Recently I had an interesting exchange with a young mother on Ravelry (the social networking site for knitters and other fiber-arts folk). She wrote that she wanted to knit for her new baby using "organic" fibers, but she didn't know where to get them, and "What do people mean when they call yarn or roving 'organic' anyway?" she asked.
Seemed like a good question to me, so I started digging. Here's what I found.
The U.S. standard for labeling wool “organic” refers to conditions for the raising of livestock. Feed and forage must be certified organic; no synthetic hormones or genetic engineering; no synthetic pesticides used on pastureland; no parasiticides applied to the sheep. Organic livestock standards don’t specify anything about how the fleece is processed, and that processing can be far from “green,” involving massive water consumption and various detergents (some quite toxic) to scour, or clean, the wool. Then of course there are dyes, most of which (on commercial scale) are synthetic, and other substances (petroleum-based spinning oils, for example) used in yarn manufacture that may not be what you want next to your baby's skin, or your own. The Organic Trade Association has developed a set of voluntary standards for “organic” fiber processing for its members, and the International Working Group on Global Organic Textile Standards also has a certification program (the Global Organic Textile Standard, or GOTS) for processors that follows the fiber all the way to end-user labeling. While U.S. law would protect both organizations from unlicensed use of their certification marks, neither of these programs is compulsory. There is currently no U.S. national legal standard for “organic” wool that extends past the raising of the fiber animal or crop. You can look for OTA or GOTS certification, or you just have to rely on the honesty of the producer for the reliability of claims made about the processing of the fiber. The challenge we all face is that there is no legal meaning of “all natural,” or many of the other promotional terms many businesses attach to their products. I recall a clever writer who advised his readers to remember, when they found themselves drawn to expensive cosmetics advertised as "European," and "natural," that "Arsenic is natural, and Mussolini was European." ;) There are many small- to medium-sized producers who make honest and consistent efforts to manufacture their fibers and yarns in as environmentally sound a manner as possible. Vermont’s Green Mountain Spinnery (www.spinnery.com) provides abundant information about the provenance and treatment of their fibers. Their yarns aren’t cheap, but they are wonderful to work with, and can produce beautiful and long-lasting results. That’s just one example.
But for anyone who wants to focus on working with low-impact, low-toxin fibers, much of the due diligence remains an individual consumer challenge. Fiber festivals, where spinners, knitters, and weavers can often actually speak directly to the people who raise the sheep and process the fibers, are a great place to learn, and to shop. Local agricultural extension agents (usually associated with a public university) know who their local farmers are, what they’re producing, and how, and can connect fiber artists and crafters with local sources of sustainably produced materials.
There’s lots more information on the subject of "organic" textiles to be found on the websites of the Organic Trade Association (www.ota.com) and the International Working Group on Global Organic Textile Standards (www.global-standard.org).
For many craftspersons, learning where our materials come from, and how they are produced, is as important as mastery of technique. If you're one such, I hope this post proves useful to you!