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Barcodes and Ball Bands

August 21, 2015

One of my ongoing knitterly interests is how my purchasing can be more thoughtful, reduce my impact on the environment and better support those folks who grow and process the yarn. It has been brewing in my mind for some time and I thought you might have some perspectives to share with me after reading this.

I start with the premise that (according to a materials diversity approach) any yarn purchase that is not completely synthetic or conventional cotton is spreading the environmental load of global textile production. But, in my choices online or at the yarn store, how can I lessen the energy and water use associated with the yarns I buy? Without doing tons of research as I stand in front of the shelves, how can I make a more informed choice?

IMG_1373Well, I have been thinking about this for some time and through many talks with other knitters, have come up with a sort of guide to thoughtful yarn consumption based on what you can tell from the ball band. This is a guide on how to read the ball band to help you make choices based on the least amount of processing, the most accountable processing and the least amount of travel.

Is it Machine Washable?

One of the easiest things to check on a ball band is whether something is machine washable. Folks buy machine washable for lots of different reasons but in terms of energy use, it is a particularly energy intensive type of processing. So, if your interest is in reducing the environmental footprint of the yarn, you would check for the hand wash only directions.

IMG_1372Is it dyed?

Check on the ball band for any information about dye lots. Dyeing yarn takes energy and lots and lots of water. If a yarn is naturally coloured or undyed, the ball band will usually say. If a yarn looks undyed but has a dye lot number, be suspicious. I thought I was buying undyed grey yarn when I bought some Naturelle Chunky in New Zealand a few years ago. I fell for the Naturelle name I think and all the colours in front of me looked like natural fleece colours. The grey dye is still coming out in the washing water! I should have checked the label.

IMG_1357Indie dyers often have strategies for reducing the water they use but as a blunt rule of thumb, undyed yarn uses less energy and water in its processing than dyed yarn.

Where is it made?

If the yarn is from a medium to large company and doesn’t say where it is made, be suspicious. It probably means the bulk of the processing has taken place in another country and the yarn may have traveled great distances. Take a look at this label.

IMG_1370It says Grown on specially bred Merino sheep, nurtured by dedicated and passionate Australian farmers…then lovingly twisted and dyed by the people at Wangaratta Woollen Mills. It is seems like a lot of detail doesn’t it? Do you notice that word used is ‘twisted’ rather than spun or milled? Do you notice that despite the detail, the label doesn’t say where it was scoured, processed or spun? That is because it went to China for those bits.

What is wrong with yarn being processed in China? Don’t Chinese workers need work just as much as Australian workers do? Yes, they do! But do we know if they are being paid a fair wage and have adequate health and safety standards in the workplace? If I buy a yarn processed in China then I really want to know this.

Fashion Revolution prompts us to ask the question Who Made My Clothes? They challenge companies like Tesco, Top Shop and Aldi to show us the real men and women who are sewing up clothes in factories all over the world. They challenge them to reveal to their customers, the ways in which they are ensuring these workers are paid fairly, are safe in the workplace and have access to health care, child care and education opportunities. I don’t know who makes my yarn when it goes to China, but I would really love to find out.

Companies take their processing to China not simply because of cheaper labour costs but because they can also avoid the costs associated with environmental laws for emissions and wastes in their home countries. China has weak environmental laws in relation to pollution and waste disposal. Scouring, processing and dyeing use substantial amounts of chemicals and water and generate pollutants that must be treated carefully. This costs money. If my yarn is being processed in China, how do I know that wastes are being treated appropriately and that folks who live along the rivers near scouring plants and mills are not being harmed?

IMG_1376Is there a barcode?

All that moving around, needs tracking. Barcodes help companies track inventory through warehouses, transport companies, wholesalers and shops. A barcode printed onto a yarn label suggests that the movements required of that yarn are so complex, they need a barcode. Have a look at your yarns? Which ones have barcodes and which ones do not? In my collection I noticed that Patons, Noro and Rowan were barcoded.  They are made by large companies, indeed Coats who own Patons and Cleckheaton and Rowan are one of the largest global manufacturers of threads and yarns. Jamieson and Smith, Brooklyn Tweed and Jamiesons Spindrift were not barcoded. Again the presence of a barcode does not mean that the yarn has a long supply chain, but it does act as a signal that this might be the case.

IMG_1371What about no ball band or label?

Curiously, the absence of information about a yarn, is often a signal that it has been more simply processed and has a shorter supply chain. None of the yarns I have purchased directly from farmers have had ball bands. These take money to print and labour to attach. On the Woolful podcast, UK small farmer Ben Hole related wrapping and sticking a label around every single yarn ball for sale. Many yarn farmers simply forego this product packaging. These yarns have the shortest supply chain. The farmer has decided the price for the yarn. The farmer knows where the yarn was processed and milled and under what conditions.

IMG_1367You might think I am making the case here for only buying ‘luxury’ or boutique yarns which sound expensive.  Certainly, yarns that pay a farmer a fair wage and that are processed under strong environmental and labour laws will not be budget yarns.  However, yarn direct from a farm can be surprisingly competitive in pricing to a mass produced yarn, particularly when compared to many luxury branded, mass produced yarns. But even if all I can afford is a cheap yarn from the Big Box shop, these guidelines can still help me select the undyed version of a mass produced yarn, the wool blend over the pure acrylic or the hand wash only over superwash. Or I can buy less, plan more, spend deliberately or work from what I already have.

So that is my take on how to make some decisions at the yarn shop or online. I am not saying that everyone must wear natural grey jumpers made from a sheep they met and had lunch with but I do want to make more conscious choices in an increasingly complex world. Yarn sales certainly disrupt my intentions…the price point can make me forget everything else. Maybe these guidelines will help me navigate those more tricky moments in a knitter’s life.

How well do you think these guidelines might work in your own knitting practice?  Do you already use a similar method for deciding which yarn to buy? Take a look at your ball bands and barcodes…do they say anything interesting now? Let me know, especially if you disagree or have another take on things.

And if you are needing to have a lunch with a sheep, there will be lots at the Royal Melbourne Show, September 19-29.  Heritage Sheep Australia always have a stand and Granite Haven will be in the Livestock Pavilion with her Gotland sheep and alpacas for the first few days. She will have rovings and yarn but no barcodes.