What is a local yarn?

June 12, 2015

This is a post full of questions. Perhaps you have some thoughts also?

Until quite recently, it was clear to me that the yarns that were local to me were from sheep grown, processed and spun in Victoria. And buying local is good right? With the decline of processing and spinning in Victoria and Australia in general, Victorian grown wool is travelling off shore for some or all of its processing. So what is local and does it really matter any more?

IMG_0512Bendigo Woollen Mills has been a stalwart local institution for Victorian knitters for decades. Most of the knitting I did for my children as babies was from Bendigo Woollen Mills. The wool was Australian and it was processed and spun here. Now, it is processed in China. So every ball you buy in Melbourne has travelled to China and back. This is about 18,500 km. Cleckheaton Super Fine Merino has travelled a similar distance.

Jo Sharp is another Australian yarn company that sources its wool from both Australia and New Zealand but processes it in Italy. So, if you buy a ball of Jo Sharp DK in Melbourne, it has travelled about 34, 500 km.

IMG_0755In contrast, organic yarn from The Green Mountain Spinnery is sourced in the neighbouring state of Maine and processed using environmentally sustainable methods in Vermont, USA. If I purchase it from Melbourne, the yarn has travelled 17, 000 km.

IMG_0510Similarly, Frangipani 5ply guernsey yarn is a single breed yarn, grown and processed in the UK by a tiny company in Cornwall. This yarn would travel about 17,300 km to Melbourne. This is less distance travelled than yarn from Bendigo Woollen Mills or Cleckheaton Super Fine. Are these yarns from the US and UK more local to me?

Smaller yarn producers like Fairfield Finns, Tarndie, Australian Organic Wool, Ton of Wool and White Gum Wool need to travel to New Zealand for spinning. So whilst the sheep may live less than 150 km from Melbourne, the yarn itself has travelled 5000 km. In contrast, Mithril yarn from Stansborough Woollen Mill in New Zealand has only travelled 2,500 km to me.

IMG_0754So what is local? Is it better to buy local? Buying local assumes smaller carbon footprint, something that has cost the earth less to provide than something from further away. But if these distances are cancelled out because the ‘local’ product has travelled for processing then what criteria should we use to assess the sustainablity of our consumption?

IMG_0752Assuming that all these transport miles are comparable (all air miles say) then perhaps our choices can centre around how the yarn is produced at source, how the sheep are treated, how the product is traced and accounted for, what impact the processing has on the environment and whether the workers are treated fairly? This is the kind of information I want to see when I look for yarn (for anything really). I want my purchase to count for something, to have some kind of effect greater than anonymous consumption but it seems that production, manufacturing and purchasing have become incredibly confusing arenas for the consumer. Products are made cheaper but obfuscation is the shadow side of the global economy. Can the internet be the knife that cuts through the tangle?

Please note, these are rough calculations of distance travelled. I have only considered a handful of wool yarns for the sake of contrast and discussion and for what happened to be in my shade card collection. Alpaca yarns are still grown and processed in Victoria so would constitute a truly local yarn. Of course, spinning your own locally raised fleece will still be least travelled yarn choice, the most sustainable choice for you as an individual but this post is focused on broader consumer choices of commercially spun yarn.