I don’t know why we (by which I mean “people in general”) seem so driven to make a big fight out of everything. It seems like there is always a cause or two, and forgive me if I point out the faddish nature of these causes, for which people are prepared to make all manner of illogical blanket statements condemning or belittling anyone who doesn’t sit in the same sometimes rather leaky rowboat. Did I mix a metaphor there, or just toss one in halfway through? Sorry. The fact is that this post is being rather difficult to write.  (EDIT  I was going to delete this opening because it sounds kind of abusive and inflammatory to me, but this post IS being difficult to write and I don’t quite know what to replace it with.  So let me just throw in that I know there is no one way of life that is perfect for everybody, and I support individual choices, I just get upset when those choices are either badly uninformed, as sometimes happens, and/or when people attempt to impose choices that are really very good for them onto people that they really aren’t good for at all.)

The current faddish cause is, of course, environmentalism. Now before you jump all over that statement, let me rush to say that although I hate the ‘buzzwords’ that have evolved out of this concern for our planet (‘green’, ‘organic’ to name two) I completely and utterly believe that it is good and right to live in harmony, as it were, with the planet we live on. I will go further. I think it is a long standing tendency for humans to treat their environments as enemies, to try to subdue and control the land and the creatures on the land, and even other human beings if given the chance, and I think that tendency is sad, reflects badly on us as a species, and may very well be immoral. I used to be more definite on the immoral thing, but at the moment I can’t decide whether the fact that the concept of immorality originates with us makes it irrelevant or whether it just makes our behavior worse, given that we violate standards we created in the first place. So whether it is a fad or not, I can’t help but support those who are making genuine efforts to reduce their negative impact on their environment, and to realize that just because we moved into it, doesn’t mean it isn’t an ecosystem, and it is better to find ourselves a place in that ecosystem than to stomp all over it, kill off half the indiginous species and then start a crusade to save the cute ones.

I also believe in responsible decision making. Not so much in terms of “should I cast on another sweater when I already have three sweaters and two pair of socks on the needles” – my idea of “responsible” there ends at “would I have to buy another set of needles to do so?” in which case I won’t, otherwise I’m all for irresponsible crafting abundance. But I have my limitations there too, in terms of the materials I’m willing to use, and like it seems half the world, I have some very strong opinions about those materials and the way they are manufactured and marketed.

I was kind of excited when I first learned about corn and soy yarn. They are advertised as using the “waste” products of these crops, and while I was a little confused about the bean plants, it seemed to me like corn is a big fibrous stalk and if they were spinning yarn from those fibres it would be really cool, and also maybe I could try it at home, being as there are corn and soy fields all around me, and once the crops are collected the actual plants are just ground back into the soil as mulch, and maybe the farmers would let the crazy chick up the road score a few plants before they brought in the plows. So because I am me, and research is what I do, I looked up how these yarns are made.

Yeah. So what they do (greatly simplified) is they take the fruit – yes, the same stuff that would otherwise be fed to animals – and they put it in a huge tank and squish it all up and ferment it, and extract or transform (my chemistry is not so strong) it into a plastic soup. And then when it is reduced to a tank of smooth goo they super-cool it by pouring it onto a spinning top full of frozen chemicals, making a mono-filament, which is then plied into yarn.

This is a process involving a huge pile of chemicals, machinery, heating and uber-refrigeration. It can not be done in my kitchen. It should not, in my opinion, be done at all.

I don’t know what they mean by ‘waste product’, but I have two suspicions. One (the most likely) is that the carbohydrate soup they use is actually a waste product of the ethanol industry. The only things I know about ethanol production are a) the price of corn has skyrocketed, which has a direct effect on my life and the life of my animals, all of whom eat corn, and b) corn which cannot be fed to animals because of fungus or mold or some other icky thing also cannot be used in ethanol production. Found that out a couple of years ago when there was a “pig vomit” bactillus on a lot of the corn and nobody could sell their crop anywhere. Which is my other suspicion: maybe the pig vomit corn got made into yarn.

If the latter thing is true, I would feel a bit better about it – but only a bit, because they won’t only be buying moldy fruit now that the market for these fibres is so huge. So summing it all up, I find myself unable to think of anything that is mass-produced in a factory (or factory-farm) environment as “ecological”.

I tossed that little “factory farm” thing in there, because my choice, for a number of reasons, remains wool. I would be happy if the people who are campaigning for ‘organic’ cotton crops would win, because cotton is another good fibre that just is what it is and while it requires a vast amount of effort to turn into workable fibre it doesn’t have to be turned into some weird petroleum simulacrum first. But North American cotton crops do have an awful lot of baggage attached to them, and I’m not sure if we can handle cotton responsibly. (Insert your personal definition of ‘responsible’ here.)

I don’t have an opinion on whether or not other people use wool. I don’t much care. There are pluses and minuses for each individual and each project. Some people are allergic to wool, and having allergies myself I sympathize with their discomfort and suggest they shy as far away as possible. I would not, myself, purchase expensive wool even if I could afford to do so, because I don’t trust that it didn’t come from some factory sheep farm where the poor sheep are jacketed and confined (jacketing is a whole other problem I’ve got) and mutilated for human convenience, and I think it’s mean. Environmentalism completely aside, I can’t grok being mean to animals, no matter what you’re raising them for. Stewardship is a responsibility, and someone with a better grasp of language evolution (Emily?) might have a learned opinion on the origins of the word “husbandry”.

But for the love of knitting, can we please get it straight that shearing sheep is NOT MEAN?! It does not hurt, they do not mind. Sheep have been domesticated and bred for their wool – which was originally a warm undercoat like your dog and cat shed every summer – for thousands of years. Wooly sheep have not been around as long as housecats – quite – but almost. They were bred and bred to amplify the amount of undercoat and reduce the amount of hair for the sake of human usage. They will not shed their wool in any useful (i.e. temperature affecting) quantity. They will, if the wool gets long enough, rub or bite it off. This is because they want it gone. It is itchy and hot, it traps the ever-unpopular ‘vegetable matter’, it catches on things and it hurts – a lot – when it is pulled. Grab a handful of your own hair and yank.

You are welcome to have a negative opinion on the breeding of sheep for the sake of human convenience. I will share it. I will help you make a banner, out of organic cotton, decrying the arrogance and lack of foresight of the many many many generations of shepherds in all nations whose selfish breeding habits led to the fact that we now have hundreds of breeds of sheep who must be sheared or suffer. (And even that is leaving out the whole flystrike problem!) I will not, however, advocate that the sheep who are alive now, and who had nothing to do with any of this and just want to eat weeds in peace and maybe a bucket of grain now and then please, should be made extinct or forced to scrape themselves raw against trees because humans now resent and disapprove of the activities of humans long dead.

This stuff has been on my mind for a while, and of course the issue is much larger than just fibre, animal vegetable or plastic, but I’m running awful long here, so maybe we can expand through discussion?   I was going to post before, but then farm-witch said something at shearing time, and said it so well that I didn’t bother. If you hadn’t read that post of hers before, it’s a really good one. So for a while I just went “Yeah! What she said!” But I don’t think something as important as how we live and how we treat other living things – any of them – is an issue that can be settled with finality. We tried that before, and the final decision was that man is evidently superior to everyone/thing else, and should therefore do whatever he wants. And look what happened! I think we need to share our opinions, and our information, and our experiences. What choices have you made about how you live and interact with life? How has it affected your craft? What are your ideals, and are they obtainable? I’d really like to hear people’s comments on this stuff – and you’re welcome to disagree with me and with each other, as long as you don’t get abusive and make people cry.

If you’re interested, I will elaborate on my own wool sources plus my own means of getting the fibre off the sheep in the least intrusive manner possible.  Because I assure you, my sheep are the boss of me.  But like I said, this is really long and I would really like to hear what other people have to say.  So please:  discuss!