Category Archives: Fiber Fun

What is Milk Fiber?

Milk Fiber from China

Good question. What is milk fiber? And what do we know about it? Well, people like to spin it into yarn and made fabric from it. And it’s soft and silky. And it’s looks pretty. According to the fiber people over in China, it also is beneficial to human health, is anti-bacterial, and “has the functions of nourishing and taking care of skin.” Riiight. Now we are getting into some fantasy land spin-doctor stuff. That sounds like a marketing ploy. So let’s go digging and find out exactly what milk fiber is, and why it’s so darn special.

Ok, to start this journey, it’s important to know where milk fiber came from. According to Euroflax Industries, milk fiber was invented in 1930’s in both Italy and America and was called “milk casein.” Huh. Who knew? And here I thought it was some newfangled invention. But apparently it’s been around for a while. For a long while, actually. Crazily enough, casein was invented way before the 1930s – apparently they’ve discovered that many churches from the 14th and 15th centuries were painted with casein-based paints – the colors are still bright and unfaded even to this day! Well, apparently this milk casein stuff is great for paint. But how does that connect with milk fiber?

From the National Bellas Hess F/W 1946-47 Catalog of "Ara-Fab Fashions": a 2-piece Aralac/rayon blend jerkin set embellished with felt motifs in kelly, blouse not included; $4.98; misses 12-22

Apparently “milk casein” fiber was used in many clothing and household items in America and Europe during the 1930s and ’40s, says Joan Kiplinger of Fabrics.net. It was a substitute for wool, which was needed by men on the front lines. However, it fell out of use after WWII ended and newer, cheaper synthetics such as nylon grew in popularity. The fiber was blended with other natural fibers and known under the brand names of Aralac, Lanatil and Merinova, for those of you checking your vintage clothing labels. While these brands’ fabrics were very similar to wool and could be dyed by the same processes, apparently there were some flaws with the milk casein fiber – namely, that it was not as strong and firm, nor as elastic as wool, and the fibers “mildewed easily” when they got damp.

However helpful this information is, we still don’t know how milk fiber, or milk casein, is made, and therefore what exactly it is. The websites selling milk fiber aren’t particularly helpful, as they simply talk about dewatering and skimming milk to make the fiber, like it’s some sort of cheese. Which it is not. Cyarn is particularly vague about this, saying simply that they:

“…manufacture the protein spinning fluid suitable for wet spinning process by means of new bio-engineering technique…

Hm, that sounds mysterious. So now it’s a protein? Ok, let’s back up a bit and find out what “casein” is. Maybe that will help us out. According to Wikipedia

Casein (from Latin caseus, “cheese”) is the name for a family of related Phosphoprotein proteins. These proteins are commonly found in mammalian milk, making up 80% of the proteins in cow milk and between 20% to 45% of the proteins in human milk. Casein has a wide variety of uses, from being a major component of cheese, to use as a food additive, to a binder for safety matches. As a food source, casein supplies essential amino acids as well as some carbohydrates and the inorganic elements calcium and phosphorus.

Ok, so now we know that “casein”, which is the protein in milk, is what is used to make the fiber. So then, is milk fiber edible? Is it just like making or eating cheese? Here’s another clue: the Wiki article mentions that fiber is made from “extruded casein.” This article from the Science in Farming website, says:

The conversion of the casein of skim milk into textile fiber is not a process that can be carried out on the farm. The casein must be made by a controlled procedure possible only in a dairy plant or a plant making casein exclusively. The conversion of casein into fiber requires the knowledge and experience of textile engineers and equipment similar to that of plants producing viscose rayon. The casein is dissolved in alkali, various other substances are added, and the solution is extruded through the fine apertures of a spinneret into a bath containing acid and dehydrating and hardening agents.

Spinneret In Action

Ok, there sounds like there are a lot of chemicals involved in manufacturing milk fiber. So definitely not like making or eating cheese, then.  Another article, Some Fibers From the Proteins, gets a little more in-depth in its explanation:

The casein is dissolved in water that contains about 2 percent by weight of alkali to make a viscous solution with 20 to 25 percent protein. The next step is to pump the filtered casein solution by a metering pump through a platinum-gold alloy disc, or spinneret, which has thousands of fine, accurately placed, and uniform holes. The solution, streaming from the holes of the spinneret, is immersed in water that contains an acid. The acid neutralizes the alkali used to dissolve the casein. The small, continuous fibers are then stretched, treated in various solutions, and collected by the spinning machinery. The tensile strength of the yarn is enhanced by stretching the fiber while it is being tanned with aluminum salts and formaldehyde. The action of the hardening baths can be accelerated by heating, and the fiber can then be stretched much more than at low temperatures. A further treatment is needed in order to make the fiber resist the boiling bath commonly used in dyeing wool.

In case your eyes just glazed over, what that brain melting paragraph just said was that the proteins from milk have to be dissolved in water and then processed through various chemicals in order to try and make them solid again. Now, there are some chemicals in there that I’m not wild about, as they sound dangerous, but according to some of the websites selling milk fiber commercially, the milk fiber industry was granted the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 green certification for international textiles in 2004. So, I wonder, how different is the manufacturing process today?

Production process of milk fiber

I found a clue at the Doshi Group website, which mentions that milk fiber is a “graft copolymer of casein and AN.” They even provided this cute little chart showing how they make milk fiber. As you can see, the process is very similar to what was described in that 1940s article above. There’s the dehydrating of the milk to get to the protein, dissolving it in alkali, and the spinning and drying to turn it into fiber. But interestingly enough, there’s a little stop before spinning called “graft copolymerization.” I think this is a big clue. Let’s go find out what that mysterious “AN” is.

Ah ha! I searched for a long time to find this, because nowhere on the Internet could I find the words “AN” and “milk fiber” comingling together. But finally, I hit pay dirt. An obscure Chinese science article from Dong Hua University, Shanghai in 2000 did a study of the effects of acrylonitrile (AN) being grafted onto casein. They concluded that “AN-g-casein fiber is a new type modified ‘silk-like’ fiber for wide application.” According to The Textile School, to manufacturer milk fiber, casein and acrylonitrile are grafted together chemically. They dilute alkali and forcing these solutions through a spinneret into a coagulating bath:

A fiber consisting of a copolymer of casein protein (25%-60%) grafted with 40%-75% acrylic monomers, of which at least half is acrylonitrile, has been developed in Japan under the tradename Chinon. The casein dissolved in aqueous zinc chloride and grafted with acrylonitrile is wet or dry spun into fibers. It dyes readily with acid dyes, but basic and reactive dyes can be used also. The fiber is marketed as a substitute for silk.

Ding ding ding! So what do we know now? Modern milk fiber is a blend of casein protein and acrylonitrile, most likely to strengthen it and prevent some of the problems that the original casein fiber had. But I still have questions. Like, what’s acrylonitrile? According to Wikipedia it’s a chemical compound that’s an important monomer, or binder, for the manufacture of useful plastics. This website does a great job of demonstrating how it’s made. However, they also mention it as being a pollutant, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the German MAK commission have classified acrylonitrile as a human carcinogen. Whoa, scary! But the American Chemistry Society clarifies things a bit:

Chances are that acrylonitrile touches everyone in some way every day. Acrylonitrile is the key ingredient in the acrylic fiber used to make clothing and carpeting…telephone and computer casings and sports equipment; and in nitrile rubber, which is used in the manufacture of hoses for pumping fuel. Acrylonitrile is used to produce plastics that are impermeable to gases and are ideal for shatterproof bottles that hold chemicals and cosmetics, clear “blister packs” that keep meats fresh and medical supplies sterile, and packaging for many other products. It is also a component in plastic resins, paints, adhesives, and coatings.

Ok, so not that scary. You don’t want to try eating acrylonitrile or being near it when it’s burning, but touching things made from it won’t immediately hurt you either. But we have learned a very important fact: acrylonitrile is a “key ingredient” in making acrylic fiber, and is the raw material in making acrylic yarn as well.

So the answer to our question, “what is milk fiber” has been answered. Milk fiber is a blend of casein protein and the chemical acrylonitrile, which is used to make acrylic. It’s made using a process that is similar to rayon/viscose, but because it’s a regenerated protein fiber and not a regenerated cellulose fiber, it reacts like wool. That means that it dyes like wool and even smells like wool when burned, according to Kiplinger.

Interestingly enough, while trolling through all of this research in an effort to discover everything I could about milk fiber, I discovered that it does in fact have antibacterial properties. While the “milk slurry” is being chemically mixed and spun together, micro-zinc ions are added. This creates zinc oxide while the product dries, making it bacteriostatic. Also, according to Doshi, they do not use formaldehyde as one of the drying agents anymore. Though I do doubt their claims that fabric made from this fiber is good for the body and can “nourish skin.” Since it’s made in a way that is similar to rayon and acrylic yarns, it does nothing more to your skin than any other fiber. If you want your skin to be nourished, I recommend using some lotion instead.

UPDATE: July 27, 2011

Since writing this blog post, the conversation about milk fiber and its relationship with AN (acrylonitrile) has exploded. Thanks so much for your interest, everyone, and I always appreciate links back to my research.

I’ve come across a couple of extra pieces of information I think are really important to know about milk fiber. The reason that milk fiber hasn’t become a huge phenomenon is because of an issue of supply and demand. Apparently it takes about 100 pounds of skim milk to make 3 pounds of milk fiber. Now, my relatives are dairy farmers, and they only have one barn full of dairy cows, so I have trouble fathoming the idea of enough cows to make just one roll of milk fabric. So face it, milk fiber is always going to remain sort of exotic and harder to get.

Also, milk fiber isn’t as eco-friendly as we all first thought. According to Finn + Emma, an organic children’s clothing company that actually practices what it preaches, traditional dairy farming has a big negative impact on the environment. Combine that with the inhumane way some dairy animals are treated at mass-production farms and the eco-friendliness aspect goes out the window. Ouch. Granted, I use lots of yarns that aren’t eco-friendly, but it just goes to show that you can’t always trust the hype.

Peeking into the stash

It occurred to me tonight that if I’m excited by the new yarns I acquire and stash, perhaps other people might be thrilled by them as well, non? My best friend have a game that we occasionally play where we call each other and invite the other to take a tour of our newly stashed yarns on Ravelry. Tonight I thought I’d let all of you take a peek with me as well. So here we go, diving into the stash!

First up is a yarn that I am absolutely in love with. I’m a big fan of cotton blends – give me wool and cotton or silk and cotton and I’m as joyful as a pig in mud. But even cotton can get a little boring sometimes. Enter Farmhouse Yarns Silk Spun Cotton, to mix things up a bit for me.

Farmhouse Yarns Silk Spun Cotton in Rose Heather

This yarn is divine. It’s a worsted weight blend composed of 60 percent cotton, 32 percent lambswool and 8 percent silk. So that’s cotton with all of my favorite blends! It’s silky and creamy and wooly all at the same time, making for a totally squishable yarn. Plus, the way the yarn blends up creates these awesome little tweedy flecks of color in the fiber. From a distance, the Rose Heather colorway I own almost looks like its reflecting the light from the sun, because little bits of yellow poke out from it and give the pale pink color a warmth and depth it wouldn’t otherwise have.

Farmhouse Yarns Spilk Spun Cotton in Rose Heather

I fell in love with this skein so hard that I immediately searched through the destashes on Ravelry and nabbed myself a second skein. I’m really pleased with the yardage on this yarn, too. With just two skeins I have 400 yards to work with, which is sort of exciting. I think that a spring short-sleeved top made out of this would be perfect.

The second yarn I’m sharing with you tonight is brand spanking new, as it just arrived this week in the mail. It hails all the way from New Zealand, and it’s a from a little company called Skeinz. Skeinz is actually the in-house brand for a woolen mill in New Zealand called Design Spun, which is one of the three major mills in the country, and spins up a whole bunch of popular yarns. Their mill store is Skeinz, and they have slowly been expanding their wares and their branding. These little beauties are the product of that expansion.

Skeinz Perendale Premium Blend DK in Smokey Teal

This yarn is 100 percent Perendale wool in a really fabulous colorway called Smokey Teal. The color is slightly brighter than a petrol blue, and the fiber is simply fantastic. I’d never heard of Perendale wool, which is what first intrigued me about the yarn, so I immediately looked it up. According to the American Sheep Industry Association

The Perendale originated in New Zealand from crossing the Border Cheviot with the Romney breed. They are an open-faced, medium-framed breed that produces bright, lofty, long-stapled, medium-wool fleeces. Developed as an easy-care sheep, they are both hardy and highly adapted to marginal forage-producing areas.

I’m excited about the idea of the long staple, which is similar to Blue-Faced Leicester wool. A long staple means that whatever I make out of this wool will pill less, thereby lasting longer. It’s both sturdy and soft with a great body, and the best part is that this yarn is really affordable. Not only is the US dollar stronger than the NZ dollar right now, but the shipping to the US for a sweater’s quantity of yarn is only like $8, which is sometimes what you pay for Priority shipping within the US.

Now you can imagine what happened with this yarn. As soon as my three skeins arrived I squished them and said out loud, “I must have more.” I contacted the woman I’d swapped with to get these, and begged her to give me everything she had. It was a little bit like a druggie saying, “Hit me up, man!” A sweater’s worth of yarn in Smokey Teal may just be in the mail to me next week.

Skeinz Perendale Premium Blend in Smokey Teal

My third skein is actually something of a surprise to me, at least with the “loving it” factor. Now, everyone knows I’m a huge fan of Manos del Uruguay yarns, and if you give me a minute I’ll talk your ear off about them for ten. I know plenty of people that are Malabrigo Junkies, but I’ve never fallen into that category. It may have something to do with the fact that my Malabrigo socks got holes in them immediately. But that’s another story. I think that Malabrigo’s new Twist base is worming its way into my heart – literally! Just look at this wormy, squishy skein:

Malabrigo Twist in Liquid Ambar

I got this yarn at Eat.Sleep.Knit. this week, a sort of extra thing I tossed in my buggy at the last minute to use up my gift certificate there. I fully expected that I would wax poetic to you about the Sanguine Gryphon Bugga that I had purchased in that order. But while my new Bugga is gorgeous and lovely and I’m thrilled that ESK is now selling it, somehow this new yarn just has me all twisted up.

Malabrigo Twist is a rich, warm and squishy aran weight baby merino wool yarn that has 8 plies for added strength. It comes in a bajillion gorgeous colorways, and I find 150 yards an acceptable yardage for this gorgeous handpainted effect. As is typical with things I fall in love with, I’ve just gone back to the Eat.Sleep.Knit. website and moaned a little over the 2 skeins that are left. I’ll resist, though. For now.

Ok, that ends our grand tour of my stash for this month. Thanks for taking that little stroll with me through my newest stash acquisitions!

“What About The Sheep?!” A Guide To Ethical Yarns

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 “peace” or “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.

Co-ops/Partnerships

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.

Nude Ewe
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.

Indie Dyers

eXtreme Spinning
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.

KarlaA
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.

Mosaic Moon
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.

Riihivillla Aarni
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.

Friggjasetr
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.”

Joybilee Farm
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.

Rosewood Farms
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.

Toft Alpacas
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.

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.”

Yarn Companies

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 practised.

Cornish Wools
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.

Ethical Twist
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

O-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?

Treliske Yarns
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 is routinely culled to keep its population numbers at a level that the government finds acceptable. Not only do they spread of bovine tuberculosis among dairy herds, 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.

Peace Silk
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.

Workin’ The Yardage Maths

Math has never been my strong suit, and therefore I know that what I just learned today will fly right out the window of my brain if I don’t write it down somewhere. Hopefully it will help someone else in the future, too.

I received this gorgeous skein of laceweight recently. It was a test base for the yarn company Dream in Color, when they were trying to pick out a good laceweight for their future Baby yarn.

Wouldn’t it be fun to be a yarn buyer? I imagine someone getting a box full of creamy white skeins of yarn and lying them all out on a table and then having everyone walk around and pet different skeins until they pick which one they like. Mmm, maybe they even roll in the yarn. Secretly, of course. When everyone else is off dying test skeins. ;)

Anyways, enough of my fantasies. So this test base I acquired is, as you can imagine, absolutely divine. Dream in Color doesn’t do shoddy yarns, yo. it’s a blend of 75 percent merino wool and 25 percent silk, and it’s a very traditional laceweight, probably coming in at around 2/18 (which is a typical laceweight gauge). There was just one problem with this yarn. I had no clue what the yardage was! There are all of these mysterious numbers on its tag (which I’m sure, dear readers, you will be able to figure out) but they had me totally and completely stumped. As you can see, this was clearly mill language, not end user writing on the tag:

SPH 5169
STH (?) 1596
75 – sw merino wool
25 – silk
2/12.86 wc. (or 2112.86 wrc. it’s a total tossup. really.)

So what was a girl to do? Figure it out the slow way. I started by unwrapping the skein and picking a point on the hank where the yarn seemed untangled and pretty straight. I began counting each strand, in groups of 100, eventually counting out loud so that I didn’t lose track. That total came to 368 strands of yarn. But now I needed to find out how long my actual skein was. I started by trying to simply shake it out and measure it, but that was an effort in futility. Then I remembered that professionally spun skeins are typically done in specific lengths. I grabbed by yardstick and sure enough, the skein was the full length of the yardstick when pulled taut, meaning that this was a 2-yard skein. A quick bit of math (one yard, or 36 inches, doubled equals 72 inches) and then I took 72 inches and times’d it by the 368 strands. That gave me the number 26496 – as in 26,496 inches. Right. So now I have to get that number of inches down to a manageable size. So, how many yards are in 26,496 inches? If I divide that number by 36 inches (aka a yard) I get 736 exactly. Ah ha! Therefore I have 736 yards in this skein!

So essentially the formula is this:

strand count X skein length doubled = total inches / 36 inches = number of yards

For metric measurements, it’s the same system except:

strand count X skein length doubled = total centimeters / 100 centimeters = number of meters

Yey! I figured out how to measure large amounts of yarn! Now, granted, this is just a rough gauge. And if I was trying to figure out the yardage for a skein of yarn with less yardage I’d reskein it around a niddy noddy to get to my yardage. However, for large amounts of yardage, like laceweight, where it’s just sort of inconceivable to spend your day fighting hundreds of yards, this is a great formula to use.

Stash Storage 2011

I photographed my stash storage situation last January, and thought that this was an appropriate time to repeat the process … and assess the damage. cough Yeah, I’m slightly embarrassed about how much bigger my stash has gotten!

Stash Storage 2011

Left Stack
- The green plaid bag I bought in Mehico is up at the tip-top, and that is full of fiber for spinning, which, since I swapped most of it away, is basically a bunch of little wee bits from Phat Fiber boxes. Below that is a bin about half-full of Manos. That reminds me I should be collecting it more. ;)
- Underneath that is a new bin containing silk and rayon. They used to share a bin with my cotton, but I…collected too much cotton. Anyways, rayon needs to breathe for best preservation, so there’s plenty of space in a bin all to themselves. Half-full.
- Next bin down. Cotton. Cotton, cotton and more cotton. I do like cotton. This bin is packed. No more cotton for me.
- Sweater yarns are on the bottom. I think that large container has my Noro Silk Garden for my shawl and the Misti Alpaca Chunky I have saved for a cardigan. Basically, I keep big lots in the big sweater bins, even if they aren’t technically sweaters. Mostly full.
- My large canvas bag of acrylic, sock scraps, and LYS novelty yarns didn;t make it into the picture. So sad! Half-full.

Center Stack
- My little alpaca bin is on the top. It actually isn’t as full as it should be, in my mind. But that’s only because I have a ton of alpaca that was moved into sweater bins, so these little one-offs hang out here. Also stores my exotics, such camel, llama, and cashmere. Half-full.
- My Big Wool bin is next. This contains any wool yarn that is sportweight or up. I’ve got a nice little corner in it designated for handspuns, and also my Blue Heron merino silk hangs out here. Another one of my most-used bins, which is why it’s in a handy to reach place. Three-fourths full.
- More sweater yarn. Moving on. Mostly full.
- The bottom bin contains my neglected mohair and angora. I keep them there together because they are both sheddy, and I figure that they can shed on each other instead of everything else. ;) Half full.

Right Stack
- Ah, here we are at my sock and lace yarns. Please note that the top bin lid is not closed. Because it is too full. That bin contains my 100% wool sock yarns. I’ve pared it down and down and down and everything in there I have earmarked for a sock project. Full.
- The next bin is my nylon sock bin. This bin contains sock yarns that are blends. Most have nylon in them, but I think one or two have rayon instead, and since that is a strengthening fiber as well, I keep it together. This bin size actually used to be flip-flopped with the 100% sock bin, but I decided after my hole-y disaster with my Malabrigo socks that I would switch them, in an effort to increase my nylons and decrease my 100s. Half-full.
- The third bin down is smaller and even though it says “Non-Sock” it actually does contain sock yarns. But these are yarns that are either not suitable for socks or have been either designated for non-sock projects. My Queensborough Laurel’s Lofty is stored here, for example, as well as all of my shawl yarns. Mostly full.
- The bottom bin is all laceweight, all the time. Lord knows why I have so much lace! Actually, I do know, it’s because a bunch of it is for my Earth Striped Wrap, so all that Kidsilk Haze takes up a lot of space. Full.

Ok, that’s all! Next time I’ll try to post about some of the projects I’ve finished up lately.

Behind the Brand: Manos vs. Malabrigo

A friend recently contacted me and asked me to weigh in on the similarities and differences between Manos and Malabrigo yarns. As a connoisseur of Manos who has come to learn far too much about the two brands just so I can yak about them intelligently, I began a short reply, and found myself with a 1,000 word treatise deserving of a blog post. So I give you my take on the Manos and Malabrigo debate, complete with a history of the yarns and their creators.

Manos del Uruguay and Malabrigo Yarns, while often lumped together in one breath, are two utterly different yarns with only a tenuous connection based on region and ply. First, let me talk briefly about how they are alike. They are both single ply yarns. They are both kettle dyed by hand. And they are both imported from South America.

And that’s about where the similarities end. Seriously. That’s it.

Well, I should amend that. Because Manos and Malabrigo are often lumped together, even though they have striking differences, they’ve become each other’s competitors. It doesn’t help that they both were born in the same epicenter – Montevideo, Uruguay (to fiber enthusiasts it might just become the new mecca of yarn) and its surrounding countryside. It’s rather like they are cousins, of a sort. Consequently, the parallel paths these two companies follow means they often find themselves swaying toward each other to meet the needs of the consumer, like birch trees bending under force of the wind.

Manos del Uruguay Wool Clasica in Mulberry

Manos del Uruguay was formed by women for women. It began as a small, non-profit cooperative for poor, rural women in 1968, and was an early venture of what today is now called “fair trade” practices, like that other widely-known company, Ten Thousand Villages. They sold a wide variety of handcrafts and woven goods, including yarn, starting small at local art fairs and spreading out from there.

The one variety of yarn Manos originally sold, a single ply, handspun worsted “virgin wool,” was dipped by hand into small kettles over open flames to create the striated effect. At first available only in large cities like New York, it had a rough and unforgiving texture, and, like Noro, it proved it was the genuine article by the amount of straw and other vegetable matter you had to pull out of it as you were knitting. I cannot imagine it was that highly coveted in the 1970s, but it was! Perhaps I am spoiled by today’s uber-soft yarns.

Eventually, however, Manos grew more savvy to the needs of its knitting customers, who themselves were growing more picky as the luxurious ’80s rolled in. While they were determined to on one hand to eradicate poverty through sustainable economic development, on the other hand they found themselves shaping themselves to the tastes of their clientele. Though it is not well known about them in the knitting community, their cooperatives create fashions that are well-known on the runways and in famous designers’ closets, handcrafted pieces worthy of Fifth Ave art galleries and top-of-the-line yarns and fibers.

Their current classic sweater weight yarn, which all of their yarns spring forth from, has morphed into “Wool Clasica” and is spun out of Corriedale wool, a breed that was born over 100 years from a Merino-Lincoln cross. An aran weight single ply, Corriedale has the plushness you typically see in Merino breeds with the added strength of Lincoln wool, which gives it a bouncy appeal when knitting with it. It is a true aran weight – there is no doubt that it is thicker than worsted, and its handspun appeal makes it distinctive. Manos has the only mass-produced yarn on the market today that is spun by hand – others are spun by machine in a way that is designed to look handspun. This is a distinction that should be emphasized. Since handspun is so much more costly and time consuming to make, it makes Wool Clasica truly a unique product.

Manos is specifically designed to be thick and thin. While it knits up at an aran weight, probably the largest parts of a skein veer on the bulky side while the thinnest could almost be called a heavy fingering. It retains it’s kettle-dyed “stria” heritage with a wide range of colors that have no dyelots, though I doubt that native Uruguayan women still stoop over small black kettles and open fires to create its vivid colorways (in fact, they use lovely, bright stainless steel pots).

Most recently, Manos del Uruguay went through a long evaluation process and was admitted as a full member of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), which is the global Fair Trade representative body. This group of over 350 organizations is committed to 100 percent Fair Trade, and is the final stamp of approval backing up Manos’s mission to eradicate poverty through sustainable economic development, pioneering social and environmental policy and practice, and continual reinvestment in marginalized artisans, farmers and producer communities.

Malabrigo Merinoo Worsted in Forest

Malabrigo, by contrast, is a much, much younger yarn company. Family-owned, it is also located in Uruguay, and also uses local women to create its yarns for them. It started in 2004, when Antonio González-Arnao was dissatisfied with the hand-dyed yarns on the market and decided to dye his own in his kitchen. His wife, Carla, was bemused. By 2005, Antonio, along with his business partner Tobias Feder, began peddling their wares around the United States and Europe, finding it difficult to make headway in some places as they were told there wasn’t much of “a market” for hand-dyed yarns. Ha! As we all know, in just a few years they’ve successfully turned that idea on its head, as all anyone can do is when touching their showcase yarn, Malabrigo Worsted, is stutter and blather. The actual base that Malabrigo uses seems to have been around for a while in other forms, sold for lower prices with generic hand painted names on eBay and other websites. But what makes it stand out as Malabrigo is mostly likely due to Antonio’s eye for color and the company’s skillful marketing.

Malabrigo Merino Worsted is 100 percent Merino wool, and the short staple of the wool creates a softness so sweet that rabid, crazed fans have been known to faint at its touch. I exaggerate, of course, but Malabrigo does have a smooth, cushy feel to it that reminds me of falling into a feather down comforter. A single ply worsted weight, it has a mainly even texture, which creates stitches that are just slightly rustic in appearance.

It is a kettle-dyed yarn with a wide range of semi-solid and variegated colorways, and the company never stops adding new colors and texture to its line-up. There are downsides to that magical deliciousness, however, mainly in that Malabrigo, the single ply yarn is more prone to pilling. But overall, it’s brilliance cannot be denied.

The name Malabrigo, ironically, means “bad shelter” in Spanish. The company’s name came about because of a tiny town in San Jose known as “Mal Abrigo.” Apparently, this town was so named because it is extremely windy and long ago when travel didn’t involve warm, climate-controlled vehicles, those looking for shelter at night weren’t about to find it atop ol’ Mal Abrigo.  The founders of Malabrigo said they were inspired by the idea of a place so cold everyone cozied up inside their homes knitting warm, wooly sweaters together.

Recently, Malabrigo has been emphasizing its own distinctiveness by becoming environmentally friendly. They’ve been reducing their carbon footprint at places like their mill (where all that magical Malabrigo is spun), where they installed thermal heating systems for sustainable hot water.  Malabrigo only works with wool that comes from mulesing-free sheep, and the company employs environmentally safe practices for processing it as well. They believe in using as little water and as few chemicals as possible, and water, wool waste, and dye waste that cannot be re-used are transported to a detoxification plant to be cleaned and treated for re-use.

As for which is better, Manos or Malabrigo – well, that’s all in the eye of the beholder. For those who enjoy the rustic nature of an artisanal, handspun yarn with a cushy, sturdy texture, Manos’ Wool Clasica is the one to reach for. For those who want the luxury of babyfine wool slipping through their fingers in a cascade of colors, nab yourself some Malabrigo. Or have both! There are so many differences in the feel of the two yarns that there is plenty for everyone. Because they knit up at slightly different weights, and because each brand has colorways unique only to them, there isn’t much overlap. The biggest difference between them is one of price. Manos is priced at around $12-14 (semi-solid) and $16-18 (stria variegated or naturals) for their Wool Clasica and has 138 yards per skein, while Malabrigo’s Merino Worsted comes in at around $11-12 a skein. There is greater yardage in Malabrigo’s worsted yarn, meaning that at 210 yards a skein you can make yourself a sweater more economically. However, because Manos was founded primarily for the purpose of being a tool of social and economic change in people’s lives, their higher cost is finding its way back into the cooperatives’ pockets, and therefore the local women’s hardworking hands.

Ironically, while Malabrigo is driving the yarn market right now by constantly rolling out new, innovative bases – for example, creating a silk/merino DK weight that Manos has mimicked (though again, with minor texture differences) – without the Manos cooperatives, which currently employ roughly 800 women, Malabrigo would most likely not exist. It was because Manos spent 40-years building fine flocks of sheep and communities of women artisans that companies like Malabrigo were able to find themselves a niche market to grow and expand in. Today, Uruguay is an epicenter of amazing wool fiber and yarn production in vivid colors. Between the many yarn companies that have set up shop in Uruguay, the wool industry is blossoming there, making affordable, hand-dyed and handmade yarns available for everyone the world over. Viva la competencia!

Be awesome instead. True story.

“When I get sad, I stop being sad and be awesome instead. True story.” Thank you, Barney Stinson.

I got a surprise today in the mail. It was a fabulous, wonderful, stupendous surprise, in the form of a skein of yarn! It came from Genevieve of Turtlepurl Yarns, who I know from Ravelry. She’s a sweet woman, and said she sent me the yarn “just ’cause you’re so awesome.” As Barney Stinson might say, “Sa-weet.”

Turtlepurl Yarns Big Turtle Toes in Harvest Moon

I am, in truthfulness, a little flabbergasted and feeling very much blessed by this out-of-the-blue gift. So much so that I decided to do my first ever yarn review! It has occurred to me recently that while the infamous Knitter’s Review website is a great resource, it’s only useful for large company yarns. What about those smaller, indie brands that want a chance to shine? I play with a lot of yarn, so why not review it while I play? onward.

Turtlepurl’s Big Turtle Toes is called so because it comes in an extra-large skein, weighing in at a massive 115 grams (that’s slightly over 4 oz., for those doing the math). It has great yardage – at 425 yards I could practically knit myself knee socks, and it’s also very strong, with 25% nylon blended with the 75% superwash merino. As someone who lives in fear of holes in her handknit socks, nylon is the magic word for me. The base is a 3-ply fingering weight with what I’d call a “normal” twist – not overly tight nor loose. It’s soft with some bounce and strength – you can feel just enough nylon in the yarn to give you the confidence to run over carpet with a pair of socks knit from this.

Turtlepurl Yarns Big Turtle Toes in Harvest Moon - Closeup

The hand-dyed colors are where it’s at for Turtlepurl’s yarn. This colorway, aptly named Harvest Moon, is just lovely. With it’s lush colors of salmon, burgundy, eggplant, apricot, gold and chocolate running through the skein, it makes me salivate for some warm apple cider and dream of jumping in the largest pile of browning, brightly-colored fall leaves ever.

I decided to knit up a sample of this lovely yarn – I have, after all, enough yarn for knee socks so stealing a wee bit from the skein isn’t too much of a hardship. This swatch is stockinette with a nice border of seed stitch (just because I love seed stitch), knit on size 1.5 US needles. Why 1.5? Well, because I might just be knitting a pair of socks with that needle size and this yarn. No promises, though. I still haven’t finished my first pair of socks! I just absolutely love the color changes in this swatch. This is my favorite hand-dyed combination – semi-solid with just enough of an extra kick of color to make the colorway shine.

Do the twist!

Recently someone on Ravelry fell in love with a tightly-twisted Louet base and was desperate to know of some other yarns that were “soft and squishy” like it. Since that’s my favorite type of sock yarn base, I was only too happy to oblige. But I realized after helping her out that perhaps there are a lot of people who can’t understand why some yarns have more bounce and squish-factor than others, or why they like some yarns so much better. So I thought I’d help with some identification tonight.

Here are a few of my favorite tightly twisted yarns:

Blue Moon Fiber Arts Sock that Rock
Cherry Tree Hill Supersock
Claudia Hand Painted Fingering
Colinette Jitterbug
Koigu KPPPM
Pagewood Farm Chugiak
Sanguine Gryphon Eidos

Now, this is not an extensive list. Since most in the industry use similar bases, especially indie dyers, it would grow too long. I just am telling you the top, most distinctive ones, in my opinion. However, here’s a little picture diagram to help you differentiate between the two.

Here is a “regular” plied sock yarn base. Notice that the plies (those are the separate strands twining the yarn together) turn, but just look rather, um, like normal yarn. The strands lay flat against one another. This is a nice, solid yarn base and there isn’t anything wrong with it; it’s just not one of those tight twists that we are looking for.

Perhaps Today Is A Good Day To Dye in The Green Grass Grows All Around

Here is the more exciting “tightly twisted” sock yarn. The plies of the yarn have been slightly overtwisted, making the strands in between each twist appear to plump up. This creates a beaded effect that, once you know to look for it, is very easy to spot. Some call it “pearls” and others simply refer to it as a “twist” but the effect is the same.

Cherry Tree Hill Supersock in Wind in the Willows

The first time I held a twisted sock yarn like this I nearly cried with happiness. Now, there is nothing wrong with non-tightly twisted sock yarns, lest you think I am prejudice. There are some absolutely wonderful sock yarns that have a more normal twist, such as Wollmeise and Patons kroy. So naturally, I have plenty of sock yarns that have a more normal twist to them. But nothing gets between me and my twisted sock yarns. Yum yum!

Flash Your Stash 2010

It’s time to flash my stash! Perhaps you all remember last’s year Flash Your Stash day? In case you don’t, here’s a quick reminder:

Flash Your Stash 2009

And now, since it is, after all, that time of the year, here’s this year’s photo of my stash:

Flash Your Stash 2010

Does it seem like it’s growing, at all? Trust me, it is. The yarn couldn’t all fit on the bed without the help of those bins. And I didn’t have a fiber stash last year. Sigh. If you’d like to see it in all of it’s glory, check out my stash on Ravelry (sort by color).

How do you keep the yarn in your stash organized?

Someone on Ravelry asked this question and I thought it was good enough to deserve a blog post answer. Plus, I get to show off my new Rubbermaid containers. Yes, I confess, I have finally upgraded (about a month ago) – no longer do my yarns flop about in canvas bags. Instead, they are all nestled neatly into sealed plastic bins, keeping them fresh and bug free (knock on wood).

So, the Question of the Day is…How do you keep the yarn in your stash organized?

1.) Store your yarn in skeins, not balls/cakes. It will preserve your yarn, being easier to fix into a storage space, and help it retain it’s resell value.

2.) Store your yarn in plastic bins. Especially if you are renting, and don’t have total control over the space. It again, helps preserve the yarn, protects it from outside elements like bugs, and is easy to manage and transport. Rayon is the only yarn that “needs to breath” so I would pack it lightly. The rest can be happily squished.

3.) Consider storing your yarn by fiber. It helps keep your cottons defuzzed and protects your silks from your hairy mohairs. Additionally, many people have specific allergies – if you make them something out of cotton you don’t want them breaking out in hives because it was stored next to a pile of wool. My cotton, rayon and silks are all stored together. Blends are stored by the primary animal yarn in said blend (i.e., 70% wool, 30% alpaca). Sheddy yarns, like mohair and angora, are stored together. And exotic fibers like llama and camel go in with their camelid cousins, alpaca.

Here is my yarn, stored in handy-dandy Rubbermaid tubs from Wally World. Note that I have more sock and laceweight than you can shake a stick at. I separate out those two weights in part because I want to be able to dig in easier, and in part because laceweight is so delicate that I don’t want to store it too tightly and have it get all tangled.

Storing My Stash