A Guide To Ethical Knitwear

Pulling The Wool Over Everything | Curiously Conscious

It’s knitwear season! The question is, are you wearing ethical knitwear? Wool is possibly my favourite textile, in terms of comfort, warmth, and look. If treated right, wool can last a long time too. But is wool ethical?

Here’s my snappy guide to sussing out fair places to find woollen knitwear, as well as a few alternatives that may also catch your eye…

Can Wool Be Ethical Or Sustainable?

There’s been much debate over wool and whether it can ever be considered an ethical or sustainable textile. Wool is obviously an animal byproduct, making it a non-vegan material from the get-go. PETA produced an exposé (warning: graphic) in July this year, showing certain UK sheep farms mistreating their animals. It does raise the question over all wool: how do you know how the animals have been treated?

For wool, the added pressure comes around the sheep themselves. I stopped eating meat due to the wide-spread poor treatment of animals, and I also avoid first-hand leather because I don’t want to support the meat industry. I don’t have as much issue with wool, because shearing doesn’t normally harm or kill sheep, goats, or alpacas.

I’m of the opinion that ethical wool is only that sourced from farms who treat their sheep well, and that the farmers are paid fairly too. To be able to meet this criteria, fashion brands need to be transparent about where they source their wool, and state which farms they work with.

However, as sustainable fashion journalist Lucy Siegle reports, there’s only one spinning mill in the whole of the UK, meaning the production of UK-only wool is severely limited. Right now, we need to look further afield – and it’s the Americas and Australasia that produce 90% of the world’s wool.

4 Ethical Knitwear Fabrics To Look Out For

If you’re looking for ethical knitwear this season, you may want to try widening your search to include more than just lambswool:

1. Cashmere

Let’s start with my favourite type of wool – cashmere! In my pictured outfit, I’m wearing what is reportedly the world’s fairest cashmere! My gifted jumper comes from Naadam, who work with nomadic cashmere goat herders in Mongolia, paying them 50% more than the industry average, and then producing their luxury knits themselves so as to reduce the cost to consumer. Their factories also use 100% clean energy, and avoid harsh chemicals and bleaches. However, cashmere has a huge carbon impact, so my best recommendation when looking for cashmere knitwear is to go second-hand!

2. Cotton

This year I’ve spotted so many jumpers that look like wool, and even feel like wool, but are made from 100% cotton! If you’re vegan, or simply unsure about buying first-hand wool, cotton can make for a great alternative. If you can, try to go for organic cotton with closed-loop water systems to reduce the environmental impact of your clothes, or again, go for second-hand.

3. Linen

Did you know, linen can be made into knitwear? This was a new discovery for me too, but the strong plant-based textile is versatile enough to be woven into wool-like thread. And, linen is great for both keeping you warm, as well as wicking away sweat! Think of it as an all-year-round textile, rather than simply for your summer trousers.

4. Wool

As before, wool is still a difficult fabric to navigate. There are many types – alpaca, angora, cashmere, lambswool, merino, mohair – and each of them come with their own pros and cons. Personally I love wool because it’s natural, renewable, and biodegradable. But for the most part, I like to go for second-hand woollens, or shop with super transparent wool brands such as Nadaam or Sheep Inc. The wool skirt in my outfit is second-hand, and it’s in perfect condition!

18 Of The Best Ethical Knitwear Brands In UK

One jumper probably isn’t enough to get through the British winter, so I’m hoping to add to my collection from one of these other ethical knitwear brands…

Ally Bee*: Pretty grey and cream yarns from British alpacas and sheep, plus cradle-to-cradle cashmere and merino.

Finisterre*: Merino from non-mulesed sheep in New Zealand, guaranteed the freedom from thirst, hunger, cold, illness, and manhandling.

Flock by Nature: British and Italian woollens with a complimentary repair service and recyclable packaging.

Jan ‘n June: Contemporary knitwear – jumpers, tops, and skirts – made from organic cotton.

Johnstons of Elgin: Superfine woollens sourced in Australia and made in Scotland.

McConnell*: Traditional Aran and fisherman knit sweaters hailing from the west coast of Ireland.

Ninety Percent*: Ethical fashion brand making elevated essentials and cotton knitwear. Get 20% off with code BESMA20

The North Face: Climate-conscious practices are employed by US sheep farmers for The North Face to offset emissions.

Oubas: British and Irish lambswool garments, spun at their Scottish mill and made in their Cumbrian studio.

Patagonia: Activewear using slow-washed merino sourced from the grasslands of Patagonia.

People Tree*: Sourced from New Zealand from animal-welfare farms and merino from non-museled animals, hand-knitted in Nepal.

Rave Review: Luxury coats and blazers made from dead-stock wool.

Riley Studio*: Sustainable fashion brand using recycled wool and cashmere.

Sheep Inc.: Carbon-negative woollens, designed and created transparently and ethically.

Stella McCartney*: Re-engineered cashmere, as well as wool from hand-selected, high welfare sheep farms.

Study 34: Responsibly produced high-quality alpaca knitwear made in Arequipa, Peru.

Ted & Bessie: Ethical and sustainable knitwear made with fleece from their herd of UK-bred alpacas.

Thought*: Sustainable and ethically-sourced wool, as are all of Thought’s fabrics.

P.S. Care For Your Garments

Wool is a natural product, which is great, but it can also be a little fussy when it comes to washing. I like to use gentle natural detergents, hand-wash my woollens, and lay them flat to dry naturally. Read more of my clothing care tips here.

When you’re finished with your favourite pieces, make sure to pass them down, recycle them where possible, or compost garments made from 100% wool.

Disclaimer: This post features gifted products (denoted 'gifted') and affiliate links (denoted '*')



  1. November 29, 2018 / 9:29 am

    Hi Besma! I really enjoy your blog and admire your ethical intentions.
    I also think people should know what really goes on behind the “gente, natural” image of wool. Wool is a bloody, cruel, gory industry. It systemically, routinely hurts and kills the millions of animals it uses every year. PETA have done 11 undercover investigations on four continents (including footage from the UK), totalling 99 shearing operations – so it’s far from being just a few bad apples – each one showing sheep being stomped on, kicked, punched, cut and left bleeding. Workers are typically paid by the volume of wool they produce, not by the hours they work, so they work really quickly, cutting sheep in the process and often sewing them back up with just a needle and thread and no painkillers. Thousands of lambs die in the UK each year before 8 weeks old due to starvation, exposure and neglect. And there is no “retirement” for sheep once they’re deemed no longer useful – they get sent to slaughter, just like animals used for meat and leather.

    It’s also crucial to remember that we breed sheep to produce much more wool than they would naturally need. No species in nature “needs shearing”, which is a common pro-wool narrative.

    Wool is also very far from being eco-friendly. There are around one billion sheep in Australia and New Zealand – two of the world’s top wool producers – and the methane gas emissions from the sheep are among the countries’ top greenhouse gas contributors. Sheep require a resource-intensive feed and their anti-parasite treatment, known as “sheep dip”, pollutes air and waterways. Deforestation, desertification and topsoil loss are just a few common results of wool production.

    There are lots of natural, animal-free materials that can be used instead of wool. Organic cotton, Tencel, hemp, soybean fibres and recycled fibres are just a few of them. We will soon also have “wool” made from coconut and hemp fibres! Innovative, sustainable and natural materials free from animal involvement truly are the future of fashion.

    • November 29, 2018 / 12:28 pm

      Hi Sascha, thanks for your comments on this. I think you’re right to an extent – overbreeding and mistreatment of animals are inexcusable, no matter what. However I also have issue with many of the alternatives you’ve mentioned – cotton takes gallons and gallons water to produce, tencel uses a lot of chemicals to treat, soya is causing deforestation, and recycled fibres also aren’t perfect as most need a % of virgin fibres to mix with.

      I think you’ve raised a good point in saying that we should consider all these options – not just wool – but at the same time, wool often gets a bad name from mass producers who treat sheep like products. Places like Finisterre rear their own sheep and to such a high standard of treatment that I have no issue shopping with them, and even openly speak about how wool gets a bad name but they’re operating differently. It’s still a natural textile, biodegradable, and lasts a long time when cared for.

      There’s no perfect answer, so it’s worth considering all options. This post was to highlight the brands and people who are doing wool right, as it were!


      • imelda quinlan
        December 2, 2019 / 11:00 pm

        I would question that shearers in the UK get paid per weight of wool . Most British sheep are not bred for their wool ( another issue ) and the wool is not worth much at all so the animals are sheared for their health and I would suspect that shearers are paid by time so there would be no reason to rush ?

        • December 3, 2019 / 9:59 am

          I’m not sure as to the processes of sheep shearing Imelda, but it may be worth looking into that – I do know that the majority of wool on the UK market is not British wool.

          B x

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