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.
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 do 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 suuuuper 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 eco-system 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 your 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.