will be with us for their entire lives.”
Calling themselves a “joyful communion of ethical husbandry and fiber artistry” this Canadian farm uses eco-friendly natural dyes and calls the animals they get their fiber from happy and “contented.”
Juniper Moon Farm (previously Martha’s Vineyard Fiber Farm)
Dedicated to giving their sheep and angora goats the best possible care, which includes a natural diet of pasture and hay, they also process their fleece locally at a small mill. Started the first Yarn and Fiber CSA, as featured in the Wall Street Journal.
Larkspur Funny Farm
Have been raising organically and humanely raising fiber animals since 1996, selling raw fibers, custom painted batts, hand painted handspun yarns and art yarns.
Knox Farm Fiber
Hand-spun and hand-dyed organic yarn, batts and roving from the well-fed, well-cared-for sheep in pesticide-free pastures. Their wools are cleaned with eco-detergent, dried in the fresh air, carded the old fashioned way, dyed by hand with low-impact environmentally friendly dyes, spun by hand, and labeled with a photo of the sheep who donated it.
Morning Bright Farm
This small family farm nestled in the foothills of western Maine offers carefully selected organic yarns from humanely raised sheep. They also produce luxurious angora handspun yarns from their adorable colony of beloved rabbits.
I found this little jewel buried deep in the search pages – they specialize in raising Kerry Hill sheep, a distinct and tiny breed from Wales that was just removed from the Rare Breeds Survival Trust watchlist in 2006. Rosewood Farms was the first to register this breed to have its fleece turned into wool. Their sheep live entirely pesticide free without synthetic pesticides or human intervention.
Shadyside Farm Studio
Small farm that sells high quality, naturally and hand dyed yarns and specializes in natural, organic farming practices.
Sunshine Daydream Farm
A small organic farm with hand dyed yarns and rovings, all by natural color or plant dyes. This dyer and farmer considers her sheep not only an integral part of their working farm, but pets as well.
Thistle Cove Farm
Thistle Cove Farm is a no kill, low stress farm whose fleeces have received the Virginia’s Finest seal of approval by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Thistle Cove Farm is only the third farm in the Commonwealth to receive this designation.
Focuses on natural UK processing with minimal chemicals, local yarn production, fair trade Peruvian products, and doesn’t support alpacas being killed for their skins. All of their yarns and products are ecologically and ethically sound.
White Gum Wool
White Gum Wool sheep are raised on a single farm, in the high midlands of Tasmania. They graze in mostly diverse native pastures with no fertilizers, pesticides or fungicides used in growing White Gum Wool. The yarn is spun by Design Spun Ltd in New Zealand, having first been scoured by Canterbury Wool Scourers with a NewMerino® Chain of Custody that certifies the sustainability and traceability. White Gum Wool sheep have never been mulesed, and they also wag their “undocked” tails behind them.
Wild Wool Farm
Wild Wool Farm sells handspun, handdyed yarns and fibers from the endangered sheep breeds they’ve been raising for 20 years. The spinner says she knows all of her sheep not just by name but by “Baa.”
Alchemy Yarns of Transformation
This company believes in social and global consciousness and as such does not support mills or practices that condone human or animal suffering. They focus on not harming the environment by using natural dyes and little chemicals.
Australian Organic Wool
A family-run yarn company from Australia specializing in yarn made from 100% certified organic Australian merino wool. Processed under the Global Organic Trade Standard, the yarn is spun at a mill certified to handle organic fibers and dyed using low-impact, metal-free dyes. They only use wool which has come from properties where mulesing is not practiced.
This company started producing locally and naturally processed yarns in an effort to expand on Cornwall’s woolly heritage. Their local and natural process is all about not harming the environment and caring properly for their animals, some of which are at-risk breeds.
Specializes in organic yarns that place their importance on caring for the animals and minimizing the impact on the environment. Located in the Falkland Isles, even their packaging is biodegradable.
Mountain Meadow Wool
This company specializes in locally produced Wyoming fiber from ranches that practice sound animal husbandry and sustainable agricultural practices, and whose animals meet natural standards. Wool is processed using revolutionary mill processes that don’t harm the environment and everything is cleaned using 100% natural, using bio-degradable soaps and non-petroleum spinning oil. Also has an eco-friendly home line of cleaning products made from wool
The Vermont Organic Fiber Company is a leading wholesale supplier of yarns and fabrics made with certified organic wool. They have more information than you can shake a stick at about the organic care and treatment of animals.
Swans Island Yarns
This company sells certified organic merino yarns dyed with all natural dyes in a 1790’s farmhouse from sheep raised on an island off the coast of Maine. Sounds idyllic, right?
They specialize in organic yarns where the animals have not been given chemical treatments (such as drenching or dipping for parasites, fly dressings, antibiotics, growth promotants, vaccines) nor do they graze on pastures that have been sprayed with herbicides. Genetically engineered or modified feed is prohibited, and mulesing is not practiced.
What Yarns To Avoid:
New Zealand Possum
The NZ possum, unlike the American kind, is a hairy pest that escaped from Australia and is routinely culled to keep its population numbers at a level that the government finds acceptable. Not only do they spread bovine tuberculosis among dairy herds, because they are not natural to the environment they also are responsible for stripping new growth from the unique flora and fauna in New Zealand. However, if you have problems using fiber from an animal that has been killed, no matter how destructive it is, I’d stay away from this fiber.
When it comes to silk, you may not be able to get away from the killing of silkworms to knit with it. Because the alternatives are sort of…fatal as well. And sometimes aren’t nice to small children, either. This website, Wormspit, boils down the myths of “peace silk.” Err…maybe that was a bad choice of words.
Animals Yarns From China
China currently lacks a comprehensive basic law on animal protection. In 2009 they first proposed one, and that law is slowly going through the approval system in their government. The law is supposed to make animal owners more responsible by preventing the pollution of livestock breeding and encouraging proper care for animals. At this point, however, sourcing yarn from China is largely hit or miss, especially if you are concerned about animal welfare.
Remember, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Know the difference between a yarn that has been cared for in an ethical manner from the moment it grew on a sheep’s back to yarn that is just being dyed in an “environmentally friendly” way. It’s one thing to have a large yarn company that makes one tiny little yarn line that is organic, and quite another to have an entire business based on ethical, natural practices and beliefs. This is the distinction I’m trying to make with my list.
I am sure there are many more farms and co-ops and companies than what I have mentioned, but I wanted to give you a place to start and some more information on organic and ethical yarns. Please feel free to add to my list by commenting below. I’d love to know about other yarn companies out there that are treating animals in an ethical manner.