A fossil-based, delicate disposable; anyone who has found a run in their brand new tights may be forgiven for calling sustainable hosiery an oxymoron. Nevertheless, Swedish Stockings are here to challenge that view, with recycled yarns and zero-waste manufacturing.

“Sustainability is not just one slice of the pie, it encompasses the whole pie. We really try to look at the whole product lifecycle in our business model, that is why we are sustainable, and why we say we are the only ones”, says Andreea Toca, Sustainability and Brand Manager, Swedish Stockings. Photo: Swedish Stockings.

”We are growing! We operate worldwide; Sweden, Canada, US, across europe. We are focusing on growing our online shop at the moment. We always say our mission is to change and influence the entire hosiery industry, so we need to grow”, says Andreea Toca, Sustainability and Brand Manager, Swedish Stockings.

Every year, two billion pairs of pantyhose are produced, and they are notoriously short-lived; many are discarded and sent to landfill after being worn once. They are usually knitted from a mix of nylon and elastane fibers, where the nylon provides strength and the elastane (also called spandex or lycra) contributes stretch and comfort.

”Both nylon and elastane are derived from petroleum. I think we can all agree humans have an unhealthy reliance on oil. We are trying to change that in any way we can”, Andreea Toca says.

Swedish Stockings – the only sustainable hosiery brand worldwide, in their own words – manufacture their hosiery from recycled nylon. Customers can also send their discarded pantyhose to the Swedish Stockings Recycling Club, and receive discounts in return. But the reason for the company’s sustainability confidence is much more in depth, Andreea Toca assures:

”We do use sustainable materials (both recycled and natural fibres, or non-oil reliant fibres), but we also have a sustainable production process (our hosiery is emission less, we re-use and purify dye water, we have zero-waste facilities, we use oeko-tex certified dyes, our facilities have gone through rigorous audits and achieved many certifications. Of course, we wouldn’t be able to do this without the technology and innovation behind what we do, which is much larger than our brand.”

The same properties as virgin nylon

Swedish Stockings use recycled yarns from several suppliers. Nilit and Q-nova are mechanically regenerated from from sportwears cut-offs and virgin nylon production waste, respectively. Econyl is chemically regenerated from fishing nets and carpet fluff.

”Post consumer waste is harder to recycle as you need to clean the materials (there are more additives in that, thus more elements to take care of in the recycling process) and therefore chemical recycling makes more sense. Mechanical recycling is pretty simple and efficient; they take the material, chop it up into tiny pieces, melt it, put it through screw and pull it through a filter where they get the raw recycled material”, Andreea Toca says. The yarns have been carefully selected to ensure the highest quality:

”Quality is just as important to us as sustainability, and we would not produce something if the quality was not there, so the properties are the same as virgin nylon. The only thing that I would say is noticeable is that recycled nylon only comes in matte, not shiny. I think matte is more common in the industry.”

The elastane dilemma

The manufacturing facility in Italy. The hosiery are knitted from recycled nylon yarns, then dyed. All waste is reused in the process. The facility is solar powered, and the dye water is cleaned on-site using an ozone process. Photo: Swedish Stockings.

Elastane is a complicating issue when it comes to textile recycling. The fiber is used for stretch in more and more fabrics, in stretch jeans and other garments, and makes recycling difficult wherever it occurs. That is true for mixed fabrics in general; separating materials is cumbersome and the items are usually just hacked into tiny pieces. But until very recently, elastic fibers could not be recycled at all. Furthermore, one pair of pantyhose contains two kilometers worth of nylon, and when the threads get spun together, the nylon and elastic get wrapped in each other.

”Currently, we cannot turn old pantyhose into new since you can’t separate nylon from elastane on a commercial scale. However there are people that are interested in figuring out this separation, so of course there is interest in the industry. We are involved with Mistra Future Fashion, which is investigating this at this very moment.
We will publish a report on this at the end of 2019”, Andreea Toca says.

For the recycling program, old pantyhose are recycled into filler material for fiberglass tanks instead.

”The tanks are used in the commercial industry, as oil and grease traps. They themselves are plastic based, so us using pantyhose in them, reduces virgin plastic needs. We get lots of interest in the recycling club, and we are trying to expand it. We recently opened up a collection point in the States. People have to mail us in their old hosiery, so that is a deterrent for many. but we are coming up with new ways to try and expand and make it available. Today people would never throw away their recycling in the garbage (at least in Sweden), and we want people to think the same thing when they look at their old hosiery”, Andreea Toca says.

Pantyhose could live longer

The Leopard Tights are made from pre-consumer waste from sportswear production. Other yarns contain post-consumer materials from fishing nets and carpet fluff. Photo: Swedish Stockings.

The company is rooted in revulsion at planned obsolescence, that products are designed to live shorter than they could. When the founders watched the “Lightbulb Conspiracy” documentary, they marvelled at the fact that hosiery not always were the consumables they are today; they used to be luxury items that where repaired by tailors.

”It’s a huge problem, not only in the hosiery industry, but in our day-to-day lives. Honestly it upsets me. Nylon used to be a much stronger fibre”, Andreea Toca says. She continues:

“It would be amazing to get to the point where we have so much influence that we can develop our own fibre. But we do what we can, with today’s technologies. We employ a whole bunch of techniques in the production process that does elongate the life of the pantyhose (i.e. spinning the nylon around the elastic, instead of having them side by side, knitting them in 3D so they are more sturdy, having toe reinforcements, etc). However, hosiery is still fragile, that is just how it is right now.”

Swedish Stockings are determined to grow, encouraged by the opportunities it would entail to influence their supply chain and put pressure on the industry to drive positive change. But Andrea stresses that we all need to be more mindful of our consumption as well:

”Two billion pairs a year adds up to a lot. We will keep being innovative, because that does help change things in the right direction; but we will also keep encouraging people to buy only what they need and to mend their tights when they can, or to re-use them in any way they can. We live in such a disposable culture, and that is what really needs to change”, Andreea Toca concludes.

The article was published in January 2019.