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A plum of industrial smoke rising above a dark orange sunset

A Viscose Story

One of the things I really love about working with fibres and textiles is the variety of wonderful materials I am able to get my hands on: wool, alpaca, silk, bamboo, milk, pearl, the list goes on.  Natural fibres fascinate me and I’ve always seen viscose and rayon as natural and biodegradable. They are plant-based and I thought they were more sustainable and have less impact on the environment than cotton or acrylic.

One of my customers commented on a post I put on Facebook recently. She’d recently read a book called Fake Silk that shocked her, and she wanted me to know about it.  I had to confess ignorance. I had done some research into the sustainability of the fibres that I use, such as bamboo and other cellulose-based materials.  My conclusions were that viscose had less environmental impact than cotton, and was generally more sustainable, coming from renewable sources.

After reading Fake Silk and investigating further, I realised I should have dug deeper.  I did not know quite how bad the pollution from viscose processing plans actually is in Southeast Asia, India and China, where 83% of viscose is produced, or the effect that this has on people working in and living near these factories.

Viscose production

Viscose and Rayon production uses a chemical called carbon disulfide, which is used to dissolve the wood pulp before the whole solution is extruded like spaghetti into sulphuric acid baths, creating the viscose threads. Viscose began its ascendence in the mid 19th Century. The effects of exposure to carbon disulfide fumes have been documented repeatedly since then.  The findings have been ignored or repressed by the viscose producing companies.

Carbon disulfide has been linked to heart disease, fertility problems, serious eye damage (keratitis), psychosis, increased risk of suicide or violent behaviour and more.   It’s seriously life-limiting, life-changing stuff. The safe level of carbon disulfide exposure is extremely low, requiring significant health and safety measures to be put in place. The requirements are so stringent, viscose production in the US and UK has ceased altogether.

Drinking water in communities around the factories is unsafe. The air that people breathe is harming them every single day because of our insatiable need for cheap fashion and household goods.  Anyone who watched Stacey Dooley’s expose on fast fashion will have seen the horrific impact that viscose factories are having on communities in Indonesia. There is simply no incentive for the clothing companies or the government to insist on the regulation of factory conditions while the money is pouring in.

If you are interested in learning more in detail, this fantastic and extremely well-written report from Changing Markets is a must-read. It’s a gut-wrenching wake-up call to the reality of the viscose industry.

My viscose supply chain

The company that supplies the viscose that I use has assured me that they are produced on a closed loop system. These systems feed the chemicals and water used in production back into the factory process. While this is reassuring, I haven’t seen any proof of this in terms of documentation or supply chain transparency. I’ve given this a lot of thought over several months. My conscience tells me I can’t continue to use these fibres until I have this certification in my hands.

How does this affect Cat & Sparrow UK?

As a result, I’ll be using only viscose fibres that I know are sustainably and responsibly produced – Tencel and Seacell. I’ll be phasing bamboo and other viscose fibres out of my blends.  For example, the Tyrion blend used to include black diamond bamboo, which has now been replaced with bronze-coloured peduncle silk. I’ve replaced the bamboo in my Merino/bamboo blend with Tencel.  Any blends that do include bamboo or pearl or other viscose will remain in the shop until they have sold out, and then I will either discontinue them or replace the viscose with something else.

There are so many responsibly produced natural fibres out there that really, this doesn’t limit my options.  It just means I can explore more natural fibres, which is really exciting. I hope you’ll continue on this journey of exploration with me!

 

 

Fibre in Focus – Seacell

I’ve been meaning to write blog posts about fibres I love to work with for absolutely ages, so I’m planning on this becoming a regular feature.  Hit me in the comments with any fibres you’re interested in that you’d like to know more about.

This week’s focus is Seacell, which is a pretty fabulous fibre in so many ways. It’s plant-based, sustainable, has low environmental impact, is soft, strong and absorbent (but not in a loo-paper type of way) and it’s completely biodegradable.

Production and Environmental Credentials

I could get into a very long-winded explanation of how Seacell is produced, but if you really want to know more about that in detail, you can go here. In short, Seacell fibre is a blend of wood-based cellulose and seaweed, specifically knotted wrack, which anyone in the UK will be familiar with from trips to the seaside. The wrack is harvested sustainably once every four years, which allows the wrack beds to regenerate. The drying and cutting process is natural and doesn’t involve any chemical additives.

The seaweed is then added as an active ingredient to wood cellulose and is processed using the Lyocell method, which works on a closed loop processing system. With Lyocell, this means that caustic soda, the usual solvent used to extract the cellulose, is replaced by a non-toxic organic compound called NMMO. The water in which the cellulose is processed can then be filtered and reused, reducing the amount of water used and eliminating toxic waste from the process. Even better, the wood used in the production of Lyocell is harvested from sustainable eucalyptus forests.

There are some health giving properties ascribed to Seacell that sound almost magical, and of which I am healthily sceptical, Manufacturers claim that because the health-giving minerals and vitamins found in seaweed transfer through our skin into our systems, we benefit from wearing Seacell in more ways than just our comfort. For more information on this controversy, go here and here. I’m remaining on the fence until more scientific evidence is available!

What’s it like to spin?

Some people compare Seacell to silk when it comes to spinning, but I don’t find them particularly similar. They are both beautifully lustrous, but Seacell is smooth and much more slippery, and its fibres are shorter than silk fibres tend to be – it has a staple length of around 3-5 inches. The fibres slide over each other easily and, like bamboo, it can be tricky to control the consistency of the yarn. I haven’t tried spinning it into single ply yarn but I have heard that Seacell singles can come apart quite easily thanks to its slippery qualities. That suggests to me that it needs a pretty high amount of twist, and probably does much better as a plied yarn as a result.

It does make an exceptionally smooth and drapey two ply yarn, which is lovely to handle and feels very soft to the touch. It lacks natural elasticity, so blending it with other fibres works really well, especially if you want to make something like socks with it.

Where can I get hold of this magical stuff?

Well, it’s funny you should ask that… One of the first ever blends I designed uses Seacell, and I love it. It’s a mix of alpaca, Seacell and silk, and it’s beautifully soft, fluffy and drapey while being warm, light and breathable. Alpaca takes dye in a soft and muted way, silk with brilliance and Seacell not at all, so it’s lovely to spin with in terms of depth and complexity of colour too.  You can find it here in some deliciously sumptuous colourways.

If you want to try Seacell in its unblended form, you can get it from World of Wool or Adelaide Walker.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little in depth look into one of my favourite fibres. Next up – Muga silk.


Zen Garden
Alpaca/Seacell/Silk – Zen Garden
Orchid
Alpaca/Seacell/Silk – Orchid
Tequila Sunrise
Alpaca/Seacell/Silk – Tequila Sunrise