Ah acrylic. It’s probably the first fibre we’re introduced to on our crafting journey- it’s cheap, comes in a huge range of colours and is widely accessible- why ever would anyone want to give up using this wonderful fibre?
The answer: it’s a plastic pollutant.
Acrylic yarn belongs to the polyacrylonitrile family – which basically means it’s plastic. You probably already knew this, but this article will explore the more damaging effects of acrylic (to the environment and to your skin) as well as some great alternatives (even if you’re vegan!)
This article is in no way meant to incite guilt or be a hate-speech against those who use acrylic- I have plenty in my own stash and most crocheters and knitters are introduced firstly to this fibre to practise with due to its cost-effectiveness. This blog post is meant to fill in the gaps in your fibre-knowledge and hopefully lead you to more eco-friendly choices in the future.
You know those emails that you might get at work, the “please consider the impact on the environment before printing this email?” This is a acrylic yarn post version of that, ha!
What is Acrylic, exactly.
So as mentioned above, acrylic belongs to the polyacrylonitrile family- which is derived from crude oil. It was developed in the 1940s and has been used in crochet and knitting for its low-cost and durability properties- not to mention the vast arrays of colours it comes in!
We also love it because it’s machine washable- so it’s great for baby blankets that you *know* are going to be puked or pooped on for the months to come…
Acrilonitrile is the main main raw material for the manufacture of acrylic fibers. It is made by different methods. In one commercial method, hydrogen cyanide is treated with acetylene:
Acetylene + Hydrogen cyanide –> Acrilonitrile
Ethylene–Air Oxidation–> Ethylene oxide + HCN–> Ethylene cyanahydrin–Dehydration at 300 deg C (catalyst)–> Acrylonitrile
Yup, your yarn might contain the poison- cyanide! Which might be the reason why acrylic is less likely to be eaten by moths and other fibre-loving insects than its natural counterparts.
But the main point here, is your creating with plastic.
Each time that acrylic yarn is washed in a standard in-home washing machine, approximately 730,000 microplastics are released into the water. Although microplastics are microscopic in size- they all add up.
Studies have concluded that up to 85% of the man-made waste on shorelines around the world is made up of microplastics! You might have seen that some manufacturers of beauty products have decided to cut out micro plastics in certain body and face scrubs and replace them with more natural alternatives- but what about yarn?
When items made with acrylic yarns are disposed of, they can take up to 200 years to fully biodegrade- so because of this, synthetic yarns contribute to the world-wide plastic pollution crisis.
So while we’re all here making acrylic baby blankets, none of us (myself included) probably never thought of the potential health impact this type of yarn can have on our bodies.
Formaldehyde can be added to acrylic yarns to prevent shrinkage- as in the same formaldehyde portrayed in crime shows everywhere when someone’s getting kidnapped and gets a face full to knock them out. Oh and the formaldehyde in yarn is permanently there- it doesn’t wash out.
More chemicals are added to the yarns to make them fire-retardant, softer, wrinkle-free and stain-resistant. The chemicals which are used to treat the yarn to be flame-retardant emit formaldehyde, which really isn’t great to be breathing in. This is one of the reasons why we (obviously) wouldn’t use acrylic yarn for anything that’s going to be used near a heat source.
Remember that family acrylic belongs to The polyacrylonitriles? Well, they’re considered to be possibly carcinogenic. Vinyl acetate and methyl acrylate, the petroleum-based products used in acrylic yarn are both known carcinogens
There have been links between the chemicals used in the synthetic production of yarns and health problems such as immune system damage, cancer, hormone disruption, and behavioral problems as well as being the cause of nausea and irritation in the eyes, nose, throat, and skin- tell me again why we make baby blankets out of this stuff?
Also, the whole production process isn’t great for the people who work alongside it. During the chemical process of creating synthetic acrylic yarn, the solvent NN-dimethylformamide is used, which has been linked to liver damage through studies. Other chemicals used in the process to wash, twist, dye and stretch the yarns are also toxic for humans.
So what can I do?!
Okay, so if you’re broke like me- don’t despair! There are so many natural fibres out there waiting to be made into something beautiful. Just because they’re natural doesn’t mean they’re expensive either. You can get beautiful wools and silks so long as you do your research, and vegan alternatives include cotton (which is actually probably as easily accessible as acrylic) and even yarn made from corn!
We’ve all got acrylic in our stash. I’m guilty, other designers are guilty- it happens.
I’m now hugely mindful of my use of acrylic and hope to never buy any more of it again. With so many alternatives there’s no reason why anyone should be using acrylic anymore. It’s a scary thought to think that the acrylic sweater I’ve just made will be around on the planet for a lot longer than I will be.
I’m breaking up with acrylic, are you?
PS- I’ll be writing a fibre post again soon listing some more accessible and affordable fibres for you to peruse!