Pigeonroof Studios published a blog post recently about domestic superwash wool products in the USA. Read it here.
I saw it on several friend's feeds and the subsequent discussion about superwash wools and I got into a discussion about the environmental impact of various aspects of the textile industry, and how exactly superwash fits into the textile ecosystem.
It's not like the superwash process is the only non-environmentally friendly aspect of the textile industry. It seems like people got the impression that superwash was evil because it involved chemicals, and until recently, seemed to be limited to China. Currently superwash wools are available from around the world, and it isn't necessarily the great evil we've been led to believe. Yes, it involves chemicals - mainly chlorine gas (commonly used in water treatment and the creation of PVC) and a polymer resin. However, not all chemical processing in the textile industry is equal in environmental impact and you can have responsible superwash processing.
If you want environmentally friendly or to avoid harmful chemicals/substances in the textile world, you should make yourself familiar with two types of certification - Organic and Oeko-Tex 100. The first is Organic - which most people are familiar with from their most recent trip to the grocery store. But organic can also apply to the raw materials for textiles. Organic certification relates to the farming methods, mainly the use of synthetic pesticides and the feed for fiber animals. Organic Merino and cotton are commercially available, as well as Earth Friendly cottons (minimal use of chemical pesticides). In the case of cotton, organic cotton uses significantly less water and doesn't have the high pesticide load that conventional cotton suffers from. Finished organic fiber and yarn must also be dyed with dyes that meet organic processing standards. As a dye-sensitive individual, I can assure you that wearing organic cotton "feels" very different (much less irritating) than wearing conventional cotton clothing.
If you're concerned with the chemicals used in textile processing, look for textiles that meet Oeko-Tex standards (Wikipedia on Oeko-Tex). There are three levels of Oeko-Tex standards. Oeko-Tex 100 is an assurance that the textile is free from harmful substances, using independent testing and certification. What type of harmful substances? Things like banned chemicals, allergenic dyes, heavy metals, formaldehyde, pesticides. Move up to Oeko - Tex 1000, and then the standard is focused on the environmental impact of a textile production site. Combine Oeko-Tex 100 and 100, and you get products certified Oek-Tex 100plus.
And yes, you can find yarn and fiber that is Oeko Tex certified. My main supplier for yarn and fiber meets Oeko-Tex standards. Malabrigo yarn and fiber is Oeko-Tex certified, including their superwash process. Skacel yarns are Oeko-Tex certified. There are even acrylic yarns that are Oeko-Tex certified (Premier Yarns and Red Heart).
For a great article on the differences between Organic and Oeko-Tex, read this.
So getting back to superwash - can you have environmentally friendly superwash? Yes you can. It can be tempting to equate the superwash process for wool with combining some sort of toxic sludge with a wonderful natural fiber - but modern superwash has more in common with drinking water treatment and parchment paper or that facial tissue you just used than you probably think. The layer of resin that's added to the wool fibers is about .00002mm thick.
Me? I'll keep using superwash wools for socks/blankets and for gifts (because at least it's not acrylic), and use untreated wool for myself. I'll keep an eye out for Oeko-Tex and Organic certifications and be happy that every day more and more options are becoming available to modern fiber artists.
Note: I have also discovered in my experience that Oeko-Tex certified superwash process produces a product that retains more of its wooly wonderfulness than other superwash treatments - however, it does require more care. I've shrunk several superwash garments by putting them in a medium heat tumble dry, so now I recommend lay flat to dry for these garments. On a positive note, these Oeko-Tex certified superwash products also seem to not grow as much as other superwash products.