Some knitters are passionate, obsessed even, about natural fibers. I am not one of those knitters. I’ve knit so many wonderful things with lush, soft acrylic and acrylic blend yarns. Once, trying to understand for myself the fancy-fiber hype, I even bought a ball of nice merino wool and used it to knit a pair of fingerless gloves. Honestly, the whole process didn’t feel much different than knitting my fingerless gloves out of good old $4 Simply Soft 100% acrylic yarn. The finished merino gloves did seem to have a bit more spring and stretch to them, which was nice, but I’m not sure if that was due to their fiber origins, or the particular spinning process the fiber went through.

Nonetheless, something has been nagging me about my beloved acrylic yarn: when I think about it, I have no idea what acrylic yarn actually is. How is acrylic yarn made? Is it environmentally friendly and sustainable? 

I get the general idea for wool. I’ve been on farm tours and seen sheep being sheered. I’ve also touched the rough, raw wool fibers in a textile museum and watched a demonstration of carding and spinning, although I’ve never spun myself (spinning would be a cool experience -hopefully someday.)

Cotton isn’t too confusing either. Fluffy cotton balls on cotton bushes are like a less thick, less oily kind of sheep’s wool, so I can picture the fiber being carded, spun and turned into yarn without taxing my imagination too much.

But acrylic. Acrylic is created from polyacrylonitrile which is a synthetically produced polymer (i.e. a very large molecule) whose main ingredient is the smaller molecule acrylonitrile. Acrylonitrile is a chemically modified version of propene, a byproduct of oil refining. Thanks to Wikipedia, I’ve managed to glean that bit of confusing chemistry mumbo jumbo. It’s a start, but it still leaves me without much real understanding of acrylic.

Here are my initial takeaways from my thought and research:
– Acrylic yarn manufacture is most probably always a chemical and factory process. This is not necessarily a cause for concern, as I don’t believe factories are inherently immoral. But the beautiful picture of a small family farm, fiber harvesting in tune with nature and the seasons, well that isn’t possible when the product is acrylic yarn.
– I was worried by the fact that acrylic comes from oil, an obviously hugely scarce resource. But my attempts at wikipedia deciphering tell me that acrylic is made from a byproduct of our refining processes. Since we would be refining oil anyway, for now at least, it doesn’t seem like acrylic production is depleting our world’s supply.

I’m going to continue to look into acrylic yarn. In the mean time, do any of you know more than I do about acrylic yarn’s manufacture? Do you ever think about the origins of the yarn you’re using in your knitting? 

Also, if you are a big fan of natural fibers over acrylics, what is it that you find especially appealing about them? 

P.S. Besides knitting, I also paint a lot… with acrylic paint. Is that the same stuff as acrylic yarn? If so how is it liquid and not fibrous?