Sharing my experience and thoughts about knitting socks with naturally dyed and plastic-free yarn, and why it matters
If you look around my blog, you will find quite a lot of sock patterns (like my basic ribbed sock). I have never been a big fan of shawls. And so it’s probably no big surprise that a big portion of the yarn in my stash is superwash merino blends. You cannot produce these without chemicals and plastic, and we all know, our society relies a bit too much on those. So, I wanted to find out what knitting sock with plastic-free yarn is like.
Now, to be clear, I won’t say no to a nice colorway. But if you check out my list of the best indie yarn dyers (over +150 entries), you will notice that very few of them put a focus on sustainability. It’s acid dyes, on merino/acrylic blends of mostly unknown or mixed origin – mulesing free, if you are lucky. Interestingly enough (especially in the US), very few dyers will care to provide an address so you could shop locally to lower the carbon footprint of the delivery.
Sometimes, it feels like this is the only way. And that’s decidedly not true because our ancestors had no access to either nylon or acid dyes but socks have been knitted for more than 3.000 years. And the tradition of dyeing fiber goes back to the dawn of human culture. So, there is an alternative.
If you look around Etsy, you will find a couple of dyers who use natural dyes. And if you look a bit harder yet, you will also find 100% pure sheep wool yarn. I recently bought some very interesting skeins from RosemaryAndPines – a local dyer here in Germany, and one example among many.
Note: These socks were knit following my tutorial on how to knit socks – it’s the very same pattern. I knit my tutorial for the German short row heel with the scraps.
The problem with pure sheep wool
If you’ve ever tried to knit socks with pure superwash merino yarn, you probably noticed that you wore them through in no time. We are talking about as little 3 or 4 wears. The low inclination to felt and the prevalent spinning (and processing) methods are all geared towards creating a soft yarn and not one to endure the harsh treatment of your (callused) heel hammering against it with every step.
In centuries past, people didn’t use our present days super soft 18-micron merino wool. Sheep wool was coarser, the individual strands thicker, and it was often also spun with a much higher twist to create more durability. Sometimes, the yarn was even slightly felted. This created the “sturdy homespun” so many generations of children refused to wear because it was scratchy and itchy.
My personal experience with plastic-free sock yarn
For my little experiment, I went all the way. I picked an organic, local & certified yarn, that was dyed naturally with plants and spun in a way that it is sturdy enough to qualify as a sock yarn. On top of that, I ordered locally (and the seller did pay attention to use plastic-free packing). So basically the exact opposite of your average sock yarn order.
When the package arrived two days later, I was more than amazed by the colors. Certainly not as muted as I’d expected and so pretty. I feel it’s a bit hard to explain with words but somehow natural dyes seem to harmonize so much better with each other than you could ever achieve with acid dyes.
The second thing I noticed was just how….uh…sturdy the yarn was. I don’t think I have felt such a coarse yarn since my childhood. My first thought was one of disappointment. It seemed more suitable to creating an alternative to sandpaper than knitting socks.
But as I was fully committed to testing it anyway, I knitted a little swatch right away. Yarn often behaves quite differently as a strand compared to a knitted fabric. And, of course, things can change quite drastically after washing as well.
And that revealed the next, disappointment. The stitch definition left me wanting. Two reasons, really. First of all, the yarn was less regularly spun, and because it was so coarse and “abrasive”, keeping an even tension was just as hard. And by then, I am not even joking, I was ready to give up. I was all ready for a compromise. But that much of a concession?
Interestingly enough, my little swatch turned out quite nicely after its first soaking in warm water and blocking. It certainly didn’t look like cotton or feel like cashmere but the difference was more than just noticeable. The dye did bleed out quite a bit. Not that the swatch lost its color but the water was quite murky. That’s something I expected. I am merely mentioning it because it means you would have to be careful when washing these socks together with other items.
The next step was obviously casting on some plain vanilla socks. I thoroughly miscalculated the stretchiness of the fabric and had to frog one time. So, that’s certainly another thing that needs to be remembered when knitting with pure wool sock yarns. They are often not as stretchy as your average superwash merino yarn (which is, admittedly, super stretchy).
And again, I was quite dissatisfied with my tension/stitch definition. I just went for stockinette stitch and a 1×1 rib because I knew more complicated or demanding knitting stitch patterns would be a poor choice. And still, it did look quite wonky. Picking a finer yarn might off-set this effect a bit.
But me oh my, was I in love with those colors. Every stitch I knitted made me almost forget the harsh thread grinding across my index finger through ever-deepening tracks. Guess that’s the downside of knitting with alpaca yarn or yak yarn so much. You are truly spoiled in terms of softness.
Again, after blocking my first finished plastic-free socks, things looked decidedly better and softer. Suffice to say, after casting on the second sock, I was slowly warming to the yarn. Not like best friends ever but in a “we say hi when we see each other on the other side of the street” kind of way.
Slipping them on for the first time was somewhat an interesting experience as well. First of all, the sturdy fabric meant they could almost stand on its own. And then of course the lack of stretchiness also meant they felt less snug than I’m used to. That’s obviously something I would adjust when knitting my second pair. I guess it really boils down to calf-gussets and smart decreases around the instep – just like old bavarian sock patterns.
On the plus side, they didn’t feel all that itchy or uncomfortably coarse at all. Certainly, they are sturdy, more like slippers than socks. But certainly something I don’t mind wearing for longer periods. Plus, I picked a DK yarn weight and things will look quite different when going for a fingering weight.
And perhaps most importantly, after having worn them for quite a bit now, I can say they are quite durable. That is perhaps the most important fact. This can obviously be no generalization and will depend a lot on the yarn you pick. But I seem to have been lucky 🙂
So, while I am certainly no expert on this and neither do I claim to be, I feel I really want to experiment a bit more with such traditional yarn. I have always been a big fan of natural dyes and tones, so that’s nothing new to me. But I have this feeling that these pure sheep wool yarns will be able to offer me quite some different opportunities – I just need to learn to exploit them properly.
Every yarn has patterns that will work and others won’t. And that’s just the way of things. But I am positive that when you approach it from the right angle you end up with an equal – if different – alternative that can be more sustainable. And that sounds right to me.
The next time, I’ll certainly try a light yarn weight, though. Dk is nice and fast to finish for the first test, but not exactly my favorite thing to knit with.
Things you need to consider
Now, maybe my little story here got you inspired. Maybe you are mentally going through your stash right now, and seeing all the plastic and chemicals that they contain. And this has you considering to try knitting plastic-free socks yourself. Then go ahead. Reading about yarn is not the same as experiencing it yourself!
But here are some things you need to consider:
1) Buying certified organic yarn is never a bad idea. In fact, it should really become the industry standard. Sheep wool can be produced in an extremely sustainable way that takes the needs of the animals and the peculiarities of an ecosystem into account. Can – but sometimes it’s the exact opposite.
2) The plastic-free aspect is certainly a nice concept but only a very tiny part of a bigger story. If you don’t mend your own socks and take care of them properly, the gesture is meaningless. And if you knit a hundred pair you’ll never wear or use, the same could be said. It’s like posting you’r vegan on your brand new iPhone sitting in a café in Bali. Cute but ultimately meaningless.
3) You should also know that you can blend sheep wool with other natural fibers (like linen) to add durability. And if you ship the yarn three times across the globe (like from New Zealand to the spinner in Italy, then to the dyer in South Africa, then to the shop in the UK, and in end, all the way to you in Tenessee), you didn’t exactly make a difference either.
4) And then, of course, a word or two needs to be said about the natural dyes. In what seems to be a lifetime ago, I studied chemistry. And there are so many misconceptions floating around the internet, and things I hear & read so often. Chemicals are not bad in and by themselves.
There is no bad or good chemistry. If you brew tea or your own liquor, it’s essentially the same concept as extracting industrial chemicals from their natural substrate or synthesizing them using natural ingredients (like when you turn sugar into caramel through heat). It’s all chemistry – but some of it happens on a larger scale.
Just because one thing is still a recognizable plant doesn’t make it better, more sustainable, or even healthier in and by itself. In fact, often the exact opposite is true. It’s much easier to determine the effects of an isolated pure substance than to foresee the secondary effects of a complex plant extract that might seem harmless because the dosage is a bit lower and no proper scientific research has ever done.
And when it comes to plant-based dying, you have to realize that it’s not throwing yarn and some marigolds together, stirring the pot once, adding a bit of love, and out comes the most vibrant yellow. The reality is that you often need much more energy and water to do so than traditional dying, and an aggressive mordant. Often that’s alum – an aluminum salt that is essentially special waste. There’s a reason why dyers and tanners lived on the outskirts (often treated as pariahs) in many medieval and pre-modern societies.
You can, of course, dye differently, and can take create care when disposing of the wastes, etc. But in and by itself naturally dyed yarn is not more sustainable than so-called “chemical” acid dyes. And it falls to you, as a consumer, to check how a dyer operates.
So, I feel it’s very important that, if you decide to embark on this very interesting and promising journey to a more sustainable way of knitting (or living), you do the full research. It always annoys me like nothing else when the media labels a substance as bad because of some recent research/evidence, and people start praising alternatives where not even the faintest inkling of its side effect/impacts on nature are known. Nature is full of very harmful substances too.
19 thoughts on “Knitting socks with plastic-free yarn”
This has been so informative & very helpful, especially all the info in the afterward, about how chemicals, in and of themselves, aren’t bad, it’s what is used & how it’s used.
My gran bought me a beautiful Celtic scarf handmade from Irish wool, I believe it’s ‘Donegal’. I was so allergic to it, sadly. It cost a pretty penny (as handmade items deserve to), so I kept it for decades, but couldn’t use it. I later gave it to my mom. She loves it. But I don’t know how much she uses it in North Carolina.
All this to ask, what would you recommend for someone who is allergic to wools (as I understand, lanolin is the allergen)? What are my best options for both more environmentally friendly & affordable for someone who is on a fixed disability income?
I’ve been trying to use more cotton, bamboo, and other plant fibers, but they have the same issues with dyes, mordants & processing.
Thank you for trying this. Every step we make helps. We can’t be perfect, it’s not possible to not leave any ‘footprints’ on the land we live, but we can try to reduce the depth of each step.
My great aunt knit dozens of warm & colorful socks. They are why I learned to crochet & am now learning to knit. All because of some homemade socks that kept me warm. Two pairs helped me fit into my gran’s skis & skates. Without those socks, I wouldn’t have such amazing memories of a magical winter wonderland.
Here’s to warm compresses on hurt fingertips. Imagine how our ancestors made dozens for family, or hundreds over years to sell. Hope you have a great day.
I still got a looong post about “vegan” yarns in the making. But since it is such a complicated issue I haven’t been able to finish it.
Some people say Alpaca is much better for them. But it still contains a tiny bit of Lanolin but it comes in a lot of natural shades that doesn’t require any dying.
And then there are some amazing linen/nettle fibers you could look into.
Allergy to lanolin itself is apparently (according to my allergist) ‘significantly rarer’ than allergy to things like sheep dip and all the other chemicals that are involved with the production of (non-organic) wool and the care of sheep! You may be lucky and find that *organic wool* and *organic lanolin* do not cause allergy reactions. I spent many years avoiding lanolin after reactions to it on wool when trying to learn to spin and in skincare products and even medicine, were confirmed in a skin test by an allergist, and then found via accidental repeated exposure that lanolin sourced from places that don’t use those chemicals is totally fine for me, which was later explained by a different allergist. This made things significantly easier for me from that point.
Unfortunately organic products in general are hard to work with on a fixed disability income and it would still need testing by way of deliberate exposure, but I hoped this might still be helpful if it can open up your pool of options?
(apologies for the vague use of ‘chemicals’ but I’m not sure what they are exactly, and I think it can vary regionally. My research into sheep dip regulations was short lived and overwhelming, and though I’ve found medical journal articles that talk about the ‘lanolin paradox’ in the abstract I can’t access the rest of the articles for more details than were provided by my doctor.)
thank you for this interesting contribution natalie!
Thank you for your suggestions. The work that goes into linen & flax is phenomenal. It is beautiful & I would like to try some when I can.
Will keep an eye out for alpaca & try just a small bit to see if it’ll work on my overly sensitive skin. Lol.
Can’t wait for your vegan yarn post! Plant fibers are my preference, for many reasons, but mostly due to their softness & sustainability.
Also look forward to your beginner sock post. Have a great day.
I was wondering if you’d be willing to share the specific type of Rosemary and Pines wool – did you use her Coburg Fox or her Sock DK (Merino)?
I loved this post, by the way.
It was the Sock DK.
I found your post by chance while I was doing some research for a blog post on knitting with all natural sock yarn.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience with my Classic Sock DK base! It was very interesting for me to read through your post. Since I knit so much with my own yarns, I am used to the more rustic feel of Classic Sock DK and don’t find it scratchy at all. But I highly value your feedback and decided to include a remark on my website. If you have not knitted with all natural, German Merino sock yarn before, I think it is best to try out Luster Sock DK first. This is my second sock yarn base which is spun differently and as a result, is a lot softer.
Thanks again for sharing and the beautiful pictures!
Not sure if you will see this comment. I just discovered your blog today (Dec 2021).
I have been a spinner for over 25 years. Your essay from the perspective of a knitter new to the hand spun community was thoughtful and interesting.
There are a multitude of fiber sheep, each producing wool with a quite varied array of characteristics, determined by
1)staple length – length of an individual hair,
2)crimp – amount of wavyness of each hair,
3)how thick each hair in microns – determines how fine (thinner fewer microns) or course thewool, &
4)luster among other things.
For example consider the following 3 fleece sheep breeds
Merino (not superwash): staple length avg. 3 inches, staple width avg. 19 microns, crimp 30 waves/inch, and has average luster.
Border Leicester; staple length 6-12 inches, staple width avg. 30 microns, crimp 4 waves/inch, very high luster. This wool is used for high end fabric but can be knitted
Jacob (a heritage mountain breed with a naturally black & white coat): staple length avg 5 inches, staple width 35 microns, crimp varies avg. 10 waves/inch, fair luster.
Yarns from each of these wools can be further modified by the processing technique and how it is spun.
The point – there is a whole world out there of wool waiting for you and other knitters like you. I hope you decide to give spinning a try, if only for the amount of knowledge about yarn you will learn from doing so.
Of course I see your comment and thank you for your valuable input as a spinner. And I agree, it’s a hobby more knitters should explore…for myself…time..time is an issue. Running this blog IS so time consuming.
Norman, thank you for this in-depth look at the subject of sustainable sock yarn (and for your website which is a genuinely useful and attractive resource). Having knitted for many years, I only embarked on sock knitting in recent months as I had concerns about the environmental impact of nylon in sock yarn. I used a wool and linen 4-ply (Kremke Soul Wool: Lazy Linen) which wasn’t uncomfortable to work with although, as you discovered, a yarn without nylon has much less stretch than we are used to in our socks and produces something more rustic in appearance. I have found, however, one huge positive: the deodorising and self-cleaning nature of wool and the absence of plastic makes for much fresher feet. Plastic = perspiration = pong! Don’t judge me but, based on my admittedly limited experience, natural yarn socks don’t need to be washed anywhere near as frequently, and that is an environmental saving worth considering too.
Your final comments on manufacturing transparency, chemistry and other environmental impacts are food for thought. It’s a conversation we should be having more frequently I think. Keep up the good work.
Oh wow, nicola. I haven’t even thought about the “deodorising” effect. but you are absolutely right. thx for adding it.
Thank you for this post.
I am in the US and finding non-Superwash fingering weight organic wool yarn spun with a tight twist with NO manmade fibers is a difficult task. It can be done, but the options are limited for US based suppliers.
For sock knitting I aim for 12-15 stitches per inch and use 1.5mm to 1.5mm for the feet and usually 2.25mm and up for the leg. I also twist the knit stitches on the toe, the ball of the foot and the heel. I knit toe-up and use German Short Rows for the toe and the heel.
I hang up my socks after a day’s wearing and let them air out (inside out) for a few days before wearing them again. No stinky socks or feet and less washing. Win-win in my book.
What are some of the yarns you’ve found that you like working with? I’m in the US and looking for some options.
I am glad I came here to look. I was wanting to make socks with natural fiber because of the plastics problem so I chose a linen. Problem is I live in the desert SW of the U.S. and it just is not that practical to make fully woolen socks when we routinely see temps between 30-40 C. In my location we only get two days a year where the temp in the daytime is below freezing.
So my problem is I am a brand spanking new knitter. I seem to have a fair tension. Stitches seem even. Gauge is not the issue. I have 20 years as a hand quilter and longer than that as a crocheter. So why am I having problems with the linen?
I am using the interchangeable aluminum needles with a cord on the ends. The socks are toe up, and I have 100g balls that I was just going to go until I reached the end for height. Problem is, I can already tell that these socks are not going to stay up. The linen just does not seem to have any “grabbiness” to it. I experimented with using ribbing as I had hopes this would create some artificial “grab” but I do not like the look. It is not as clean as the plain knit, which I do love by the way. That ribbing was a k4p3,because I have 70 stitches cast on and you know, easy math. Would the normal k1p1 work better? I even thought about making some kind of running ribbon from the linen and just making ties running through the stitches.
Any suggestion would be welcome. I will continue to watch all the Nimble Needles content I can find and exploring this blog resource is going to be amazing. Has anyone made socks with linen yarn? I sure could use some secrets.
Well, linen is not stretchy at all. so you will have to work with a rubber band, etc.
So, you experience is not unusual at all but linen is, all things considered not the best fiber for socks. Cotton is probably a bit more doable.
Thank you for letting me know. next time i will use something stretchier haha., yes i think a rubber band in the right sized could work , encased and stitched inside a slight turn down. one extra step won’t hurt anything.
Great article, thank you, and I look forward to hearing more about your adventures with nonsuperwash yarns. I actually like the rustic texture—after knitting with unprocessed yarns, superwash starts to feel plastic-y. I’ve found a couple non-superwash sock yarns that incorporate mohair for durability. Have you had any experience with these? Does the mohair add any significant stretch?
it adds durablity, yes..but stretch..i dunno! But there are some fantastic yarns out there. Some also blend in alpaca, etc. really fascinating stuff to experiement around with