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What Is Cruelty-Free Yarn? Revised.

September 30, 2020 12 min read

Hello everyone! Today we are back with the revised version of our blog post; Cruelty-Free Yarn. If you missed the original post and are wondering why we are doing a revised version of the post, let me explain.

The simple answer is this; I messed up. The original post gave a very one-sided view of this complex topic, and in my ignorance, I alluded to the conclusion that organic + slaughter-free = cruelty-free, a view that was not only wrong but damaging to the fantastic work that many sheep farmers and yarn producers are doing. For complete transparency, you can also find the original blog post at the end of this revision which you can view here.

In the weeks since that original post went up, I've had the pleasure of talking to some fantastic women working in the farming industry: Amanda at Prado de Lana Sheep Farm, Elena from La Belleverte and Amanda at Stony Creek Farmstead (also Melanated Boho Bae). They have been incredibly generous with their time and knowledge, and have been instrumental in helping me write, what I hope, is a far more rounded view of what 'cruelty-free' yarn can mean.

What quickly became apparent to me as I chatted with these women, is just how complex and subjective sheep farming is. My original approach to this topic had been to compile a sort of checklist, a set of guidelines that if followed could result in cruelty-free yarn. In retrospect, this feels extremely naive. Let's take a look at a few points of the original post and where I went wrong.

Slaughter-free = Cruelty-free

Of all the points made in the original post, I think this is always going to be one that will cause a lot of division. I know the view that raising a flock for meat as well as fibre and calling it 'cruelty-free' feels at odds for many people, and I'm not here to convince you to change your mind. But as always, it is important to consider all the angles to this topic and to make sure we are as informed as possible.

In the original blog post, I presented a situation where sheep were given a home where they could live out their days. This is, of course, a lovely concept and an extremely viable example of cruelty-free yarn in its own right, but it's also not the only perspective to consider.

One of the factors of sheep farming that I had never considered was managing the size of the flock. There are many reasons for doing this and part of that process may include selling sheep for meat. Amanda Barcenas lives and works at Prado de Lana (translation Meadow of Wool), a family-run sheep farm specializing in wool products from their Romney, Lincoln Longwool, and CVM/Romeldale sheep. Agriculture and sustainable living are at the heart of Prado de Lana, and Amanda was kind enough to share her thoughts with me on this topic.

"I think as a farmer...it's great if you can keep your animals and you don't have to send them off to slaughter, and you can let them live out their life on your farm. That's wonderful if you're able to manage that responsibly, but the fact is (sic)...a lot of us have very limited acreage, so that means you can only have a certain number of sheep on your farm to be able to be responsible in maintaining the land and also being responsible in care for your animals. If I don't have enough land to put my sheep on, they're going to get sick, and that's not responsible of me, and to me that is cruel." - Amanda (Prado de Lana)

We also have to consider the financial impact of raising a fibre flock and consider that relying solely on the income you make from selling the yarn is rarely an option. Elena Solier Jansà of La Belleverte lives in Catalunya (Spain), where she is currently working on a new yarn production from an endangered sheep breed. She was kind enough to share her knowledge on this subject.

"Here a shepherd or a shepherdess pays 1.5 € for shearing a sheep and gets 0.15 € for a kilo of yarn. This means a shepherd with a flock of 200 sheep will pay 300 € for shearing and get 30 € for the wool. This year, with the COVID situation, they are getting nothing. Nobody wants the wool... If sheep were grown just for the wool, a skein should be really expensive and wool would be a luxury. We can't forget that wool is a by-product of the food production, at least nowadays where synthetic is the normal. And I don't think we can easily invert this." - Elena (La Belleverte)

The income that farmers make via the meat industry, either by directly sending animals to slaughter or selling at auction, is often imperative for the future of the farm and the continued care of their animals. It's important to remember that they are running businesses and need to make a living wage, but this doesn't mean that these decisions to sell their animals come easily.

"I don't think any meat farmers or even fibre flocks who send some sheep off to meat market ever feel great about that and I think that's kind of a misconception that if you have a meat flock or meat breed that you are just loading them off and sending them off. It's not cold and callous, and...it's not just a money-making machine." - Amanda (Prado de Lana)

The meat industry comes under constant scrutiny and we are often exposed to horrific images and videos. For many of us, our understanding of where our meat is coming from stops here.

Amanda Solomon is a fibre artist who spins her own gorgeous yarn under her brand Melanated Boho Bae, but the majority of her time is dedicated to her work as a farm manager at Stony Creek Farmstead in the Catskills. Along with caring for the animals and the land, she takes visitors on tours of the farm to educate them about the work they are doing and where the meat is coming from.

"I think there's too much mass marketing or videos from people that aren’t even in America showing up, and that is people’s perception. Everyone’s seen the images of the big white chickens in the huge building...(and people)...picking them up and shoving them into crates. And now that’s people’s perception. They don’t even know I exist. So when I say meat, you think of that. I am not that, and I will never be that.

We’re not trying to feed the world, Stony Creek is trying to feed its community and family. That is how come we have families that come up, and we can teach them and they learn and they know. A lot of their first interaction is with our animals. My pigs - I name them. As soon as you come up to them and they go in that fence, they lay down and they want their stomach rubbed, I have friendly pigs! And once people understand that I’m not doing it for money they understand. If I wanted to make money, I wouldn’t be a farmer." - Amanda (Melanated Boho Bae)

So what is the takeaway here? Slaughter-free and cruelty-free are two separate terms, and though I completely understand the instinct to group them together, to do so is misleading. Slaughter-free has a very clear definition; the sheep are never sent to slaughter. But to give this as the epitome of cruelty-free is false. It’s also important to mention that being slaughter-free doesn’t automatically guarantee that an animal is being raised in a cruelty-free environment. Similarly, if yarn is not slaughter-free, it doesn’t mean that the fibre comes from sheep that are being raised cruelly. To really know more about the lives of these animals, we need to do our research and find out what we can about the yarn we are buying.

Organic v Non-Organic Yarn

In the original post, I credited yarn that was labelled as organic as being a great guideline to knowing if it was 'cruelty-free'. It's true that when yarn is labelled as organic, the yarn producer will have had to go through rigorous checks, including animal welfare. However, by leaving it at that, I gave the impression that yarn that doesn't have those certifications was therefore not 'cruelty-free'. This is extremely damaging and false. Let's talk about why.

As we discussed in this previous post, 'What Does GOTS Certified Mean?', getting classifications when it comes to yarn production (or any type of farming for that matter), is extremely involved and expensive, and many farmers aren't able to go through those steps to get the official classification. It's important, however, to bear in mind that just because a farm isn't certified organic and able to use that particular label, doesn't mean it isn't already operating organically.

"In Spain, these labels are really expensive and have a lot of bureaucracy. I'm currently working in a new yarn production from an endangered sheep breed from the region where I live (Catalunya) and have visited many shepherds lately. The ones with organic certifications were not necessarily the flocks with the best conditions for the sheep. In my point of view, labels are not an insurance but an answer to the capitalist system where aliments are grown in big quantities and travel many kilometers." - Elena

So yes, organic yarn is fantastic, and if a farm has been able to gain these certificates we should absolutely celebrate that - BUT - what we shouldn’t assume is that all other farms or yarns produced without these certifications are somehow ‘less than’. If you want to learn more about how your yarn is made, go right to the source and find out more. 

Consumer financial accessibility


We're talking a lot here about the financial issues farmers come up against and the importance of being able to make a living wage, but it's also important to consider the financial accessibility for the consumers. It's no secret that a skein of yarn that has been ethically and sustainably made comes with a higher price tag, and we're not always in a position to afford to pay those prices.

I want to make it clear that this post is in no way telling you that you need to be exclusively using small-batch, farm-produced yarn. It's just important to know that this option exists and to understand that if you truly want to know where your yarn is coming from, this is something you may want to explore further.

I discussed the subject of financial accessibility with Amanda Solomon when we were talking about the meat produced at Stony Creek Farm, and she shared this thought.

"I’m not going to tell the family of four that you have to eat from my farm because I'm the one who's raising the 'healthy' food. If you can't afford it that’s totally fine. I tell people that I just want you to be educated on the choices, to know that this exists." - Amanda (Melanated Boho Bae)

As we’ve explored sustainability in our knitting over the past months on the blog, we continually come back to the same conclusion, and I’m going to repeat it again here. Making sustainable choices will ultimately come down to what sustainability means for you, no one else. What is important is having all the information to make those choices.

So what is cruelty-free yarn?

After having these fantastic discussions over the past few weeks, if I'm completely honest, I don't think we should use the term 'cruelty-free' at all. To me it can mean so many different things, and different things for different people. Like many topics when we talk about sustainability, it has become more of a buzzword that is thrown around to make sales. The problem is, each of us will hold our own beliefs, and this will ultimately affect our perception of what cruelty-free yarn is, or at least what it means to us. 

There is no box to tick, no criteria to be met for yarn to be classified as ‘cruelty-free’. What I now know is that looking after a flock of sheep and doing what is best for them, will ultimately come down to the individual needs of that flock. Their welfare will depend on the knowledge, love and passion that the shepherds and shepherdesses have for their animals.

"I think if people can become more aware or develop a relationship or have knowledge of small farms where they can get wool, then they will always know it's cruelty-free and I think they would know that if the sheep do have to go off to slaughter, it's for a very good reason." - Amanda (Prado de Lana)

So if you truly want to know if the yarn you are using is 'cruelty-free', my advice to you is this; Get to know your yarn producer, get to know the shepherds and shepherdesses. Email them with your questions, call them on the phone, and if you are lucky enough to be in driving distance, go and visit them. You won't be sorry, because if your experience is anything like mine, you will hear stories of love, loss and a window into one of the toughest and rewarding professions around. Oh, and you will laugh a lot!

Elena from La Belleverte shared this lovely thought with me which I think is a great way to close this post;

"The flock needs vary every season, and that means that the life of the shepherd will change with every season too. I can't imagine a more devoted life. This is pure love because being a shepherd is not a job; it is a way of living." - Elena

Final note

I just want to say a huge thank you to everyone who commented when we published the first post, and particularly to Amanda at Prado de Lana Sheep Farm, Amanda of Melanated Boho Bae and Elena from La Belleverte, who have been so generous in speaking to us further so I could write this revision. Thank you all, for holding us accountable and for pushing us to do better.


Original Article

Today, we are looking at cruelty-free wool, also known as slaughter-free wool. Back when Hanna Lisa wrote this post about Mulesing, we had a lively discussion in the comment section on Instagram, and it was interesting to find out that some people were unaware that cruelty-free wool was a thing. So we thought we'd better write a blog post on it!

Over the years, the wool industry has got a bad name when it comes to animal welfare. Mulesing, export, slaughter, incorrect shearing and general rough handling have led many people and organisations to boycott wool, and if this were the end of the story, they would be right in doing so.

Thankfully, it isn't. Cruelty-free yarn exists, and there are so many fantastic yarn producers that have the welfare of their animals at the forefront and centre of their business.

Take Doulton Border Leicester Yarns, for example. The slaughter and cruelty-free free Doulton Flock was established in 1996 by Ellie Stokeld with the purchase of two pure pedigree Border Leicester ewe lambs from Lanark Market. They are based in Nunthorpe, North Yorkshire and currently have the largest flock of pedigree Border Leicesters in The UK, 300 ewes and followers. Here's what Ellie has to say about her work:

"None of my sheep ever go for slaughter. I prefer to say that they are born to grow old, which is what happens here.

We take great pride in our sheep and ensure that they are all well fed and looked after, even after they have reached ages when their fleeces cannot be used. We have an old age pensioner's barn and fields.

To grow beautiful fibre, you must feed good protein feed, and we do this from a couple of weeks after the lambs are born until they are shearlings. We also feed the ewes and lambs. Letting sheep eat only grass encourages breaks in the wool. Every year we test our various fields to see what condition they are in, whether they are lacking in any nutrients. We then add the nutrients. We also plough each field every three years to get rid of any worm burden. We produce our own excellent hay and haylage; then we are not buying rubbish in.

We have been in a lot of sheep health schemes to ensure that they are as healthy as can be. We've now been in the MV scheme* for over 20 years, which protects them from respiratory diseases. we vaccinate against Pasteurella and many other diseases which can kill.

Most of all we love them dearly and always will."

*MV: Maedi Visna; A viral disease that can be transmitted via milk, colostrum, faeces and respiratory secretions.Read more about the MV scheme here.

Ellie is just one example of how wool production can exist alongside happy and healthy sheep, and once you start looking, you will find many more. So how do you know if the yarn you are purchasing is cruelty-free?

  • Transparency: When sustainability and animal welfare are at the forefront of someone's work, they will often be extremely open about their practices and where their yarn comes from.

  • Certifications and organic farms: Look for certifications such as GOTS and ZQ which ensure a standard of humane treatment for the sheep, or organic farms which don't practice mulesing, use toxic chemicals, or shear their sheep in stressful or harmful conditions while keeping their sheep in bigger stalls or open pastures.

  • Ask the questions:If there is no information on the website, e-mail and ask. If they are vague (or worse, don't answer at all!), it's usually a red flag.

I huge thank you to Ellie at Doulton Border Leicester Yarns for letting me share her words!


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