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.

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  1. It’s crazy, isn’t it? To think our “local” has travelled so far before being even available to us. Your calculations offer an interesting perspective, and thought to ponder. What is local, indeed.

    My thoughts would also ask is local just about global footprints? Or does local also relate to economy and environment? Australian wool grown on our land has characteristics of our environment via the elements, climate and vegetation it was produced in. It also contributes to our economy through the various food-chain of jobs required to produce the raw material, and the subsequent post-production life-cycle of sales.

    But do these factors make it more “local”?

    Interested to read the comments on this post, this is such a great question!

    1. Now this is really interesting! You are right, local isn’t just about global footprint. I had not considered the local economy aspect before. The role of the local environment in creating particular yarn types is very interesting. Then there are local cultural and historical factors to consider too, as in preserving a tradition of area based yarn production.

  2. This is incredibly informative and a somewhat dismal pattern of our world’s business structure. Yarn is only one thing caught up in this type of cycle. The US’s manufacturing is all but non-existent due to out-sourcing by our huge desire to profit to the elite percentage of population. The internet is certainly valuable in revealing and causing us to think and realize a bit more of what is happening…the larger picture so to speak. Joan

    1. Thanks Joan, i guess greater transparency and information flow from global communication is the balance to the increasing complexity we see in global economy.

  3. This is a great topic for discussion! I usually refer to the yarn that I mostly knit with as local, but only because it’s made in Mexico. But if to think about it, the place where it was produced is further away than some states of the US which produce and process yarn. So some US products turn to be more “local”.

    1. Thanks Alina, you are right, it can be very confusing to work out was is local. Is it point of origin or place of manufacture or point of sale?

  4. Your post gives rise to many interesting questions. I was fascinated to read about the mileage a yarn must travel. I had not considered that yarn from the UK could well have travelled a far lesser distance than yarn we buy here as an Australian brand.

    Until Australia either repatriates or puts back into action all its scouring, processing and yarn mills I cannot see how this can change. Australia grows a wonderful product sought after all over the world… and yet frustratingly unavailable to us here without recourse to overseas processing. I believe there are a few small mills starting up for alpaca fleece processing but only on a small basis. New Zealand on the other hand has somehow still managed to keep its processing industry – both on a smaller level and on a larger commercial basis.

    I am someone who almost always purchases their yarn from overseas, usually Britain as I love Shetland yarn. I do buy Cormo and White Gum Wool both of which are I believe processed in New Zealand. One of the other reasons I prefer not to buy any yarn processed in China is that I am not happy with the environmental standards in China and the chemicals they use.

    I listen to Woolful podcast and hear all about small mills started by hardworking enthusiastic artisans and I think Australia is just waiting for this to start to happen here. Then we will see the emergence of a real Australian, homegrown, processed and milled yarn that will challenge any made anywhere in the world.

    Thank you for such a thought provoking read.

    1. Lydia, you raise an interesting point here about the environmental effects of processing and of the trust or indeed lack of trust the consumer has in certain standards being met.

  5. I have been thinking a lot about this question and I am quite baffled by its numerous ramifications. Wouldn’t it be good if yarn came labeled (voluntarily, of course) with details like, for example, breed, source, animal treatment, processing, and dye. It’s sad that making informed choices is so difficult.

    1. Dear Diana, I agree! It would be great if labels had a set of criteria that had to be responded to, like food labeling. Failing that, I would love an appointment on my phone that could give me all the info on a yarn, a consumer’s guide to yarn.

  6. Yes, since you have so many sheep there, perhaps it’s time to encourage the Government agriculture department to help/subsidize people who are willing to set up mills to process your own nation’s products. Rebecca, I still think you/your wool group should some how approach Prince Charles since he was quite instrumental in the British wool scheme. Can it be that he doesn’t know about all of this? Probably so.

    1. Thank you Elaine. Australia has a very dodgy past when it comes to subsiding the wool industry. The subsidies were so excessive, they skewed world production and when they were finally removed in the 90s the ramifications rippled around the world causing many businesses to fail. The whole wool industry suffered. Government is withdrawing support from many manufacturing areas, car manufacture and regional food processing to make but two. I don’t think wool will reverse the tide.

  7. Unfortunately the outsourcing of the processing stage is due largely to more stringent regulations within our countries on environmental health, pollution of water, etc, by the mills cleaning and preparing the fibre. Some other countries have less strict environmental laws and so they now take the fibre for that stage of the process. For a local mill to undertake this stage itself, it would necessitate huge investment in special processing plant with the requirement to prove no harmful side effects to the environment. And that would effectively price the yarn out of the affordable market! I don’t know where to stand on this one myself. I want to protect the environment, I want my yarn from sheep to shawl produced locally… Bit of a difficult one.

    1. This is a significant point Jo, thank you. Environmental considerations are ones that will eventually have to be properly costed. We can’t just keep pushing the problem further away… It still remains a problem. There are mills that manage to be environmentally responsible and still economically viable but of course their product is more expensive. Our consumer choices reveal the world we want in many ways.

  8. My head is spinning faster than the globe that manufacturing is crossing. This post (and the comments following it) extend the checklist for examining a product’s impact before a purchase. Good questions all.

    Wool scouring and dye work takes a load of water. We can add the restrictions that global warming is producing to the problems manufacturers face, eh? The taps are tightening on our local mills. It’s a great time to ask for for more transparency and dialogue towards more sustainable solutions. Count me in on the discussion (along with your Lego minions).

    1. Good point Kate, looking at water use in relation to yarn production is another criteria for making distinctions between yarns. Perhaps it is better for wool to be scoured and dyed in places that have higher rainfall than those that don’t. Perhaps that mitigates the carbon miles, rather like rice grown in India then transportered to Australia still had a lower carbon footprint than rice grown in Australia which relies on irrigation and high chemical use.

  9. This is an important and interesting question! I agree with kgirlknits that defining ‘local’ is important… which values, exactly, do you want the term to represent? I think knitting with wool from sheep that were raised on land nearby, even if it was scoured and/or spun elsewhere, still falls under the ‘local’ term if the concept of terroir is important to you. Alternatively, I get a sense of pleasure when I know that a yarn was sourced, processed, and spun in close proximity (even better if by a small business that supports local artisans) even if the yarn was made thousands of miles from me. That might not qualify as local but it preserves some of the qualities associated with ‘buying local’.

    1. Thank you Alicia, what a thoughtful response. Yes, terroir really does capture the qualities Kgirlknits was describing. I wonder if we could develop a set of criteria by which we could focus on the elements of local that are important to us as individuals? Mmm, food for thought here.

  10. I heard some time back that BWM sends overseas and also uses a much higher micron blend for its end product probably as a way of keeping its costs more reasonable for the consumer but then again I may have heard complete twaddle on this too lol. Who knows now. I know that some of the ladies that raise sheep in Australia are sourcing a very small number of mills here to process their fleeces into roving and top for hand spinners. That is both sheep and alpaca. Sadly though I don’t think there is anyone who runs a working spinning mill for small lots in Australia now. I was intrigued to read the ball band of the commercial wool I bought for Lance’s thick work socks made in China from Australian product and packed with love in Wangaratta. So sad really and I believe it is the all mighty dollar which has killed off industry like this. I had better keep spinning up my jumper lots of fleece right from the sheepies back. Most are only 40km from my home.

    1. Thanks for the comment Katherine. Spinning will always enable the best outcome for localism and global footprint as it puts the means of production (to use a Marxian concept) in the worker’s hands. It delivers a high rate of return to the farmer per fleece as well. But it remains a micro form of economics I guess.

  11. Thank you for this – it helps with yarn guilt over buying overseas, and highlights the misconception that buying Australian wool is more honourable. I’m off to visit Nundle woollen mills, I’ll let you know what happens to theirs.

    1. Oh yes, Rachel, please let us know how you go at Nundle Woollen Mill. I think they may still process and spin in NSW but I believe they have a substantially reduced range.

  12. What a conundrum! I did buy Frangipani for my Gansey because that is what was called for. Having said that I think I am too cheap to buy yarn period 🙂 All my fleeces (except the last two from Scotland…couldn’t help myself 🙂 are purchased here where I live or very close by. we have a wonderful small mill here and when I get lazy/cranky I can give it to her and let her put it in bumps or roving for me and YES, now I have to spin it but that’s OK. I consider myself very lucky. Glad you let the information out of the wrapper and all those action figures sure helped make the point!!

    1. OK, I agree Susan, you are really lucky! Is there room to found a knitter’s colony at your place cos it sounds like nirvana?

  13. Phew, now you really have me thinking!! I feel awful now but it is something I have never really considered, budget is usually the biggest factor in my yarn choices. Mmm, I wonder if the neighbours would mind if we had a sheep in the garden 😉 x

    1. Dear Sharon, you are not alone here! Cost is such a significant factor in our consumer choices. A sweater’s worth of yarn is often decided on cost.

  14. Thanks for another great post, and for doing all the research on our behalf! I got really frustrated about this issue (in my last post) – it was the reason why I kept buying and returning yarn: I wasn’t happy with its origins and processing. I feel slightly less guilty knowing now I didn’t have much of a choice.

    I reckon a movement could be summoned up. With all those people on Ravelry, I’m sure it’s bound to happen sooner or later. We just need that firebrand. Now who will that be, I wonder?

    1. Yes, I think you are right, we are an active, thoughtful mob and we are certainly not alone in the questions we are asking. Ideas will grow upon ideas.

  15. Lots of big questions here, in the original post and the comments – I’ve been musing them over. I do think there’s a sense that we are a global community now, and so “local” has changed. But that just won’t alter the fact that transporting yarns over the world for cheap production is pretty horrific – perhaps it will change when fossil fuels become more scarce? Lovely to support your neighbouring farms and mills but it can be very pricey (as your last two commentators have said). I guess, in the ideal world, we would make do with less – but that’s unrealistic too. The world is full of products to buy – with the internet they are more available than ever before. For me. it’s a balancing act of sometimes buying cheap much-travelled products, sometimes treating myself with more expensive yarns and fleeces that are of my “area” (and usually accompanied by a comforting smug little pat on the back!!), and a perpetual struggle with the guilt and morality of extravagant use of water, fuels, chemicals, other people’s lives. Hmm – beginning to think it would be more comforting to have less info on the label, and just enjoy the product! Oh dear!!

    1. Thank you for your comment Katherine, it sounds like you are finding a balance within your means and ethics. It would be nice to buy in ignorance…I think I would like that very much! Consumer capitalism affords us the potential to transform consumption into a conscious political act. This is both powerful and burdensome as many of us feel ill equipped to make choices that may well effect the livelihood of folks and wellbeing of the land. How fortunate that the act of knitting itself is so simple and benign!

  16. So many questions and no clear answers. I too am torn by the dilema of supporting local farmers and businesses, and worrying about the chemical processing overseas. Then again, I wouldn’t deny workers in China from making a living too. I guess any kind of mindful consumerism is better than none. Like Lydia I am hopeful that in time the trend towards the reopening of small scale mills may take hold here as it appears to have in North America. Thanks for another illuminating post!

    1. Thank you Pinry! I do think we are seeing something of a movement towards micro mills in Australia but it is for alpaca not wool. Perhaps we will all become alpaca knitters in our quest for local product in Australia!

  17. It does often feel as though we don’t get the full story, which makes it tricky weighing up pros and cons. I really like your sentence ” Can the internet be the knife that cuts through the tangle?”. It could very well be. Blogposts like this certainly help by providing info, raising questions and creating conversation.

    1. Thank you Rachael, information and discussion are the basis for informed decision making. My perspectives have certainly been broadened by the contributions here.

  18. Great post Rebecca and one I have pondered for ages and not just with wool but our food, clothing, all the ‘stuff’ that is available in those cheap $2 shops etc etc. The only way I can get around it is to spin and knit all my own. Slow but satisfying and much cheaper. We have some small processing businesses like FeltFine and Gumnut Cottage Fibre Mill but they are limited in what they can do too. Plus they have spent lots of money buying equipment from overseas as Australia doesn’t make small mill equipment. I have a friend here who was forced to send her coloured fleeces to NZ for processing when the wool scour in Geelong closed and the smaller mills reliant on it went out of business. It was such a huge amount of work and effort that she no longer does it. Perhaps some of us need to form our own Fibreshed and begin processing as a coop…..

    1. Oooh, now there is a Tattslotto dream! A state of the art, environmentally sound scouring, processing and spinning Mill for small folks. Imagine what small farmers and indie dyers could do. I better go fill out my numbers.

  19. I haven’t bought yarn (except exotic sock yarn) in ages because I spin. But it’s getting difficult to buy Aussie Merino fibre to spin that doesn’t come by the way of the U.S. or UK. Why? The lack of small mills. Hence Ton of Wool where I’ll be buying my wool in the future. But what if I buy a fleece? Is my only option to process it myself? I went through a great effort buying fleeces of breeds we don’t grow here (BFL and Shetland) from the growers in the US, having the fleeces shipped to one of the mini-mills there, getting the proper forms for processed fleece filled out, and then the fleeces mailed back to me. And Quarantine never looked at the paperwork! I’d have to say it was worth the effort but it’s a shame we don’t have those mini-mills here. Mind you they don’t produce absolutely clean wool, but if you don’t mind the odd bit of grass, it’s the only way to get rare breeds

    1. Thank Carol. You have gone to great lengths to process fleeces to pass Australian quarantine. I can really see how you would use a local micro mills but it looks like you have a found a local origin yarn you are happy with. Ton of Wool is indeed beautiful yarn.

  20. Great discussion re carbon footprint, distances traveled and yes the local economy is very important for that ripple effect too.
    Jumbuk Wools was an example of value-adding and decentralisation of industry over 40 years ago when it started. Sadly it is no longer spinning or knitting its own wool now. The machinery has been sold on, some to BWM, but don’t know if its up and running again or not. As a small family business it became to difficult for us to sustain manufacturing, wholesale, retail + tourism as a total package against all the costs associated with doing so.
    The white fleece was sourced within 20k of us, the coloured fleece from all over Victoria as well as our own flock. It was sent away for washing (300km) but all the other processing was done under the one roof so it was a truly local product.
    There are still small quantities of Jumbuk Wool available via the website.
    It is hand wash only so great for felting as well as other yarn projects.
    Regards, Susan

    1. Thanks so much for sharing the Jumbuk story with us Susan. Yes, that was a truly local product and I am saddened that it is no longer with us. It seems so odd that in the eighties homegrown yarn was plentiful and various, now we have more population but less product. I am expecting some of your Gold Label silver to arrive soon. It will be a great partner for some of my Wayside handspun.

      1. Yes I think it is very sad too, particularly as manufacturing has declined across many industries in Australia, not just wool. However I hope you enjoy using our Gold Label Silver, it is certainly going to a special home 🙂

  21. I’ve given a lot of thought to this too. In fact I have a half written post in my drafts folder than I gave up on because it all got too complicated. Local yarn is of course very different to earth friendly yarn. Personally I tend to think of local in terms of terroir rather than environmental impact.

    Very thought provoking post and comments Rebecca, I very much enjoyed this.

    1. Thank you Annie, I like the distinction you make between local yarns and sustainably yarns. This is a useful distinction as they are not necessarily the same. Terroir is a consideration but I wonder can terroir be lost through processing (becoming something homegenous) or is immutably associated with point of origin?

  22. Your post inspired me so much that I did my own research and just wrote a post about yarn miles and traceability in Irish yarn.

    It is here:

    So many interesting considerations, and so interesting to find out more about it. I totally agree re having more transparent information on where things come from, but its like we also need to learn a huge amount about the industry, as the answers to where yarn is produced are so complicated and as you pose in your question – is it a case of local is best? Not neccessarily.

    Interesting point re terroir too. I remember a lovely friend once brought me home some handspun yarn from Columbia that she was very apologetic about giving me – but it was one of the most characterful yarns I ever used – like spinning with half of Columbia. Seeds, thorns, bits of vegetation – it felt like a story in a ball of yarn. I blogged about that too long ago:

  23. Thanks so much for your thoughtful post, Rebecca. Once again, I leave this space with my brain feeling full with new information and new perspectives. I think there is a bit of a modern day Gandhi philosophy in all this worthy of contemplation followed, hopefully, with right action. Inspiring stuff!

  24. Thanks for your very thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Rebecca. And I must add that I also loved the maps and Lego figures, that really showed the distances involved. In one of your comments you said ‘there is a Tattslotto dream! A state of the art, environmentally sound scouring, processing and spinning Mill for small folks’. Yes! I’ve had that dream for some time. It would be truly wonderful to have such a mill in Australia again. An alpaca mill has recently opened in Orange, NSW, quite near to where I live, and while I’m very excited about this, I wish there was a sheep-wool one too! And thinking about the water and pollution involved, I think that overseas a lot of thought has gone into making these plants more environmentally friendly, so maybe it might not be as polluting as it used to be. And, for goodness sake, we wash COAL in Australia before we send it overseas!! The organic muck coming off wool would have to be less environmentally damaging that coal-muck! I do think that a groundswell movement back toward responsible manufacturing might be beginning to happen in Australia, a realisation that money is not always (and maybe should never be) the bottom line. Or am I just dreaming that!? Anyway, thank you again for the post, and your lovely blog, which I only recently discovered. Lovely to know there are some like-minded people out there. Fiona x

  25. What a gorgeous garment, and what a fascinating and thought-provoking post. And discussion. As ever with these issues, there seems to be no simple answers, but it’s still important to try to unpick and understand the bigger implications of our actins, and to use that to inform our decisions.
    And as we do so, we continue to learn and grow.
    Thank you Rebecca.

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