Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day: Knitting and Climate Change? Really?

Hello, Blog Action Day! It's that day again where bloggers all over the globe blog about the same global issue, and this year it's global climate change.

So what does an ages-old, creative, comforting activity like knitting have to do with climate, carbon emissions, and the like? Do woolly socks or alpaca mitts relate at all to "going green?"

As winter sets in and the heating bills rise, we can spot one blatantly obvious connection: hand-knit woollies keep you warm and let you turn the heat down, thus burning less oil, natural gas, or electricity (which in many parts of the US is produced by coal-burning plants). If you've ever engaged in the "furnace wars" game, refusing to turn on the furnace before your neighbor/sibling/best enemy does, or stubbornly waiting until the end of September... or October... or November (brave soul) to turn it on, you know the importance of having warm gear in which to wrap your goose-pimply self, while feeling smug about reducing your carbon footprint.

But let's go beyond the obvious because frankly, for some people, turning the heat down a few degrees is one thing, but turning off the heat and bundling up against the cold on dark winter nights is downright depressing. It makes one feel like a disaster survivor.

There's more that knitting does for a person than just keep the body warm. Let's start by considering the new knitter's pride when wearing a scarf he or she just made (I'm going to switch genders of our hypothetical knitter throughout this essay, since historically speaking, knitting has never been an exclusively gendered activity). There's a connection between the knitter and the scarf that is just not there when buying a machine-made scarf at a department store. Who knows where the scarf came from? Who knows who was involved in making it? Like as not, the scarf was made from acrylic, a petroleum product, made on machines that required petroleum fuel, in a sweatshop employing underpaid and overworked garment workers, and shipped thousands of miles to get to the store. Her own scarf? She knows exactly who made it, that it was not made in a sweatshop and didn't have to be shipped thousands of miles. Yeah, stick it to the multinational corporations!

Sort of. There's still the yarn to consider.

Perhaps the knitter began with a skein of grocery store acrylic when making the scarf. But then she walks into a real yarn store for the first time and discovers the joys of merino, alpaca, silk, camel, mohair, and more. Natural fibers! So luscious! What colors! Ah, a fiber snob is born. Now our knitter, no longer satisfied with the Pound-o-Petroleum yarn from the big box store for things he's putting on his own body, starts to learn where yarn comes from.

And in the process, knitters learn the uncomfortable truth that just because a fiber is "natural" doesn't mean it's "green." The knitter learns that all-cotton yarn takes more petroleum to grow and manufacture than does the acrylic. She also learns that the "bamboo" yarn isn't spun from fibers from bamboo stems as she'd thought, but is rayon made from chemically-extracted cellulose derived from bamboo. That's several toxic-solvent-soaked steps from what she'd imagined "bamboo" yarn to be. Now she starts investigating organic yarns. Then she starts to question the dyes, and discovers that some strains of cotton grow already pigmented, or she starts admiring naturally-colored wools from different colored sheep or llamas, or she stumbles across an Etsy shop with yarns dyed with plant dyes, or she learns that she can dye wool yarn at home with Kool-aid. What fun!

Later, the knitter learns that a big push for cashmere production in China is causing massive environmental destruction and Mongolian goat herders are now facing starving herds and falling cashmere prices. At the same time, quality of cashmere has dropped, not only because of the health of the goats, but our knitter learns there is something called "dehairing" that leaves only the soft undercoat if it's done right, but removes a big percentage of the original mass of the fleece. And by scrimping on the dehairing process, Chinese yarn producers can get more yarn per fleece, but the quality suffers drastically.

Then our knitter goes to a local fiber festival and finds yarn from a cashmere ranch not more than 100 miles away from his home town. It's the most soft, cloud-like cashmere ever. Wow, higher quality (and higher price), but locally grown. Could there be anything better?

Of course there could. At the same fiber festival, our knitter spots spinners everywhere, as well as fleece and roving for sale. Hmm, she thinks, spinning looks kind of fun, and gives you even more fibery enjoyment for your money -- time spent spinning and knitting with the same fiber. She wanders into the animal barn and meets people who are raising sheep, goats, angora rabbits, alpacas, and llamas. There she meets a pygora goat named Pickwick and learns that for a certain price, she can have Pickwick's fleece for spinning when the little goat is sheared. Wow. Not only can she knit her own scarf, but she can knit it from hand-spun pygora fleece. And what's more, it's fleece not from who-knows-what goat from who-knows-where, but it's fleece from Pickwick, the goat she petted at the fiber festival who lives at a farm just outside of her home town and has the most gorgeous brown eyes and winsome expression on her cute little face.

You see where I'm going with this? The more knitters take interest in the fibers they knit with, the more they discover about sources and the various impacts that fiber production can have on the environment. We can't live without making some impact on the world around us, of course, but just as the "eat local" movement has taken hold to support local farmers, to take a more thoughtful look at how we use our environment, and to live more lightly on the earth, there's a growing sense that "knit local" and "spin local" are pretty good ideas, too.

Living lightly on the earth is what "going green" is really all about. Ever since the years following WWII, the US economy has been all about more and more people buying more and more stuff per capita year after year. We moved from being producers of goods to being consumers of goods. The hard truth, though, is that kind of economy is neither environmentally nor ecologically sustainable. It's what we've got, but it can't last. Changing will be hard, but change we must.

A knitter lives lightly by choosing production over consumption. The knitter produces knitted garments a few at a time instead of buying quantities of mass-produced sweaters as a form of recreation. The knitter also cares for those garments and may get more wear out of them than machine knit socks or sweaters. The knitter feels more connected to the garments he has made, and is less inclined to pitch them in the charity box just because they're oh-so-last-week. The knitter can make informed choices about fiber sources, and may choose yarn or fleece from local sources. The knitter's productivity may make the multinational corporate owners of overseas garment sweatshops shudder, but while the knitter is concerned about overworked, underpaid garment workers, she doesn't give a goat's whiskers about the multinational CEO who whimpers that he might have to give up his third yacht if people don't get busy buying, wearing once, and throwing away mass-produced clothing like good, brainless little consumers.

So raise your needles, raise your spindles, raise your crochet hooks and let's all stick it to the mass consumption that's gotten us into the global mess we're in!

(As for those knitters whose stash has reached SABLE conditions -- Stash Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy -- remember, my children, production over consumption. Swear on your best skein of sock yarn that from now on, you'll buy only the number of skeins that you've knit since your last yarn-buying excursion, or fewer, until your stash is of a size that won't make non-knitting friends say, "Um, wow, are you planning to open a yarn store?")


Helen B said...

This would be great for an article in Loose Threads, the newsletter for the Northwest Regional Spinners Association! Are you a member yet?

Cindy G said...

Wonderful essay!

junior_goddess said...

Can I just vow to use my good yarn because I shouldn't save it for good? Because today might be the best day ever? Because I am good enough!

Windows, Siding, Roofing and more... said...

Knitting is one important thing that we need to take care of. Climate changing is a very important issue behind this.

Manhattan energy savings


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