Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Respect Yourself: Thoughts on Ahimsa and Fibre

Ahimsa, a Sanskrit word, is translated as "non-violence."  It is also translated as "no harm," a definition which I prefer because it encompasses more action.  (If you witness a violent act, you may not be acting violently, but if you do nothing to intervene, you can be causing harm.)  Whichever definition you choose, ahimsa encourages us to act mindfully in ways that are compassionate, without violence or harm to others.  Those "others" can and do include beings outside the human species and therein lies a problem, especially if you believe that there is some kind of life force in all things.  (I just can't imagine, for example, that a thousand year old tree doesn't hold some kind of awareness beyond its cells and I'm sure those mountains do have tales to tell.)

In order for humans to exist, other things must die.  We require food to nourish us and whether we eat meat or maintain a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, we need other life forces to keep us going. The issues increase in complexity when we consider the materials that go into our clothing and household goods and, in the case of fibre enthusiasts, the products we use for our work and hobbies.

Take silk, for example.  Currently, some people and companies are promoting silk fibres, yarns and products as "Ahimsa Silk," implying that these things can be produced without harm to the silk pupae and the silk moth.  Michael Cook, "Wormspit," explains some of the issues surrounding this fibre and why you may or may not decide to use it.  His site and this article in particular is well worth reading; Cook has devoted much of his life to studying silk through every level of production.  Whether you agree with him or not, Cook makes it clear that our choices in these matters are not simple.

Consider wool and other animal fibres.  The only way to ensure that wool comes from well-treated animals is to know the producers or raise the animals yourself.  You can't expect your local yarn shop to guarantee quality of life for whatever animal that yarn you love came from; a good shop will know its products, but can't be expected to oversee the conduct of each and every supplier.  Many companies are jumping on the organic bandwagon, but since standards for organic production vary from region to region, country to country, you will need to do your own research to ensure that products are made to your satisfaction.  "Organic" doesn't necessarily mean "humanely treated;" you can have one without the other.

A sweater knitted from a Jacob fleece I processed

What about cellulose and bast fibres?  There are naturally coloured, organically grown cottons, but cotton requires huge quantities of water to grow it and working conditions for harvesting and processing may not be the best.  Bast fibres such as bamboo, which is usually processed into viscose rayon, are often promoted as being less harmful to the environment but this claim may not be accurate. Flax and the retting it required for processing into linen was a notorious pollutant for European rivers; dealing with the straw has been a problem for flax producers.  Hemp production is politically charged, making the fibres and hemp textiles expensive and difficult to find.

We can turn to synthetic fibres, but many of those are petroleum based.  Fibres made from recycled materials such as plastic bottles require a lot of energy to transform them into yarns and fabrics. 

The problem grows when we look at dyes.  Natural dyes can require the use of toxic fixatives (mordants) such as copper sulphate, chrome, and tin.  Unless you know your dyer or do the dyeing yourself, you probably won't know what mordants were used in the dyeing process.  In these cases, acid dyes may be the safest, least harmful way to colour your fibres, especially for the home dyer.

"Night Hunter," hand spun and woven from naturally coloured Romney fleeces

So what is a conscientious fibre enthusiast to do?  We can approach our choices with open minds and hearts as we research the fibres and fabrics which appeal to us.  Don't rely on advice from people with a vested interest in promoting a cause, one way or the other.  Talk to producers whenever you can.  Study fibres as best you can-process a raw fleece, spin up some cotton bolls, visit a farm or mill if the opportunity presents itself. 

Buy local.  In my area, there are producers who raise sheep, angora rabbits, alpaca, llama and goats for cashmere.  All the producers I know welcome the opportunity to talk to their customers; many of them are happy to have you visit their farms.

Mickey will give up his fur for my causes, but only when he's in the mood.

Once you've made your choices, know that you have done the best you can with the knowledge available to you, allowing you to act with the least harm you can reasonably manage.  Do not judge others who choose differently than you do.  Behaving with self satisfaction or smugness about your "superior" choices goes against the principles of "ahimsa."

Most of all, take comfort and value the fibres, yarns and textiles you do use and remind yourself of the wonderful choices we have available to us.

Morris approves of spinning.


(Note: Wikipedia is not necessarily the best source for reliable information, but the sources cited here will give you a starting point for your own studies.  There are many good reference books on textile production; detailed internet searches will give you a variety of opinions.  No matter where you do your research, consider the source.)


  1. that jacob sweater is AMAZING! you are my hero.

  2. Thank you. I love Jacob fleeces.

  3. Your cat, Mickey looks just like my cat! sweet!