Saturday, 16 February 2019

Is It Cruel To Sheep To Knit With Wool?

It's a topic that provokes fierce opinions on all sides and one that, as 'Veganuary' has come to a close, is becoming important to a growing number of people who choose to avoid meat, dairy and animal products in the name of animal welfare. Two A Woolly Yarn readers separately requested that we cover the issue: is it cruel to sheep to knit with wool?

Image courtesy of PETA
In August 2018 the topic hit the headlines with the release of a video taken in the UK by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) capturing abuse of sheep by sheep shearers, which caused outrage in the media and was criticised alike by those within the farming industry.

According to the National Sheep Association, sheep are shorn once a year, usually in May to "ensure sheep do not get too hot and start to attract flies". On 22nd August 2018, as a reaction to PETA's video, British Wool, the Farmers Union of Wales, the National Association of Agricultural Contractors, the National Farmers Union, NFU Cymru and the National Sheep Association released a joint statement stating that "Farmers and contractors within the sheep industry take animal welfare very seriously and any behaviour that is found to fall below that standard is not tolerated. Shearing is an absolutely necessary activity to ensure that wool can be removed safely to protect sheep from heat stress and disease."

Elisa Allen, Director of PETA UK, however, disagrees about the ethics of shearing. She told A Woolly Yarn that "claiming that shearing is 'just a haircut' is like saying that amputation is 'just a paper cut'. In the wool industry, time is money, and since most shearers are paid by volume, they're motivated to work as quickly as possible with little regard for sheep's welfare. In their haste, they cut animals' body parts right off - including ears, teats, tails and testicles".

Image courtesy of the National Sheep Association
Farmers argue that it would be cruel NOT to shear sheep. The board of directors of the American Society of Animal Science say that "as long as there are sheep, shearing must be practiced for the health and hygiene of each animal. Unlike animals, most sheep are unable to shed." The problems that can occur if a sheep goes too long without being shorn, they say, include the sheep becoming overheating and dying; infections caused by urine and other materials becoming trapped in the wool and attracting pests; and lack of mobility making sheep more susceptible to predator attacks.

The majority of wool shorn from sheep in the UK goes to the co-operative British Wool, where it is graded and sold on to the international textile industry. The best quality clips may be selected to be processed and spun for hand knitting. Allen argues this is wrong, saying "sheep's wool, just like foxes' fur, is not 'fabric', and it doesn't belong to us. It had an owner who was violently robbed of it. With warm cruelty-free fabrics - including cotton, bamboo, hemp and soya-bean fibre - readily available, it's easier than ever to ditch wool and other animal-derived materials."

Not all knitters, however, want to ditch wool and argue that knitting with wool doesn't have to be incompatible with supporting animal welfare. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal stated that wool advocates "say they have been unfairly lumped in with crocodile hunters and mink farmers by overzealous do-gooders who fundamentally misunderstand what goes into sheep farming, not to mention the superior properties of wool". 


Image courtesy of PETA
When PETA put up billboards in Times Square, New York, and also Boston, displaying "a nude picture of actress Alicia Silverstone with the phrase 'Leave Wool Behind' across her backside", it angered some in the US knitting community. As the Wall Street Journal reported, author and knitting enthusiast Clara Parkes hit back saying "I know smaller producers who care for their flock better than they do their own family". The article went on to state that "The wool community says a big part of its problem is small US farms are taking the fall for rougher treatment and controversial practices employed by a few large wool producers."

Many knitters and small business have since spoken up in support of wool, for example the UK online yarn store Laughing Hens wrote in its newsletter "we know the importance of wool and natural fibres. In today's day and age, people are more conscious of their own environmental impact on a changing earth. Wool is renewable, biodegradable, and one of the warmest, most insulating natural fibres available."

Yet the reported maltreatment of sheep doesn't end with shearing. PETA's Elisa Allen points out that "once sheep have outlived their usefulness for wool production, they aren't given a peaceful retirement - instead, they're sent to slaughter, often packed by the thousands onto enormous ships bound for unregulated Middle Eastern abattoirs, where their throats are slit whilst they're still completely conscious."

image courtesy of Izzy Lane
Here in the UK there's a growing movement against this treatment of sheep. Izzy Lane is a British farmer who rescues sheep so they can live out their lives on her land in the Yorkshire Dales. As well as fashion produced ethically from wool from her flock she sells her own yarn range to raise awareness of animal welfare. Lane says that she launched her Izzy Lane brand in 2007 "to help save the British textile industry - and closer to my heart - to give animals a voice in the fashion industry, as they had none. Up until now, there had been no traceability whatsoever of animal fibre." On her website she describes how she grew her flock of 600 rescued sheep, including saving ewes that had miscarried or missed a pregnancy, male lambs and some she intercepted on their way to a halal abattoir.

How can a knitter ensure the wool they buy comes from sheep that are well-treated and haven't been harmed during shearing? Izzy Lane advises to choose wool produced by a small business that can trace the fleece back to the farm it came from. She says: "There are lots of small breeders now whose principle reason is to produce wool, rather than it being a meat by-product, so I would seek out those small producers. And then ask the questions you would like to know about their welfare and their slaughter policy."

Businesses such as Daughter of a Shepherd and Uist Wool are other examples of yarn vendors with strong traceability. Wool from such small businesses may work out more expensive than that from large companies who do not give the provenance of their fleece, but for those who want to knit with wool and appreciate its eco-credentials it's a small price to pay for the knowledge that the product comes from a farm that has high sheep welfare standards.

Vegan-friendly yarns

Ultimately whether to knit with wool is down to an individual's own conscience.  Knitters who do not want to knit with animal fibres have a great deal of options to choose from, but these must be weighed up against the environmental costs of their yarn choice's production: for example the WWF warns it takes 20,000 litres of water to produce a kilogram of cotton. Yarns that are made with petrochemicals, such as polyester and acrylic, use up finite fossil fuels.

One answer for vegan knitters could be to use recycled yarns, with the caveat that the recycling process itself requires energy and some yarns only contain a partial amount of reused material.

Wool and the Gang's latest launch New Wave Yarn, is created from 53% cotton and 47% recycled polyester.  The company says that each 100g ball contains the equivalent of three recycled plastic bottles.
Image courtesy of Wool and the Gang
Other recycled yarns on the market include Erika Knight's Studio Linen, a blend of 15% premium linen and 85% recycled rayon-linen fibre; and Hoooked's EkoYarn, consisting of 80% recycled cotton and 20% other recycled fibres.

Can you recommend any other recycled yarns? Let us know in the comments box below or A Woolly Yarn's Facebook page.


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