#GiveaKnit about christmas jumpers


Let’s talk about those Christmas jumpers.

At the moment I am getting very exercised by the Christmas jumper phenomena. Aren’t they fun? Aren’t they festive? Isn’t it jolly to see all the great and good come out for the photo op on Christmas Jumper Day with their big cheques attired in a suitably cheesy/tacky acrylic/polyester jumper that was purchased only the day before by the PR office intern.It will probably the same intern that will be charged with taking said jolly jumpers to the charity shop the following day.

A survey by the HUBBUB foundation  found 1 in 4 Christmas jumpers were worn just the once. Further, 1 in 3 under 35’s reported buying a new one every year.  That’s appalling. I don’t think you could find a better example to highlight the issue of fast fashion and the devastating impact our take – make – dispose attitude to clothing has on the environment.

It’s absurd that vast amounts of non-renewable resources (oil!) are used to produce clothing that is quickly discarded. Resulting in greenhouse gas emissions of 1.2 billion tonnes a year. Clothing that is little worn before being discarded.

According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation over 73% of this new clothing and textiles will end up either in landfill or incinerated[i].

I love infograms, probably more than spreadsheets…

But, and this is what I find the most disturbing, most of these clothes will be made from synthetics including acrylic and polyester. These materials are plastics. Plastics do not biodegrade unlike natural fibres.  Plastics gradually shred into every smaller particles. Every time a synthetic garment is washed or worn tiny fibres (microplastics) are shed and washed out with the waste water. For an average wash load of 6 kg, over 700,000 fibres could be released per wash[ii].

Acrylic fibres washed out from textiles under electron microscope. Source:University of Plymouth

These microplastics are washed out to sea. Textile fibres such as acrylic are denser than seawater so they sink and accumulate in the deep sea[iii]. A recent study took marine sediment samples taken from the Mediterranean, SW Indian Ocean and NE Atlantic Ocean. The study found abundant microplastics in all the samples. Reporting 57% Rayon, 23% Polyester and 5% acrylic microfibres in a colourful rainbow of blues, greens, reds and vibrant pinks, purples and turquoises.  The same study also found microplastics on corals in shallow seas. The story of Stuff has a nice little video explaining this process if you want to know more.

More worrying still these microplastics are now so prevalent in our oceans that they have entered the marine food chain.

We are quite literally plasticising our planet.

I don’t know about you but this terrifies me.

We are all part of the problem and we are all part of the solution. Our attitude to clothing and the materials we use needs to change.

Wool is a fundamental part of this solution. It’s renewable, sustainable, biodegradable. Needs little resource inputs and has low emissions. You can wear a sheep, milk a sheep and eat a sheep!  Sheep are beautiful, miraculous, marvellous and under-estimated creatures.

Going back to the Christmas Jumper. I can’t help thinking that politicians such as Nicola Sturgeon and her team on Christmas Jumper Day 2017 would have made more of an impact if they had turned out in a wool sweater produced from Scottish fibre that they had worn last year and the year before and the year before that and given the cash that they avoided spending on the disposable version direct to charity.

I have decided that I need to join in with the jollity and get myself a festive jumper. I’m not one for the full Rudolf  – and there are some seriously jawdroppingly godawful patterns available if that is your thing. I really like The Perfect Christmas Jumper by Susan Crawford, Boreal by Kate Davies and Northshore by Tincan knits.

It’s too late for this year but then that’s not what it’s about. It will take me all year but then it will be there for every year thereafter.

So, remember A jumper is for life not just for Christmas!

I wish you all a very happy festive season, mine starts on Thursday, can’t wait, and a very happy new year.

[i] https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/A-New-Textiles-Economy_Full-Report_Updated_1-12-17.pdf

[ii] Napper, I. E., & Thompson, R. C. (2016). Release of synthetic microplastic plastic fibres from domestic washing machines: Effects of fabric type and washing conditions. Marine pollution bulletin112(1), 39-45.

[iii] Woodall, L. C., Sanchez-Vidal, A., Canals, M., Paterson, G. L., Coppock, R., Sleight, V., … & Thompson, R. C. (2014). The deep sea is a major sink for microplastic debris. Royal Society Open Science1(4), 140317.



environmental impact of wool

Sheep are important. Sheep are amazing. I love sheep. Wonderful multi-functional creatures that provide, in addition to wool, meat, milk, cheese, skins, lanolin, tallow and many other products. Not to mention their enormous cultural, ecological and economic importance. All on four legs. All made from nothing but grass and so very beautiful.

In an earlier post on FSM  I spoke about the amount of energy and water needed to in scouring a fleece at home. And it got me thinking. Just what are the environmental impacts of wool?

In our knowledge driven world, we know that all is not as rosy as it should be. The production of wool and the manufacture, use and disposal of the products we derive from it will have environmental impacts.

On the plus side wool is (mostly) a sustainable, renewable and low impact resource. Sheep don’t need massive inputs of artificial stuff, they get by on grass and can live in places that aren’t useful for other forms of agricultural production. Wool can keep us warm.   Not just jumpers but also insulating carpets and insulation in our homes, reducing our need for heating energy. Wool is not a highly processed material.  Its clipped from the sheep, scoured, organised and spun ready for use. Its reusable, recyclable (see Tom of Hollands great blog on re-purposing and mending) and it’s biodegradable. What else? Wool is also hygroscopic – that’s science for absorbs moisture – so it can keep you and your home low in humidity. Dragging the bottom of the barrel now – but I’m sure there’s more – let me know.

On the other hand the production of wool (more so in intensive systems) can use pesticides, fertilisers and, if housed indoors at any point, feeds. These all require energy, resources and emit greenhouse gases and produce wastes in their production and use. These include the use of organophosphate pesticides in sheep dip. If not managed sustainably overgrazing degrades land.

Wool scouring can use huge amounts of water – although information is difficult to find I have a figure of at least 5 cu litres of water per kilo of fleece. Fleece typically looses about 30 of its weight during scouring.  Some of this is lanolin which is collected as a useful co-product but the remainder will be found in the effluent waste water stream.  This waste water contains particulates and suspended organic matter (polite way of describing things such as pooh and dandruff) and residual pesticides and insecticides from ectoparasite treatments of the sheep (including organophosphates) and cleaning agents (this is covered really well in this post by Ecotextiles ).  As does treatments of wool products for insect resistance and stain resistance.

Dyeing can also involve the use of toxic materials and can cause the pollution of water with heavy metals and other nasties (and natural dyes aren’t entirely off the hook here – some of the chemicals used as mordants are real nasties). And there’s the transport, all that southern hemisphere merino…

Actually putting numbers to the environmental impacts such energy, water, greenhouse gas emissions, land use degradation and toxic impacts of wool is difficult. A recent report (Understanding the Environmental Impacts of Wool) found that there were many problems. Firstly, wool is a secondary product to meat so how do you allocate the impacts between them? Secondly, supply chains are diverse both between and within countries. Thirdly, sheep farming covers a very wide range of geographic and climatic regions. Sheep farming practices are incredibly diverse. As are processing and manufacturing technologies and production efficiencies. And finally, there is very limited data available on wool production globally and very few studies. So, we simply do not have any usable answers to that question yet.

In my other life I recently came across a recent paper by Weidman et al (2015) which examined the environmental impacts of raising sheep in four case studies including one UK hill farm with a flock of Lleyn and Cheviots, one New Zealand flock of Romney and 2 Australian Merino flocks. The UK case housed flock in a barn for one month, the other 3 case studies were 100% pasture.

The study used an environmental assessment method called life cycle assessment (LCA) to estimate the environmental impacts the production of meat and wool from cradle to farm gate.  I deal with LCA in my other life so this post is a bit two worlds colliding.

Here’s the science bit – feel free to skip to the punch line if this bores the pants of you.

The biggest problem with LCA studies in systems like sheep is that wool is not, in general, the only product. It is what is known as a co-product. The other dominant product is meat. So how do you separate the environmental impacts of a sheep’s fleece from its meat? Allocation is the thing. The impacts need to be allocated according to a specified ‘thing’. Allocation can be done in many ways. In systems like agriculture the most often used and easiest is by economic output (i.e £/kg). But the results will vary hugely between different markets and over time, so the results will be relatively unstable and difficult to compare. Interestingly this study allocated the burdens using biophysical allocation. Not as complex as it sounds. Impacts were allocated according to the percentage of total protein mass in the meat and the wool. This method produces more stable and reliable results. It’s based on actual sheep biology and not a spreadsheet of funny numbers that changes on a whim driven by a bunch of numpties sat in front of computers buying and selling stuffs they will never see. Clever hey.

In this study the production of a sheep was found to produce green house gas emissions of between 8.5 to 10.5 kg CO2-e per kilogram total (including wool and meat). This includes not just carbon dioxide but also methane – sheep eat grass, they digest grass, they fart – alot – and other greenhouse gases. I’ve played with the results and made some lovely charts showing greenhouse gas emissions as kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (kg CO2 e) and energy as MJ of oil equivalent (MJ oil-e) per sheep for biophysical and economic allocations. These two charts show the difference that allocation method can make.

Allocation1allocation 2

When allocation was based on biophysical (protein content) the results for wool production are less variable between the four case studies. It would be great to see what a similar study based on the same sheep breed would show.

The UK has the lowest GHG impact and energy demand. This is even more pronounced when using economic allocation.  Wool was only 4% of the total value of a sheep for the UK case compared with approx 50% for the Australian cases.  As we all know, there is not much value in wool in the UK .

But of course what we don’t have is the rest of the lifecycle for wool. The shipping, scouring, processing in to lovely spinable fibre. I will keep digging and let you know what I find.



Wool is fabulous. Wool is the perfect material – almost. So what can you do to keep things just so? I guess the main thing is know where your fibre and yarn comes from. Can you source sustainably produced, organic fibre and yarns? Shift from imported sheep breeds and play with British breeds. There are now many producers that you can buy direct from. I’ve used Romney Marsh wool top and have my eye on some o4500348_origf Risby Granges Leicester Longwools.

Just look at Louise’s wedding dress! Just look at it!






Can you go even more local? Source fleece and fibre direct from the producer and support your local and regional flock.

Me, the most perfect thing I can do is to get on my bike in June to the farm down the road to get my fleece.
And don’t forget Wool Week is 5th – 11th October