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The end of 2012 has passed off at a remarkably gentle pace: cooking for Mr M, strolling in the park, working my way through next term’s reading list, listening to music and darning.

My guilty indulgence

A chilly disposition and living on a damp island means my knitwear is subject to a lot of wear and tear, and no more so than my black cashmere cardigan. This soft cardie is not only astoundingly warm for its weight, it is also cosy. Admittedly the latter has more to do with my psychological perception of the garment than any objectively measured physical quality, but the sense of warmth is not irrelevant. Cosiness means I can set the radiator to a lower temperature or turn it off altogether!

No matter how glorious cashmere feels, it is not a guilt-free indulgence. Cashmere has long been considered a luxury, and rightly so. The yarn comes from the undercoat of rare goats and the yield per head of animal is considerably lower than that from other woolly herds. In other words, it takes more acreage of pasture land to produce a cashmere sweater than it does a lambswool or even alpaca one. Furthermore, most Kashmir herds are based in Mongolia where grazing land is fragile. The increasing demand for cheap cashmere has led to more animals per acre, undermining an already precarious ecosystem. By contrast, alpaca and sheep herds require less land per head and are mostly found in less fragile areas.

Add the water and chemicals needed to treat and dye cashmere yarn as well as the miles covered from pasturing land to fibre processing plants to wool mills… Whether I like it or not, environmentally speaking cashmere is not as virtuous as some fibres.

Maintenance… because it is worth it

Does my trusty cashmere cardigan have a larger footprint than the other garments in my wardrobe? In some respects, yes but in other respects, no. My woolen suits are less land intensive but they need to be dry cleaned whereas keeping my knitwear, cashmere included, fresh only involves a couple of bowls of luke warm water, olive oil soap and a dash of cider vinegar. Laundry methods may be a tediously mundane topic but it is a key factor in a garment’s environmental footprint!

Darning 2My black cashmere cardigan is the female equivalent of Mr M’s tweed jacket. It just goes on and on. With the years it has moulded itself to my body shape. Of course, it wears through at the elbows and under arms and there is the occasional moth hole but like Mr M’s tweed jacket, it can be patched up, again and again. A skein of yarn, a needle, my second-hand darning mushroom and a spare hour or two can give this wonderful knitwear a new lease of life. And because this garment is so valued – both for its cosiness and the resources required in its production – proper maintenance and repair are most definitely worth the effort.

A balancing of trade-offs

Knowing what I know about the eco-footprint of cashmere will I continue to indulge in this luxury? As there is no such thing as a no-impact garment, I probably shall… very occasionally and then tend it with great care.

However, since I started knitting more of my own clothes, I have (re)discovered other fibres. And in 2013 – with my self-imposed rationing challenge – I shall focus on making more use of fibres grown and spun in the UK, which due to the nature of the herds and their marginal grazing land score better in terms of land use.

An organic alpaca farm in the Midlands has been a particularly useful discovery. The gorgeous yarn ticks the same warmth and cosy boxes as cashmere, is less land intensive and undyed – saving on chemicals and water in the production phase. Admittedly the colours are limited to creams and five shades of brown but as taupes and chocolates suit me, they offer a superb alternative to cashmere.

For more vibrant colours I am increasingly looking to wools from Shetland and Exmoor, where sheep graze on land suitable for little else. Although these wools are not as cosy as alpaca fibre, they are most definitely warm. They also support the livelihoods of small farms. Furthermore, these yarns are available in colours that make the heart sing. Helping to beat the winter blues may not be a measurable indicator, but wool that is warm and cheers the spirit has a knock-on effect in other areas of the home: I eat less to stoke my internal boiler and use the central heating less, cutting my wider environmental footprint!

Navigating the trade-offs

This brief canter through my cashmere dilemma highlights how there are no simple answer or one-size fits all solution in the search for sustainable clothes. The dilemmas and options facing a mature student in a damp climate are different to those of an Australian lawyer in Sydney, a market gardener in Greece, a Canadian civil servant… So how do I navigate my way through the minefield of dressing myself in an environmentally sensitive way?

Before buying I research anything I think I may need or want. I ask myself and retailers a lot of questions, about every stage of a garment’s life: about what land, energy, water and chemicals are used to produce the raw material, the processes involved to extract fibres, bleach and dye them, the transport involved in the supply chain,… Much to the chagrin of sales assistants, I also scrutinise the quality of the fabric and workmanship for durability and the care instructions – something that was second nature to my mother’s generation.  Armed with these findings, I weigh up the trade-offs and work out whether I can, in good conscience, justify the purchase or not.

From: The life-cycle of the fashion garment and the role of Australian mass market designers by Alice Payne, 2011

Admittedly such research takes time (but not as much as you may think) and most of all a level of interest that goes beyond the functional and aesthetic. Often the available information is incomplete, a statistical approximation, general to the sector rather than a brand… This is, however, also the case in many formal life cycle assessments, which involve comparing options with professionally collected data. In my experience of such dilemmas (whether I am researching general issues or actually number-crunching alternative options), my conclusions are usually the same, simple and astoundingly ‘unglamorous’.

  1. For the biggest impact, buy fewer new things and make full use of what I have.
  2. If I really need to replace something worn beyond repair or if I am allowing myself an occasional frivolous indulgence, buy something durable which I truly like and works with what I already have. Delving deeper, I favour a few items from organic cotton, linen, wool or bamboo (preferably manually processed), dyed naturally if possible, over wardrobes full of polyester, nylon and conventional cotton. (Fibre, textile production, production)
  3. Avoid dry-cleaning, wash at a cool temperature or by hand and avoid the tumble dryer. (Use phase)
  4. Repair everything that can be repaired. (Use phase)
  5. At the end of a garment’s life, give it an honourable second life, whether as patches for quilts, a muck shirt for in the garden, a tea towel, dish cloth and/or duster… (Reuse, recyled/upcycled)
  6. And right at the end, I throw rags made from natural fibres onto the compost heap where the worms can work them into the mix. (Grave)

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The following document contains a useful introduction to some of the pros and cons of different types of fibres, although it does not deal with end of life disposal and the differences between biodegradable and synthetic fibres: CBD-Fiber-Selection-FS.

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6 comments
  • Jenny January 3, 2013, 2:33 pm

    Thank you for teaching me about Cashmere!

    Reply
  • pipneyjane January 17, 2013, 2:17 pm

    Good luck with your challenge. You raise some very interesting and thoughtful arguments.

    Reply
    • Meg and Gosia January 17, 2013, 2:42 pm

      I was interested to hear that you are aiming to limit yourself to UK/locally manufactured yarns this year too.

      Reply
  • Franca February 6, 2013, 7:28 pm

    I don’t know why, i find darning really difficult. I have woolen socks that regularly go into holes and I now just give them to my mum who darns them after she despaired at me doing such a terrible job of it.

    I like what you are saying about yarn, I will consider that if I ever get any again. which I really shouldn’t, stash has to go first!

    Reply

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