Acrylic Yarn Myths and Misunderstandings

Spread the love

There are many misconceptions and misunderstandings about acrylic yarns and fabrics. The most commonly stated myths about acrylic are examined, to see if there is any truth to any of them.

Text reads: Unpacking myths about acrylic yarn' and a facebook comment is shown which says 'I use acrylic yarn because of softness, eas eof washing and non-allergenic.'

What people believe about acrylic. And why they believe that.

In the facebook comment shown in the image above, a facebook user is commenting ‘I use acrylic yarn because of softness, ease of washing, and non-allergenic.’ This is a typical statement. It is repeated many times a day over all the knitting and crochet facebook groups. And the sad thing about it is, the person who says these things genuinely believes them to be true, and are trying to give good advice to another crafter. But how true are these beliefs, and where did these ideas come from?

Myths to unpack: Acrylic is the most washable? Acrylic is best for preventing allergies? Acrylic is the softest yarn?

What are the main myths about acrylic?

In the quote above three very common ideas are stated.

  1. Acrylic is most washable.
  2. Acrylic is best for preventing allergies
  3. Acrylic is softest

All three of these ideas are somewhat problematic. They are simply not accurate (and dangerously so in the case of allergy awareness). For a little more about the broad types of yarn, you can read my blog post, here we will be comparing acrylic with other animal and plant fibres.

Garments and blankets made from acrylic are the ‘most washable’? No – not true!

Acrylic is the most washable? Acrylic is damaged slightly in every wash. This damage slowly wears the item out. This damage produces micro beads which are causing terrible destruction in the ocean. Cotton is most washable, if ther eis such a thing. Wool is most dirt resistant. Acrylic is neither.

Lets be honest – no one has time nowadays to fuss over laundry, and no one really enjoys having to take on extra household chores. But on the other hand, a handmade item needs a little extra care, right?

laundry lable reading 'made with love and a shit load of time and money. So look after it. Hand wash. Dry Flat.
Laundry label reading 'Very Slow Fashion. So painfully slow. Hand wash. Dry flat.

You can even get a range of funny care labels to sew on the inside of your hand made garments to highlight this. Both images above are from Rainbow Folk on Etsy. I had already bought the ‘made with love’ ones from her shop. Now I feel an overwhelming urge to stock up on the ‘Very Slow Fashion’ ones. They are right on the mark, so funny.

But the point is, if you are making anything, how much it will add extra domestic chores to a hectic life is an important consideration. Whether that’s for the new parents in the crazy first days of baby’s life, a busy career person who wants to wear their handknit cardigan to the office, or the retiree with an aching back who wants to put their little bit of energy into their garden, not a set of thankless tasks. Lets face it. Housework sucks.

So we want a crocheted baby blanket, a hand knit cardigan to be able to go in the washing machine … right?

And acrylic can be put in the washing machine. That’s the good news. The bad news is that doing so damages both the item and the environment over time. Detergents damage it, as does the washing itslef.

Plant fibers, such as cotton and linen, can also be put in the washing machine. Not only that, they can be washed much hotter, and spun much longer than acrylics without the same damage happening. So ranking by ‘most washable’ acrylic is a very poor second to plant fibers.

Here’s a wool slipper sock I made. It got trapped in a duvet cover I threw in a hot wash after the dog rolled in fox poo, and then my bed. (Thanks, Odin. Not!) Now my pure wool slipper is a dog toy, its totally felted.

A crocheted woolen slipper sock which became a dog toy after a laundry accident

Laundry accidents can happen with any fibre. I’ve had cotton, synthetic and wool laundry disasters. But wool needs a special delicates wash. When you wear a lot of wool, like I do, that is a non issue. It’s just the delicates dial on the machine. No extra ‘spoons’ required.

And there is another feature of wool that is worth looking at. It’s dirt resistance. Cotton and acrylic both soak up moisture. Wool doesn’t. This gives wool a magic dirt resistance that other fibres don’t have. Wear an acrylic garment and it will always need washing after every single wear. It will smell of sweat, smoke and dirt. Wool items can be worn for much longer before needing washed.

So where does acrylic sit? Its the least dirt resistant fibre, so needs washed most often, adding to the labour of looking after it. And it goes bally in the wash, slowly being damaged over time, while also leading to climate change and eco system destruction by releasing microbeads. Simple conclusion – acrylic is NOT the most washable! If you want to crochet a baby blanket that can take constant washing – think cotton. If you want to knit a hat you can wear all winter, and wash for the first time during a spring clean before packing it away for the summer – think wool. Acrylic will need more washes, and get more damage in the wash, than either of those.

Can Acrylic Prevent Allergies? Possibly, but it is much, much more likely to cause them

Acrylic is best for preventing allergies? 1 in 200 people are possibly allergic to wool. (They are allergic to lanolin) 1 to 2 of every 100 people are allergic to acrylic.

Acrylic is sold as ‘hypoallergenic’. This is an example of capitalism fecking about with our heads and manipulating us. Acrylic is highly allergenic. The ‘hypoallergenic’ label means it has a special coating to reduce the damage. Natural fibres don’t get the ‘hypoallergenic’ label because they don’t need it. They haven’t been given a special coating to lock away the allergens, because there aren’t any. So people buy the thing most likely to cause an allergy, believing its the thing least likely to do that. And its all so upside-down!

But lets look first at wool allergy, as it is the one many people are afraid of. According to the American Sheep Industry, “Like a stubborn stain, the idea that wool is an allergen just won’t go away.” It is, scientifically, not possible to be allergic to wool. It is possible to be allergic to lanolin, a greasy substance within wool, and 1 out of every 200 people will experience this allergy. However, all research indicates that, even if you are allergic to lanolin, you can’t have an allergic reaction to woolen cloth or clothing using todays yarn manufacturing techniques. A lanolin allergy presents a real risk of a facial rash following the use of cosmetics or shaving creams (which are based on lanolin) but not form wearing wool.

Scientific evidence shows that not only does wool not cause allergies, it is actually highly beneficial for people with other skin irritations.

Acrylic is best for preventing allergies, continued

Where does the idea come from? When synthetic fibres were first invented, they were not very nice to wear, itchy and uncomfortable. But there was profit to be made, so a marketing campaign that these synthetics were good for people with ‘wool allergy’ was undertaken, and seeped into our belief systems to be found still very prevalent today.

Nowadays the idea of a wool allergy is alive and well, while the idea of other fiber induced allergies doesn’t enter our minds as often. A person wears an uncomfortable pullover for a day, pulls it off and declaims ‘I must be allergic to wool’ and avoids wool from then on, even though the pullover was only 20% wool, and a wool allergy is the least likely cause of their itch.

The same person wears a pair of nylon tights, gets sore red raised bumps on their thighs, and has a progressively more and more miserable day. When they get home they spend the evening looking up stupid diet web sites to find the magic solution of their thighs don’t rub, and buy lots of expensive creams for rubbing thighs. And the thought that should be first across their mind buy likely doesn’t occur to them is an allergy to the nylon or other synthetic material in the leggings.

We don’t think about other fibres causing allergy, but they all can. , Plant based fibres such as cotton, linen and Ramie cant cause any allergies by themsleves, because they can’t put a protein where your body can develop a reaction to it. However, any part of the processing with chemical treatments and dyes can add allergens. So the only yarn that absolutely no one on the planet could be allergic to us an unbleached, undyed, minimally processed cotton or linen.

Acrylic allergy is common, and can be serious. I was reminded of this quite personally very recently. I jumped at an offer for a magazine contract, without reading the fine pint. And found I had agreed to write a crochet pattern in acrylic yarn. A bit undermining of the principles of ‘The Fairythorn’, but my desperation to get the business operational, and pay for heating for the upcoming winter, and I plodded ahead. It was only a small project. I was crocheting with acrylic for 3 days, and vividly reminding myself why, long ago, I stopped.

Day one I developed a slight itchy rash on my hands and arms. Day 2 my eyes became very itchy and bloodshot. I started to look like an extra from the walking dead. Day three I began to wheeze and struggle to breath. I began to sound like an extra from the walking dead, to add to the appearance.

Day 4 I packaged up the finished project, posted it off, and now I plan to never knit or crochet with acrylic again. But does that mean I am allergic to acrylic? Well, maybe, maybe not! I worked in 7 colours, and had minimal wheezing or eye itching when using the white or pale grey. I had a lot of issues with the deep purple, black and orange. So I could have been having a reaction to a chemical in the dye, as easily as the acrylic itself.

Therefore preventing allergies can be a serious concern, especially where allergies are known to already exist. However, avoiding wool and using acrylic instead is not only not helpful. Its mind-blowingly counter-productive. Where allergy is a known concern, two safety labeled can be of help, although neither one specifically guarantees anything. These are the GOTS and the OEKO-TEX certifications which can be found on the ballbands of the safest plant based yarns. When making for a newborn, or a person with known severe allergies, these can be good to look out for.

Is Acrylic the Softness yarn? Or the harshest?

Acrylic is the softest yarn

‘Softness’ is very subjective. Its one of those awkward words where everyone knows what it means. But if you ask 100 people to explain it, you will discover 100 different meanings, and if you ask 100 different people to pick out the ‘softest’ fabric, you will find 100 different choices. Its very personal!

In the book ‘Science in Clothing Comfort‘ the authors look first at the psychological aspects of comfort and softness. They examine how our personal experiences and associations, not the attributes of the fabric, decide what feels ‘soft’ to us.

Beyond that, we can also scientifically measure softness on a number of scales. How much something compresses can be a measure of softness, and that’s where acrylic yarn will win. A ball of acrylic can squish much more than a ball of wool or cotton. But that’s irrelevant once its worked up into a blanket or pullover.

Yarn softness is often measured in ‘microns‘. Using this measurement some wools, (such as Shetland, merino or cashmere) are significantly softer. The individual strands are much finer, and that creates a finer, softer yarn.

Rather than trying to measure a vague concept such as ‘softness’ we can also measure ‘harshness’. In the clothing industry this is measured by examining how much resistance 2 pieces of fabric create, or how much static electricity is created when rubbed against metal. Using this measure, acrylic is significantly harsher than either wool or plant based yarns.

And so, its hard to give a definitive answer. I ‘feel’ like wool is always the ‘softest’. Another person might ‘feel’ like acrylic is. In the same way I love blue-green colours, another person might like pinks and oranges. Neither one is objectively ‘nicer’ we have different references. That said, scientifically, acrylic creates the most resistance against the skin. It will be harshest on sensitive skin over time, much more so than any natural fibre.

By Ciara

I learned to knit as a young child, and came to crochet much later in life when I could no longer knit. Sharing the joy of crochet with sustainability and slow fashion in mind is a passion

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *