Sunday, November 27, 2011

Eco-Junk

At the beginning of the year, I promised you guys that I would write a book. After casting about for a subject, I finally decided to write about supported spindling--a topic that is often ignored or relegated to a footnote in most descriptions of hand spinning. It's coming along nicely. So far I have almost 200 text pages and suspect that after adding in all the images, the page count will balloon to 350 or so.

It will be first be published as an ebook PDF with embedded videos, all on a DVD. Those who wish printed copies will have to sign up for a subscription. It's a full-color book, and printing will be very expensive--about $30, plus the cost of the DVDs, shipping, and so on. A subscription with a down-payment will allow me to actually pay for the printing.

Right now, it looks like I will be finished with the text by the end of the year. Then it has to be tech-edited, copy-edited, laid out, proofed, and the videos created. I am aiming for publication somewhere between April and June.

In the meantime, I know that many readers don't spin, but half the book talks about various fibers. And so, here's is the first of several excerpts that I will be putting on this blog. All the images and spinning info have been removed here due to length considerations, but I hope you enjoy this brief tour of.....


Eco-Junk

According to me (it's my book, after all), A Green Object is one in which the entire process, from start to finish, involves methodology safe to living beings—plants or animals. Sustainability doesn't make something Eco-Friendly, as anyone who has lived—and died young—near a paper mill could tell you if they were still alive to give an opinion. Furthermore, biodegradablity does not make something Eco-Friendly. Some nerve gas agents degrade naturally after a few days, mammoth bones survive for thousands of years. Draw your own conclusions.

With that definition in mind, let’s take a tour of supposedly Eco-Friendly fibers.

Bamboo

Bamboo is frankly my least favorite fiber. Aside from its lack of elasticity, it has an unpleasant scritchy feeling while being spun that is reminiscent of squealing chalk-on-a-blackboard. It’s also an ecological disaster. Like most rayons, bamboo is a regenerated cellulosic fiber. The most common production method, called the Viscose Process, incorporates corrosive chemicals such as carbon disulfide, sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid. Aside from the direct effects on workers, successful disposal of these chemicals poses yet another set of knotty problems. And do think about the fact that most of this stuff is made in countries that have a less enlightened view of worker and environmental safety than we do. 

A second method, the Lyocell process, is touted as being more ecologically friendly. This process, which is also used to make Tencel®, uses N-methylmorpholine-N-oxide (NMMO) as a solvent to dissolve the bamboo cellulose into a viscose solution. This chemical is a hazardous irritant for skin contact and has some corrosive potential, as well. Inhalation is not a good idea either, as the chemical produces severe irritation of the respiratory tract. Repeated or prolonged exposure can damage organs. And so on.

Finally, there is actually an eco-friendly enzymatic process that produces a yarn known as bamboo linen. It involves crushing the woody parts of the bamboo plant and using natural enzymes to break the bamboo walls into a mush that can be mechanically combed out and spun into yarn. This is essentially the same process used to produce linen from flax and other bast fibers. Very little bamboo linen is actually manufactured, because the process is very labor intensive and costly.

Bamboo is often touted as having antimicrobial properties. Untreated bamboo fabric actually doesn’t have any such effect, but inventing this feature makes for a good marketing. Go here to read all about it.

Given all these factors, why has bamboo become a standard addition to batts and tops? Well, it is shiny, and is thus considered a cheap substitute for silk. There is no substitute for silk, whose glorious properties I have already discussed.

Avoid it, and whine to battmeisters who toss the stuff into a perfect good batch of merino.

Soy Fiber

Those who know me well also know how much I dislike tofu—a squishy flavorless food with all the gustatory charm of wallpaper paste. I spent years avoiding it in Japan, and trust me, that’s like trying to avoid grits in North Georgia. Come to think of it, grits rate about the same in my culinary book.I do love soybeans themselves, though. Delicious! Adorable!

Soybean fiber is made from tofu manufacturing leftovers. Proteins are extracted from the residual oils, which is turned into a liquid goo, cooked, wet-spun, stabilized by acetylating, curled, thermoformed, and cut into three- to four-inch staple lengths. Several sites cheerfully describe the process this way: “the soy protein is liquefied then extruded into fiber in a chemical free process.”

Aside from having an abysmal understanding of punctuation, the person who wrote this clearly slept through high school chemistry; acetylation is a chemical process. A few of the non-chemicals used include acetic anhydride, acetic acid, and sulfuric acid, the same chemical-free chemicals that bamboo rayon manufacturers insist are Green!

We can skip over the acids, because everyone has a good idea of what these do to animate and inanimate objects, so let’s investigate acetic anhydride. According to the CDC’s NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards, exposure to this stuff causes:

conjunctivitis, lacrimation (discharge of tears), corneal edema, opacity, photophobia (abnormal visual intolerance to light); nasal, pharyngeal irritation; cough, dyspnea (breathing difficulty), bronchitis; skin burns, vesiculation, and sensitization dermatitis

According to the eco-crap I found on various sites, it supposedly possesses the softness of cashmere, and has the moisture absorption of cotton with better diffusion, making it “comfortable and sanitary.” In actual fact, it looks, feels, and spins just like bamboo rayon with the same annoying scritchy texture.

Corn Fiber

Sigh. Another Green Fiber made from a non-chemical chemical process. This one was a toughie, because the vague description of the manufacturing process made it difficult to figure out how it’s really manufactured. The primary consumer fiber, Ingeo, is the trademark name for NatureWorks LLC's synthetic fiber made from corn.

The site has a really pretty biocycle diagram showing sunshine, corn plants, and some chemical marbles on sticks. Reading between the lines and referring to some rather esoteric organic chemistry websites (But Ha! I have a BS in Physical Chemistry), I tweezed out the following explanation: Corn fiber is a bioplastic spun from lactic acid generated by bacterial fermentation of corn sugars. That’s certainly sounds green.

Now we get to the good part: The lactic acid molecules link together to form rings called lactic monomers, which, in turn, open and link together to form long chains of polylactide polymers, which are then made into a plastic. Notice they don’t tell you how this part is actually performed.

Next, I chased down polylactides--polyesters derived from corn, sugarcane, and tapioca. Ah. Good old polyesters, which, among other things, use concentrated sulfuric acid or dry hydrogen chloride gas for the esterification process. BLAAAATTTT. Not Green.

Milk Fiber

The active ingredient of milk fiber is casein, a protein that’s been around since ancient times. It’s been found on various ancient Chinese and Egyptian artifacts and those who live in New England will be familiar with antiques coated in milk paint. Milk fiber was developed in the 1930’s and was used as a wool substitute during WWII. It’s basically casein that has been dissolved in an alkali bath, then processed in such a way that it can be blown out of spinnerets—plates with zillions of tiny holes—where the liquid casein then solidifies into fiber with the help of such friendly chemicals as strong acids and formaldehyde. 

After the war, the explosion of synthetics caused milk fiber to fall out of favor. Thanks to the Eco-Junk movement, it’s experiencing a minor renaissance. The newer process uses acrylonitrile, a human carcinogen, which is bound to the casein, to produce a non-carcinogenic fiber. Among other things, acrylonitrile is the primary ingredient of acrylic fiber, which will not, under any circumstances, be discussed further in this book.

In any case, those who point to milk fiber as green and eco-friendly should go take a good look at the eco-chemical properties of acrylonitrile and get back to me.
So, milk fiber is sort of like rayon, which we have already decided is liquefied plant goo shot through spinnerets. However, milk, being an animal product, produces a fiber that dyes like wool and spins something like silk.

Crab(Chitosan )

Another fiber touted as eco-friendly and antibacterial, chitosan is derived from shellfish carapaces and, oddly enough, mushrooms. According to various websites, chitosan has “scientifically proved biocompatibility,” and is “an absolutely safe material.”

Chitosan itself is not useful to spinners, but let’s look at Crabyon©, a blend of chitosan and viscose, which should tip you off immediately about the chemicals used to manufacture it. Refer to the Section on Bamboo for a complete rundown of viscose rayon.

I am so sorry to disappoint seafood fans, but I was unable to obtain a sample of this stuff. However, that won’t stop me from including it in this section. I remember handling a skein of it a few years ago and thought it felt like cotton with an odd squeaky texture.

I understand that people with shellfish allergies sometimes have a reaction to the yarn, which makes it not “absolutely safe.” I haven’t seen it around in a while, so perhaps the manufacturer rethought the concept.

On the bright side, chitosan might fight fat, supposedly by reducing lipid absorption, which means that if you manage to find crab fiber, you can eat it and lose weight if you decide you don’t like to spin it.



21 comments:

Diana Troldahl said...

Fascinating and informative. I look forward to the rest of the book next year! You answered many of my nagging questions about processed vegetable fibers, too. I'll stick to fibers that DON'T need much done to them to make them usable, thanks!

Kitty Kitty said...

Just let us know when you want a down payment or to pay for the book outright!!! I'm very ready :)

I for one am really looking forward to it!

Carol said...

thank you for that excellent summation of eco crap. I am so tired of the 'green' movement. People announce electric cars are the way to go. Completely forgetting about the footprint of the batteries required. And so on....

CarolynJean said...

How exciting! I'll second Kitty Kitty's comment - let us know when we can pre-order :-).

Projektmanagerin: said...

You make it so that I always find I actually learned something once I am finished laughing. Thanks!
I am impressed by the bookplans! Good luck!

Dylan said...

Oh fabulous! looking forward to the book as I have been trying to teach myself to use supported spindles and have found the lack of helpful information incredibly annoying!

gayle said...

Is Harry helping with the book? And is that making it go faster or slower?

yarnlot said...

This is indeed quite informative for non-spinners too!

Toffeesmum said...

Wow. Can't wait to see the rest of it.

Will this book be available as a download?

I really need a book on supported spindling!

aracne said...

Very, very interesting. I didn't know all this but being of a diffident nature, never bought bamboo or soy fiber, or any of the others.
There is a lot of eco-junk information around, luckily not all of us are as gullible as 'they' think!

PenCraft said...

I don't spin; but, I would love any book you write simply because I love your writing style. It's fun, informative and demonstrates a grasp of punctuation rules. :)

I look forward to it.

Raveller said...

Brilliant! I've always wondered about rayon. Now I now.

Raveller said...

know...ugh!

Rob Knits said...

Thanks for this, Fleegle. I have been mounting a one-person cranky campaign on Ravelry every time someone says "Isn't it wonderful! Yarn from milk-soy-whatever!" Not wonderful. Animal fibers are the most ecologically safe to produce if the effort is made.

I am REALLY looking forward to the CD of the book.

Ann said...

My down payment, or full payment, will be sent the minute you say the word. I can hardly wait!

TECHknitter said...

Nice writing, and to the point. All that rayon fiber being touted as environmentally friendly is pretty annoying.

Germaine said...

Thanks for answering questions I didn't know enough to ask about a lot of this newfangled "green" fibers. The whole "green" movement is a perfect example of the old saw, "there's no such thing as a free lunch".

Don't ask me how I found my way to your blog, but I'm glad I did.

I want to hear more about the supported spindles.

Zauberzeug said...

Interesting, but not necessarily new information. Scientific papers describing the manufacturing processes of almost all these fibers are openly available on the Internet or at least through your local libraries' electronic journal subscriptions. Fleegle, I hope you decide to include copious footnotes or a bibliography for us nerds (or, well, me).

While I am well aware of the toxic processes used to produce these "eco-friendly" fibers, I still use them and offer them in my online shop. Why? There are plenty of self-described vegans and otherwise animal-product-averse consumers who appreciate options other than cotton and bast fibers (which I also offer, usually in blends that contain the aforementioned eco-junk).

Additionally, there are many contemporary fiber artists who enjoy experimenting with these products' "unique textures." This is especially true for chitosan and milk fiber, as these fibers are generally avoided by vegans and perhaps should be avoided by ecologically-minded spinners. I agree that it is wrong to advertise "eco-junk" fibers as eco-friendly; I do not advertise them as such. I market them as an option, an "alternative" (good or bad is up to the individual consumer).

Keep in mind that many (if not most) products manufactured in an industrial fashion are at least somewhat unhealthy for humans and/or the Earth's environment in general.

Marciepooh said...

I don't spin but based on that excert I may order a copy just for the fiber info. You have a wonderful writing style and I'm not sure how I hadn't found your blog before.

And, rather random, you have a BS in P-chem? Cool. My fiance (love saying that!) is finishing his PhD in surface analytical chemistry.

Susie said...

I just got a couple handmade support spindles and know nothing about how to use them. I would love your book.

kicki said...

Fabulous. What about super wash, have you got any inside information? Am fighting a one-woman war against super wash, with absolutely no reliable facts to back me up...