The climate impact of knitting

As readers of this blog might know, I knit, sew and occasionally weave and embroider. I love textile handicrafts. I think the love stems from gaining understanding of how something is made, the self-confidence you get from mastering a skill and the joy of being able to customize your wardrobe. But, as other sustainability minded makers, I have been conscious of the environmental footprint of my handicraft practices. After all, you use materials that have an environmental footprint in your handicraft practice and you sometimes tend to overproduce. You occasionally make things you do not like as much as you thought and, more frequently, you make things that you love but, truthfully, do not really need. When summarizing my slow fashion year, I have recurrently told myself that I need to limit my making. Being a slow maker is good, to produce less is a constant ambition.

Lately, I have reconsidered this bad conscious for engaging in handicrafts. A little more than a month ago I spoke on Swedish radio about the climate impact of fashion and had yet again a reason to look into the carbon footprint of fashion production. I was yet again reminded that textile fibers is only a very small part of the fashion carbon footprint. Instead, it is the (fossil) fuels in the textile and clothing production that stand for the majority of the carbon footprint (60 %). Finally, I realised that my knitting practice in fact avoids a big part of this carbon footprint . Indeed, my arm and hand muscles, doing the knitting, are very much fossil free. My hand knitting is pure renewable energy, sourced from the foods I consume. Sure in the process I emit some carbon dioxide, but I would do so anyway, whether knitting or not.

Knitters, at least the sustainably minded ones, tend to worry about the fibers, i.e. the yarn. We avoid yarn made from fossil fuels, such as nylon or acrylic yarns. We do the best we can to buy as sustainable yarn as we can find and afford. I try to only buy organic, such as Gots certified, yarn or yarn directly from the farm. Still, we worry about the environmental footprint.

As for worrying about the fibers, hand knitters mostly use wool. Wool is a side product of sheep farming in Sweden and is often burnt instead of used to make textiles, producing carbon dioxide when incinerated, which in turn negatively affects the climate. By using the wool, for example for knitting clothing, instead of incinerating we thus keep the carbon stored away in our clothes. Moreover, organic farming is more likely to have regenerative farming practices such as grazing and compost use (though of course not always!). Indeed, as I’ve blogged about, there have been successful attempts to make climate positive wool clothes. Wool, as a fiber, does not have to be bad for the climate. For knitters using cotton, there is climate beneficial cotton too.

Looking at climate calculations, textile fibre production is still only 16 % of the textile’s climate impact. See for example climate calculations for Swedish textiles by Sandin et al. (2019) in the diagram. These numbers also include climate unfriendly fibers that we avoid, such as plastic fibers from fossil fuels. This report does not, however, include wool fibers which are most commonly use by hand knitters, but cotton is included,

This diagram can still tell us something about the climate impact of textiles generally. For example that the big carbon footprint is in the fabric (14 %) and clothes production (15,6 %), which hand knitters remove by doing this part ourselves. That is to say that by hand knitting, you remove almost a third of the item’s carbon footprint. Well done knitter.

Thus if we choose climate friendly fibers, based on regenerative farming practice, hand knitters mostly need to worry about the processing of yarns (10 %) and dyeing of the yarn (23 %). This climate footprint is largely an effect of the energy mix in the factories or country of production producing the yarn and doing the dyeing. While the organic Gots certification encourages the use of renewable energy, it does not require it. Hence, the energy mix in the country of production plays a key role (33 %) for the carbon footprint. Imported organic or Gots certified yarns, thus, do not automatically have a low carbon footprint. It depends on where they are imported from and the energy mix used in the factories. Ideally, we want to avoid countries with coal and a large proportion of fossil fuels. In this context, Swedish spun yarn is likely to turn out well in any comparison, considering that we have hardly any fossil fuels in the Swedish energy mix.

Suddenly, the last sweater I knitted sounds quite environmentally friendly: knitted by hand out of undyed organic Swedish wool yarn, spun in Sweden by Stenkyrka Ullspinneri on Gotland. If I apply some of what I have learnt about regenerative farming and the climate impact of the fashion industry, my hand knitted sweater sounds even better. If the carbon stored in the fibers and the grazed lands surpass the carbon released in the production, my grey wool Gotland wool sweater might even be climate positive. Since the Swedish energy mix is almost fossil fuel free (it consists of mainly nuclear and hydropower), it could be.

To summarise, and as a little check list for us climate conscious hand knitters, we should consider choosing (1) climate friendly fibers for example from regenerative farming, (2) undyed yarn or yarn dyed using renewable energy, (3) yarn spun/processed using renewable energy. If we do so, we might in fact do the climate a service with our hand knitting practice.

Considering that Greta Thunberg, according to Vogue Scandinavia, is a knitter, I guess we should have known all along that hand knitting is good for the climate! 😉

References:

Sandin, Gustav & Roos, Sandra & Spak, Björn & Zamani, Bahareh & Peters, Greg. (2019). Environmental assessment of Swedish clothing consumption – six garments, sustainable futures. 10.13140/RG.2.2.30502.27205.

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